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article imageSlovakia votes in election haunted by journalist's murder

By Laszlo JUHASZ and Martina KONIK (AFP)     Feb 26, 2020 in World

Slovakia's populist coalition faces a fight for survival in a general election on Saturday, overshadowed by the 2018 gangland-style murder of a journalist that has upended politics in the eurozone country plagued by graft.

Allegedly contracted by a businessman with connections to politicians, the hit on Jan Kuciak has become a lightning rod for public outrage at endemic corruption.

Hit hard by the fallout of the murder, surveys suggest that Robert Fico's governing populist-left Smer-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party is running neck-and-neck with OLaNO, a surging centre-right opposition party focused on combatting graft.

"People want change, especially an anti-corruption drive," political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP, adding that Fico's Smer-SD "is seen as being responsible for corruption".

"The murder of Jan Kuciak has reconfigured the entire political scene, as new liberal-democratic parties emerged and immediately gained support," he said, adding that a gaggle of centre-right and liberal opposition parties have a shot at forming a government.

Kuciak's killing, which triggered the largest anti-government protests since communist times, toppled Fico as prime minister, his party colleague Peter Pellegrini taking over the reins.

It later propelled Zuzana Caputova, a liberal lawyer and anti-graft activist, out of nowhere to win last year's presidential race.

More change is expected on Saturday, according to commentators in Bratislava, but the outcome of the highly fragmented vote is unclear.

Although Fico has ruled out a post-election coalition deal with the far-right Our Slovakia LSNS, the two parties joined forces this week in parliament to pass a Smer-SD bill giving pensioners extra benefits, a move the opposition slammed as pork-barrel electioneering.

Capitalising on its anti-establishment posture and a backlash against Slovakia's impoverished Roma minority, surveys show the LSNS could double its current 10 seats in the 150-member lower house.

- Future Prime Minister?

With polls suggesting his OLaNO party is skyrocketing in popularity, eccentric MP and party leader Igor Matovic appears to have galvanised public outrage over the murder and the high-level corruption it exposed.

"I like their (OLaNO) anti-corruption measures," butcher Miroslav Drugda told AFP at a packed Matovic election rally in Lucenec, a small central Slovak town some 250 kilometres (155 miles) east of Bratislava.

A self-made millionaire and former media boss who set up the "Ordinary People and Independent Personalities - OLaNO" a decade ago, Matovic, 46, could become premier should he manage to unify the splintered opposition.

"He's got good political instincts and a gift for political marketing," analyst Juraj Marusiak said, adding that "his unpredictability makes him a problematic partner".

"The most likely scenario is the creation of a centre-right pro-democracy oriented government coalition of six or even seven parties," according to Meseznikov.

- Far-right gains? -

Hundreds of supporters also turned up to meet LSNS leader Marian Kotleba at a recent rally in Topolcany, a small, relatively poor town in western Slovakia, typical of the areas where the party is making inroads.

Kotleba, 42, a former regional governor, is notorious for having previously led street marches with party members dressed in neo-Nazi uniforms. He faces fresh hate speech charges after having already been acquitted of similar allegations.

Campaigning against migrants and Slovakia's impoverished Roma minority, the LSNS won its first seats in parliament in 2016.

To emphasise anti-Roma slogans, Kotleba brought party member Milan Mazurek to the rally.

The former LSNS MP, expelled from parliament last year after the Supreme Court convicted him of hate speech against Roma, made a fiery address that tapped into resentment against welfare payments for members of the minority.

"They (Roma) get everything for free," said Jozef Mikus, a retired mill operator who attended the rally, echoing the anti-Roma narrative.

The election has been overshadowed by the gangland style murder
The election has been overshadowed by the gangland style murder
VLADIMIR SIMICEK, AFP

According to Bratislava-based analyst Pavol Babos, "legitimisation of xenophobic and racist discourse by the ruling Smer-SD and (nationalist) SNS parties is a cause for the rise of the far-right".

Polls show the LSNS is the number one choice of first-time voters.

"I'd like Slovakia to be Slovakia and not a country of foreign people," said Bibiana, an 18-year-old high school student who took selfies with the candidates at the rally.

Friendly with Russia, Kotleba wants Slovakia to exit the US-led NATO defence alliance and is hostile towards the European Union.

Heavily dependent on car making, the Slovak economy is projected to slow to 2.2 percent this year, narrowly down from 2.3 percent in 2019, before hitting 2.6 percent in 2021, according the European Commission's latest forecast.

Unemployment is relatively low, clocking in at around 5.6 percent in late 2019.

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