Pellegrini beats Korcok to become the next Slovak president

Pellegrini beats Korcok to become the next Slovak president
Peter Pellegrini, 48, will take over the Presidential Palace on June 15. / Pellegrini's Facebook
By Albin Sybera April 7, 2024

Government candidate Peter Pellegrini beat pro-Western diplomat Ivan Korcok in the Slovak presidential election run-off by collecting 53.12% of the vote against Korcok’s 46.87%.

Pellegrini, the parliamentary speaker and a former premier, scored a clear victory despite the last polls projecting a very tight runoff after Korcok registered a surprise victory in the first round by 42.5% to 37%. Even so, it was Slovakia's tighest presidential contest so far.

Pellegrini, 48, will take over the Presidential Palace on June 15 amid fears that his presidency will strengthen populist premier Robert Fico’s power grip on the country’s institutions. Pellegrini's centre-left Hlas party has backed Fico's Smer party's moves to reassert control over the judiciary, police and public media, and the way it has re-oriented Slovak foreign policy from one of the staunchest military backers of Ukraine to a Kremlin-appeasing one.

Despite the post's relatively weak powers, outgoing President Zuzana Caputova has used it to act as an obstacle to 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

“I want to thank all the voters of the Slovak Republic who gave me nearly 1,400,000 votes. It is an obligation and a great honour for me,” Pellegrini stated before he reiterated his hardened message on Ukraine, with which he appealed to the voters of the far-right candidate Stefan Harabin, who came third in the first round.

“Whether someone likes it or not, I will do everything for Slovakia to stay on the side of peace and not on the side of war,” Pellegrini said during his victory speech in a nod to Fico's and Harabin's electorate. 

He also reassured Fico of his loyalty. "You don't have to worry that an opposition opportunistic power centre will emerge from the Presidential Palace, as it has been for the last 10 years, which will harm the government, which will harm the state abroad and will enjoy the failures of the government of the Slovak Republic," he said.

The controversies of the Fico cabinet have 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.

Pellegrini praised the result as a demonstration that Fico’s left-right ruling coalition has stable support, while Fico declared that “even today, people in Slovakia showed that they recognise what threats this country is facing from the side of liberal media, activists, non-government organisations and progressives”.

Korcok who was backed by the liberal opposition,  congratulated Pellegrini in his concession speech, but did not hide disappointment and criticised Pellegrini for leading a campaign in which he depicted Korcok as a warmonger.

“A campaign can be won also by turning the other one – me – into a candidate of war. I want to tell you one thing – I will not forget this. Fear has decided the elections,” Korcok stated.

Korcok had also criticised Pellegrini for lacking political autonomy from Fico, Pellegrini’s former boss in the Smer party. He said he “wishes from his heart […] to all of the Slovak Republic” that Pellegrini “will be an independent president and will be acting according to his own conviction”.

Caputova, a fervent critic of Fico, praised the high voter turnout and congratulated Pellegrini. The turnout was 61.14%, up from 51.91% in the first round.

"It is important that since the moment of getting elected the new president acts in a way so as no part of the society feels defeated. So that joy from victory goes hand in hand with awareness of service for all the citizens of Slovakia, not just for those who elected him," Caputova wrote on her Facebook page. 

Pellegrini 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.  

Pellegrini, the early clear favourite, successfully managed to mobilise his voters and that of the governing coalition against Korcok with an improved turnout, Slovak media noted, after he had appeared to be slipping behind in the last week of the campaign.

He won back many districts where Korcok registered a victory in the first round. Apart from the capital, Bratislava, and its surroundings – a liberal stronghold in Slovakia – Korcok won only in the second largest city, Kosice, and three other districts in the north and the east – Dolny Kubin, Poprad and Presov – in the runoff.     

Yet again Slovak pollsters called the election wrong, predicting a tight victory for Korcok as late as the exit poll, after also mistakenly predicting that liberal opposition party Progressive Slovakia would win September's general election.