Slovak local elections to test PM Fico’s credibility

By bne IntelliNews November 13, 2014

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Slovakia will hold local elections on November 15. The vote will be a test of support for Prime Minister Robert Fico and the ruling Smer party after he lost the presidential election in March.

Around 4.4mn are registered to vote to choose mayors and councilors in 2,900 municipalities. Alongside support for the government, the election will test the population's skepticism towards the country's politics in general. Slovakia set a new record low for voter turnout at May's European Parliament elections, with just 13% bothering to vote.

The spotlight will naturally fall on the capital, as well as other major cities, where the fight to reduce Smer's dominance of the political landscape has become increasingly fierce. In Bratislava, the centre-right parties - which were decimated by scandals ahead of Smer's landslide win in the 2012 general election - have united in their bid to defeat incumbent Mayor Milan Ftacnik, formally an independent but now supported by Smer.

The opposition Siet party even withdrew its own candidate for Bratislava mayor, Tatiana Kratochvilova, after she fared poorly in a poll in October, and it has now joined the coalition against Ftacnik.

Set up by the youthful Radoslav Prochazka just ahead of the presidential vote, like other new parties in the region Siet quickly found itself thrust front and centre by voters weary of mainstream parties. However, with Fico having seen his support sliding this year, a series of populist policy announcements has helped the PM push peg back the novice party in recent polls.

Shock therapy

The rise in support for independents, and suspicion of the huge power wielded by Fico, led to a shock defeat for the PM in the March 29 presidential election. Instead, entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska became Slovakia's first president with no affiliation to the Communist party since independence in 1993.

Smer's struggles have continued throughout the year. While the party won the 2012 general election with 44% support, it managed to secure just 24% of the vote at May's European Parliament elections. Recent polls suggest Smer would still be backed by around 35% of Slovaks in a general election, although the next vote is not due until 2016.

However, at the local level, independents are likely to benefit from the cynicism that has ushered new parties into power - many of them on the far-right - across Europe. Many will hope, however, that the vote does not see a repeat from a year ago, when Slovakia hit global headlines as a neo-nazi was elected governor of Banska Bystrica Region.

The trend that has brought new parties to power is strong in Central Europe, although the most successful are less extreme, targetting corruption rather than immigration. Municipal elections in October in the Czech Republic saw independents take the majority of seats in the regions. Meanwhile, coalition partner ANO, set up in 2011 by billionaire and now Finance Minister Andrej Babis - a Slovak by birth - is now the country's most popular party by some distance, and took many major cities, including Prague.

“In Slovakia, independents and small parties may take an outsized proportion of seats in local legislatures and thereby signal Fico’s loss of political invincibility,” Otilia Dhand of Teneo Intelligence suggested to the FT earlier this month.

However, in contrast to the capital, interest in lower profile posts is painfully low in some cases. The Slovak Spectator reports 18 villages will have to re-run the vote because no candidates out their names forward. Another 500 municipalities feature only one candidate for their mayoral positions.

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