By Jan Lopatka
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Slovakia’s leftist former Prime Minister Robert Fico was on course to beat his progressive rival in a parliamentary election after a campaign in which he pledged to end military aid to Ukraine, partial results showed on Sunday.
With 90% of voting districts reporting in the Saturday election, Fico’s SMER-SSD party led with 23.69% of the vote. The liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS) followed with 15.68% and the HLAS party, which could become the kingmaker for forming the next government, was third with 15.43%.
Former Fico colleague and HLAS leader Peter Pellegrini kept his options open on future coalitions in televised comments as results became clearer.
A government led by Fico and his SMER-SSD party would see NATO member Slovakia joining Hungary in challenging the European Union’s consensus on support for Ukraine, just as the bloc looks to maintain unity in opposing Russia’s invasion.
“We do want to evaluate everything, so we will wait for the final count,” said Robert Kalinak, a SMER-SSD candidate and long-time Fico ally, adding the party would comment on the full results later on Sunday.
Exit polls had favoured PS as the winner, but projections from two Slovak news sites based on results with 90% of districts reporting pegged Fico as the winner with a margin of about 5 or 6 percentage points.
The PS party has advocated maintaining Slovakia’s strong backing for Ukraine, and would also likely follow a liberal line within the EU on issues such as majority voting to make the bloc more flexible, green policies and LGBT rights.
The first party across the line was expected to get a mandate from President Zuzana Caputova to lead talks on forming a parliamentary majority and, if successful, a government.
The final districts to report, from large cites, were expected to favour PS, but the gap behind Fico appeared too large to bridge.
PS leader Michal Simecka did not give up hope he could form the next government, depending how possible smaller allies end up.
“It remains our aim for Slovakia to have after this election a stable pro-European government that will care for the rule of law and which begins to solve and invest into areas key for our future,” Simecka, a former reporter and Oxford graduate, told supporters.
With no party projected to win an outright majority, forming a new government will hinge on results for more than half a dozen smaller parties, from libertarians to far-right extremists.
Any coalition that PS could potentially form would likely need to include more right-wing or socially conservative parties, which would blunt its socially progressive and EU-integration drive.
The incoming government in the nation of 5.5 million will take over a ballooning budget deficit forecast to be the highest in the euro zone.
Fico has ridden on dissatisfaction with a bickering centre-right coalition, whose government collapsed last year, triggering the election six months early. In campaigning, he stressed concern about a rise in the number of migrants passing through Slovakia to Western Europe.
Fico’s views reflect traditionally warm sentiments towards Russia among many Slovaks, which have gathered strength on social media since the Ukraine war started.
He has also pledged to end military supplies to Ukraine and strive for peace talks – a line close to that of Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, but rejected by Ukraine and its allies, who say this would only encourage Russia.
The far-right Republika party, which was seen as a possible ally for Fico but unacceptable to others, may not win any seats, partial results and media projections showed.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka, David W. Cerny, Hedy Beloucif and and Radovan Stoklasa in Bratislava; Additional reporting by Jason Hovet and Michael Kahn in Prague; Writing by Michael Kahn; Editing by Helen Popper, David Holmes, Leslie Adler, Daniel Wallis and William Mallard)