Favourite Pellegrini battles to overturn Korcok's first round lead in Slovak presidential run-off

Favourite Pellegrini battles to overturn Korcok's first round lead in Slovak presidential run-off
During the latest stage of the campaign Pellegrini has added statements such as “I will never send our soldiers to fight in Ukraine” and “I will further peace solutions”. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera April 5, 2024

Former premier Peter Pellegrini,  once the firm  favourite to be the next Slovak president, is struggling to overtake pro-Western diplomat Ivan Korcok, who is backed by the opposition, in this Saturday's  runoff vote. 

Latest polls project a margin of around 1% in favour of either Korcok or Pellegrini, well within the margin of error. 

The presidential race is seen as crucial as, despite the post's relatively weak powers, outgoing President Zuzana Caputova has acted as an obstacle to populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, sending his controversial judicial reforms to the Constitutional Court and speaking out against his attempts to muzzle NGOs and take control of public broadcaster RTVS. Were Parliamentary Speaker Pellegrini to win, there are grave doubts whether he would play the same role, thus allowing Fico virtually untrammelled power.

Pellegrini, 48, has tried to display a more moderate image since breaking with Fico's leftist Smer party – where he had risen through the ranks to become the heir apparent –  to form his own centre-left Hlas party in 2020. However,  he chose to form a left-right coalition with his former boss after the September general election and take the parliamentary speaker post, rather than create a centrist coalition that excluded Fico. His campaign has subsequently been handicapped by the government's controversial moves.

“Despite efforts to lower the credibility of Ivan Korcok through disinformation, […] some steps of the ruling coalition are not contributing to a ‘pro-Pellegrini’ mood in society,” political scientist Jozef Lenc told RTVS this week.

“Pellegrini is also nervous because, despite his statements, he certainly expected a better result in the first round,” Lenc added.  

Korcok, 60, a former top diplomat and foreign minister in a previous centre-right government, collected 42.51% of votes in the first round in a surprise victory ahead of Pellegrini, with 37.02%, prompting Pellegrini to harden his rhetoric in an apparent effort to appeal to voters of the third-placed (11.73%) candidate, the far right former judge Stefan Harabin.

However, it appears that Pellegrini’s balancing act is backfiring, putting off moderate voters of his Hlas party, while failing to convince Harabin's nationalist electorate, which follows the strong disinformation scene in Slovakia and is heavily influenced by pro-Kremlin propaganda. 

Pellegrini's previous strong support was based on the fact that while backing Fico, he was always careful to appear as the more moderate one, including by being more pro-Western.

Fico's cabinet has re-oriented the country's foreign policy from a staunch backer of Ukraine into a Kremlin-appeasing stance, by ending military aid, calling for peace negotiations and pursuing an odd alliance with Hungary's radical right wing leader Viktor Orban.

Pellegrini has reiterated that “my stance on foreign policy is clear: we are members of EU and Nato, and we will stay in there”, but during the latest stage of the campaign he has added statements such as “I will never send our soldiers to fight in Ukraine” and “I will pursue peaceful solutions”, and attacked Korcok as a potential "president of war". 

Korcok criticised Pellegrini’s mixture of Slovak nationalism with a pro-Western image. “The interests of Slovakia are more of a commercial commodity for him [Pellegrini] rather than a priority,” Korcok charged in one of the televised debates.    

In a rally he asserted, "unlike my opponent, I have no boss, no coalition obligations, I only have you". 

The election is likely to come down to whether Pellegrini's  last-minute galvanisation of the Harabin electorate against Korcok works. Harabin has criticised Korcok but has failed to explicitly back Pellegrini. The Hlas leader has, however, won the backing of the chairman of the ethnic Hungarian party, which is strongly influenced by neighbouring Hungary's radical rightwing leader Viktor Orban.

The controversies of the Fico cabinet have also been galvanising liberal Slovaks in regular mass protests against Fico and his allies, including Pellegrini, who is derided as Fico's "bag carrier" or stooge.

A special train for Slovak students who study in Czechia is leaving in Prague at noontime on Friday, April 5, with a stopover on Brno, bringing some of the 21,000 young Slovak voters studying in Czechia to their birth country this weekend. Many Slovaks choose to study in Czechia and many stay there after graduating, worsening the country's worrying brain drain.

“So our compatriots return to their home country after their studies, their voice needs to be heard,” Marek Mach, chairman of the Youth Against Fascism organisation, which raised the money for the special train, told the media.

Mach and his colleague's activists have avoided making statements as to their political preferences, but despite Pellegrini’s carefully branded anti-fascist image, younger voters have been leaning towards the  liberal opposition, represented by the Progressive Slovakia centrist party, which is backing Korcok.