Tom Nicholson in Bratislava -
It's been over a decade since Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has been an underdog in any election. But his assertive campaign to capture the country's highest office - the presidency - in the March 29 crucial run-off ballot suddenly looks vulnerable to the challenge of a rank political outsider.
Independent Andrej Kiska would seem an unlikely threat to the battle-hardened Fico. A 51-year-old philanthropist with no experience of foreign policy or party politics, Kiska made his millions from a consumer-lending scheme in the turbulent post-Communist 1990s. And in head-to-head debates, Kiska has indeed seemed a wooden, over-coached and outgunned sparring partner for the man who has dominated Slovak politics since 2006.
But with Slovak voters in an anti-establishment mood, Kiska improbably survived a withering attack campaign to finish a close second (24%) to Fico (28%) in the first round of voting on March 15. Now, with other first-round losers calling on voters to support him, Kiska is poised to deliver an underdog victory.
"Fico made two basic mistakes in this race," says Marian Lesko, a seasoned political commentator with the Trend business weekly. "Because he was unsure of victory, he ran a very aggressive campaign with attack ads targeting Kiska's voters, and Slovak voters never respond well to such vitriol. Second, he failed to explain to his own voters why they should make him president, when they are very happy with him as prime minister. Kiska now has a very real chance of winning, even though he seems to know nothing about politics."
More than decoration
With Fico's Smer party commanding a solid parliamentary majority and 40% voter support (compared with around 10% for the strongest opposition party), it might seem counterintuitive that the country's most powerful politician would seek a sideways promotion.
In Slovakia's parliamentary democracy, the presidency is largely a decorative function, with two key exceptions - the president can issue amnesties and appoints judges and prosecutors, a vital consideration in a country emerging from scandal-plagued privatization.
Fico is also believed to be suffering from longstanding health problems (high blood pressure, back pain) and to be weary in spirit after 22 years in top politics. Insiders in his social-democratic Smer party say that Fico sees the presidency as a graceful exit from the daily grind of leadership, and a chance to remake himself as a statesman after a scandal-plagued first tenure as PM from 2006-2010.
Fico has even suggested that the power of the presidency could soon be augmented, without providing specifics. "The president will be even more important than the prime minister in the coming years," he mused at a March 20 press conference.
PM proposes, voters dispose
But scandal-weary Slovak voters are reshaping the electoral landscape, and confounding political calculations.
Last year, a far-right ex-high school teacher, Marian Kotleba, was elected as governor of Banska Bystrica region over a Smer-party incumbent, and quickly installed black-uniformed, shaven-headed supporters as "security" in regional offices. A voter poll by the MVK agency in January suggested that Kotleba's "Our Slovakia People's Party" would capture enough votes to win seats in the national parliament as well.
Marian Balaz, 18, a high-school student who voted for Kotleba, said that he supported the governor not because of his anti-Roma stance, but in spite of it. "If you look at how corrupt the mainstream parties are, how can you possibly vote for them? Kotleba isn't perfect, but he deserves a chance."
Kiska, too, seems to be receiving the benefit of the doubt. Fico has hit him repeatedly with body blows - that Kiska has alleged ties to the Scientology Church, that his consumer loan companies charged "usurious" rates, and that his lack of experience makes him a political risk. "After two decades in high politics, I am a known quantity. The questions surrounding my opponent are very ugly," Fico said in a campaign statement.
But being a "known quantity" may be a questionable advantage come March 29. "It's a real quandary - you elect a government, and they steal. You elect a different one, and they steal as well. So what can you do?" says Stanislav Ziacik, an energy sector entrepreneur. "That's the danger when society is not mature enough for democracy."
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