Slovaks vote for new president against backdrop of Ukraine war

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Slovaks vote for new president against backdrop of Ukraine war

Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - A man prepares to cast his vote during the country's presidential election run-off at a polling station in Senec, Slovakia, April 6, 2024. — Reuters pic

BRATISLAVA, April 6 — Slovaks today voted for a new president of the EU and Nato member in a tight race between a government ally and a critic who are at odds over the war in neighbouring Ukraine.

A potential shift further towards Russia was at stake for the country in the run-off between pro-West diplomat Ivan Korcok and Ukraine-sceptic parliament speaker Peter Pellegrini.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became a fixture of the electoral campaign in the country of 5.4 million people after populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, Pellegrini’s ally, had questioned Ukraine’s sovereignty and called for peace with Russia.

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Korcok, a 60-year-old former foreign minister and staunch Ukraine supporter, and the 48-year-old Pellegrini are vying to replace the outgoing liberal President Zuzana Caputova.

They are squaring off in a decisive second round as neither took the necessary 50 per cent to win outright in last month’s initial ballot.

Though the office is largely ceremonial, Slovakia’s president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can veto laws passed by parliament.

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After casting his ballot with his wife, Korcok said the election was “partly about the future course of the country”.

“I want to make it clear where Slovakia belongs,” he said from the western town of Senec, before a planned bicycle ride and family time.

Voting in nearby Rovinka, Pellegrini denied that the ballot was “about the future direction of foreign policy”.

Slovakia would remain “a strong member of the European Union and Nato” whatever the outcome, he said, adding that he would take lunch with his parents and walk his dog to clear his head.

Presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini gestures after casting his vote on the day of country's presidential election run-off, at a polling station in Bratislava, Slovakia, April 6, 2024. — Reuters pic

Presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini gestures after casting his vote on the day of country's presidential election run-off, at a polling station in Bratislava, Slovakia, April 6, 2024. — Reuters pic

‘Too close to call’

The final pre-election poll by the Focus agency put the contenders neck-and-neck, with Pellegrini gaining 51-per cent backing and Korcok 49 per cent.

“This is the tightest ever presidential race,” said Vaclav Hrich, managing director of the AKO polling agency.

Analyst Tomas Koziak told AFP Korcok was “unlikely” to win any votes that propelled EU critic Stefan Harabin to the third spot in the first round with 12 per cent.

Yet Hrich said the election was “too close to call” and said turnout would be decisive.

“The more people vote, the more chances Peter Pellegrini will have as this would mean he had succeeded convincing Harabin’s voters,” he said.

Bratislava voter Frantisek Hazik cast his ballot for Korcok.

“I don’t want Fico and his friends to occupy everything,” the 31-year-old auditor told AFP, calling Korcok “a truly democratic politician”.

Pensioner Helena Vaclavova, 67, backed Pellegrini, saying he “only wants good for this country” and “will defend us from everything”.

Analyst Koziak said Korcok’s pro-Western drive was “absolutely obvious”.

“If Pellegrini wins, Slovakia could go the ‘Orban way’ in terms of foreign policy,” he told AFP, referring to Kremlin-friendly Hungarian maverick Premier Viktor Orban.

Slovakia's presidential candidate Ivan Korcok is joined by his wife Sona Korcokova as he casts his ballot during the country's presidential election run-off at a polling station in Senec, Slovakia, April 6, 2024. — Reuters pic

Slovakia's presidential candidate Ivan Korcok is joined by his wife Sona Korcokova as he casts his ballot during the country's presidential election run-off at a polling station in Senec, Slovakia, April 6, 2024. — Reuters pic

War and peace

Pellegrini was a minister in Fico’s previous governments and was head of government from 2018 to 2020 after his long-time ally was toppled.

“I am running for president to rescue the government of Robert Fico,” Pellegrini said in a televised debate.

Korcok fired back: “You want to protect the government. I want to protect Slovakia.”

Fico’s government that took office in October includes his Smer party, Pellegrini’s Hlas and the small far-right SNS. It has discontinued military aid to Ukraine.

“Korcok is a warmonger, who will support everything the West tells him without hesitation, including dragging Slovakia into the war,” Fico said in a video.

He expressed support for Pellegrini, calling him “a moderate candidate who recognises the value of peace”.

Pellegrini said Slovak politicians were divided between those in favour of continuing war and those advocating peace talks.

“I belong to the latter,” he told AFP.

Korcok told AFP that Russia “has trampled on international law. I do not think Ukraine should give up part of its territory to achieve peace”.

Pavol Turanec, an electrical designer from Martin, northern Slovakia, hailed Korcok as “a real pro: pro-democratic, pro-Western, pro-European”.

“This criminal government is leading us to a pro-Russian autocracy... They really need a counterweight,” the 50-year-old told AFP.

Jana Mozolova, a retired teacher from the eastern city of Kosice, said Pellegrini had her vote.

“He has been around for years and never let anyone down,” the 66-year-old said.

Provisional results are expected around midnight. — AFP

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