Pro-EU Diplomat Wins First-Round of Slovak Presidential Vote

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(Bloomberg) -- Slovakia’s former top diplomat who rejects Prime Minister Robert Fico’s increasingly anti-Western rhetoric pulled off a surprise first-round victory in the nation’s presidential election.

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The contest for the head of state is set to decide whether the Russia-friendly premier strengthens his political dominance over the eastern European country of 5.4 million or voters pick a counterbalance to the government that holds most of the executive powers.

Former Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, who has pledged to help keep Slovakia within the European mainstream, will face Peter Pellegrini, parliamentary speaker and member of Fico’s ruling coalition, in a final round on April 6.

“The result of the first round looks promising,” Korcok, an independent candidate with backing from the main opposition parties, told reporters. “But to succeed in the second round, we need to do more to address voters in the entire political spectrum.”

Korcok defied polls showing him behind Pellegrini before the first round of ballot that ended on Saturday, taking 42.5% of votes. The Fico ally had 37% and said he’ll try to gain support from a swathe of nationalist voters in the runoff to help him win the presidency next month.

According to Pellegrini, the results showed that a majority of Slovaks don’t want a “liberal, right-wing, progressive” president. He also said that voters prefer a head of state “who won’t drag them into a war,” echoing Fico’s opposition to western military support for neighboring Ukraine. The prime minister issued a statement to reaffirm support for his coalition partner.

Read More: Russia-Friendly Leader May Get Huge Power Boost in Slovak Vote

A Pellegrini victory would give Fico more scope to push his agenda, which has drawn scrutiny from the European Union for his bid to overhaul parts of the justice system and his attacks on the media. The four-time premier returned to office last year after campaigning to rein in investigations of his allies, stop Slovakia’s military support for Ukraine and challenge sanctions against Russia.

Korcok has pledged to maintain the pro-EU course of the current president, President Zuzana Caputova. Slovakia’s head of state holds a largely ceremonial position, but can can veto legislation and appoint government officials, judges and central bankers in a check on the government’s powers.

Caputova, who was elected in 2019 on a platform to fight corruption but declined to seek reelection after persistent attacks from Fico and his supporters, has been Fico’s chief antagonist. She has tried to block some of his legislative moves and nominations to key state posts.

A populist figure supported by a lower-income, rural base, Fico has triggered widespread protests this year over his bid to change the criminal code and dismantle a special prosecutor’s office. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, is assessing the legislation for potential breach of the rule of law.

(Updates with full results in fifth paragraph, Pellegrini’s comments in sixth.)

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