Leftist opposition in Slovakia wins landslide victory in early parliamentary election

Karel Janicek, The Associated Press

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia - A leftist party led by one of the few leading politicians in Slovakia to escape voter anger over a major corruption scandal has been propelled back into power in an early parliamentary election, according to final results Sunday.

Smer-Social Democracy of former Prime Minister Robert Fico is a clear winner with 44.4 per cent of the vote, or 83 seats in the 150-seat Parliament, with votes from all 5,956 polling stations counted.

President Ivan Gasparovic said Sunday he would formally ask Fico to form a new government but gave no timetable.

The result allows Fico to govern alone — one party rule has not happened in Slovakia since the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

On Sunday, however, Fico offered opposition parties a chance to join forces and form a two-party coalition government, but all other parliamentary parties rejected his offer. Before the election, Fico had discussed a necessity to create a strong, stable government, possibly formed by two parties, amid another economic downturn and efforts to save the eurozone.

Fico — considered a populist leader — has pledged to maintain a welfare state, increase corporate tax and hike income tax for the highest earners.

"We succeeded with what we offered as an alternative," Fico said early Sunday. "We've achieved a result that is a pleasant surprise for us, to be honest."

The outgoing centre-right, four-party coalition received a combined 51 seats, on the back of voter anger over a major corruption scandal.

The new Ordinary People party that campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket won 16 seats, while the ultranationalist Slovak National Party, known for derogatory comments about ethnic Hungarians, Roma and political opponents, ended below the 5-per cent threshold needed to win parliamentary representation.

Turnout was surprisingly high at 59.11 per cent. Analysts had predicted a record low turnout, as voters were expected to register their anger over allegations that a private financial group bribed government and opposition politicians in 2005-06 to win lucrative privatization deals.

The "Gorilla" files — posted online by an anonymous source in December and said to be based on wiretaps — have rocked Slovak politics. One former economy minister is said to have received the equivalent of €10 million ($13 million) for his assistance.

Outgoing Prime Minister Iveta Radicova's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union was hard hit by the allegations. Radicova's party was in power in 2005-06 and the then-prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, is now the foreign minister and party chairman. The party won 5.9 per cent of the vote, despite overseeing an economic boom driven by solid growth, strong exports and the implementation of much-needed pension reforms. It won 15.4 per cent at the 2010 ballot.

"It's clear ... Gorilla is to blame," Dzurinda said. "It's a serious loss."

Disappointed by her government's collapse, Radicova is quitting politics and plans to lecture at Britain's Oxford University. She was Slovakia's first female prime minister.

Fico, whose party was in power in 2006-10, has been implicated in the corruption allegations, but says he is innocent because he couldn't have influenced any decisions since he was part of the opposition.

Known for foul-mouthed tirades against journalists, Fico's election promises included a plan to build a new national soccer stadium and not to increase the pension age for women because they "don't deserve it." He is also against further privatization of state assets and opposes austerity measures, such as a value-added tax increase, that would help keep the public finances healthy.

Analysts have warned that Fico may not be ready to take the necessary steps to lower a high unemployment rate of more than 13 per cent and reduce the deficit to 3 per cent by 2013 as required after EU nations agreed on a deal to stop overspending in the 17 countries that use the euro.

Fico is also a vocal opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and withdrew Slovak troops, and has said he would not allow any part of the Obama administration's revamped U.S. missile shield planned for Europe to be based in Slovakia.

Fico who led Slovakia to the euro zone in 2009, pledged Sunday he was ready to meet the country's obligations: "We realize how important it is to have healthy public finances." He said his government will support European measures to stop the debt crisis and save the euro.

In October, Slovakia dramatically rejected Europe's expanded bailout fund — and the government fell in a confidence vote, triggering this weekend's elections. The small nation of 5.4 million people was accused of undermining the entire eurozone with its brinkmanship. Parliament eventually approved the expanded EU fund after Fico's party voted "yes" in exchange for early elections.