By Jason Hovet
(Reuters) – Slovak parliament chief Peter Pellegrini, leader of the second-biggest party in the government coalition, confirmed on Friday that he would run in a March presidential election.
The vote will be a test for Slovakia’s leftist government led by four-time Prime Minister Robert Fico, who is facing protests over plans to fast-track criminal law reforms that the opposition has decried and the European Union has questioned.
Pellegrini, a prime minister in 2018-2020 and former member of Fico’s SMER party, has seen a shrinking poll lead against his closest contender – Ivan Korcok, who was foreign minister in a previous government led by opposition forces.
“I officially announce I decided to campaign for the post of president,” Pellegrini said in a speech to supporters in which he promoted his experience in office.
“The president must be someone the people trust, who they will rely on in difficult times, and who they will never be ashamed of.”
A first round of voting takes place on March 23. A second round in the likely case that no candidate wins an outright majority is on April 6.
Pellegrini leads Korcok 40.6% to 37.7% in an AKO agency poll released on Thursday.
Fico’s government has sought to scrap a special prosecution office fighting corruption crimes and lower sentences for financial crimes, arguing it will modernise legislation. Opposition politicians say it will protect government allies.
President Zuzana Caputova, a target of Fico for her liberal stance who has opted against a second term, has urged lawmakers to re-think the changes.
“(The election) will be about whether there will be an assistant to the prime minister in the presidential office, or someone who can cooperate… but also be able to show a clear position, clearly stand against things that are not right,” Korcok said on Friday, cited by news website SME.sk.
Fico resigned in 2018 after mass protests against graft that followed the murder of a journalist. Pellegrini led the government until anti-corruption parties won a 2020 election.
Pellegrini’s position could work against him if voters choose to keep a counterweight to the government. Presidents can slow legislation with vetoes and challenge laws at the constitutional court.
(Reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague; Editing by Hugh Lawson)