July 15, 2024

By Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) -Slovakia’s Robert Fico, who won an election after pledging to end military aid to Ukraine, was in pole position to start talks on forming a government on Sunday while a liberal rival vowed to seek partners to prevent the former leftist prime minister’s return to power.

With 99.98% of voting districts reporting in the Saturday election, Fico’s SMER-SSD party scored nearly 23% of the vote, followed by almost 18% for the Progresivne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia, PS) party.

The winner is expected to be given a political mandate by President Zuzana Caputova to try to find a majority, and form a government if successful.

A government led by Fico and his SMER-SSD party would see NATO member Slovakia joining Hungary in challenging the European Union’s consensus on support for Ukraine, just as the bloc looks to maintain unity in opposing Russia’s invasion.

The result – with SMER-SSD in need of coalition partners to rule – sets up the third-placed moderate leftist HLAS (Voice) as kingmaker.

HLAS leader Peter Pellegrini, who has previously said his party leans closer to SMER-SSD on policy, said on Sunday that the chance for a stable coalition and agenda priorities would guide negotiations, which could last days or weeks.

Seven factions crossed the threshold to sit in the next parliament. As the party with the most votes, SMER-SSD is expected to be given the first chance to form a government, and it is likely to turn to the nationalist, pro-Russian Slovak National Party and HLAS to gain a majority.

The party will hold a news conference at 1:00 p.m. (1100 GMT) to discuss the election results.

HLAS had not made Ukraine a campaign issue, with Pellegrini saying during campaigning that ammunition supplies were good for Slovakia’s defence industry. Its party programme has also backed having a united EU against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A Fico-led government would signal a further shift in central Europe against political liberalism, which may be reinforced if the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) wins an election in Poland later this month.

Fico has leaned close to Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, who congratulated the Slovak politician on his victory with a post on X social media platform on Sunday saying “Guess who’s back!”

“Always good to work together with a patriot. Looking forward to it,” Orban said.

Fico’s party is critical of social liberalism, which it says is imposed from Brussels.

PS, which is liberal on green policies, LGBT rights, deeper European integration and human rights, will also court HLAS, with PS leader Michal Simecka on Sunday saying he still saw an option to form a ruling coalition.

“We believe that this is very bad news for Slovakia,” Simecka told a news conference of SMER-SSD’s victory.

“And it would be even worse news if Robert Fico succeeds in forming a government,” he added. “We will do everything…so that Robert Fico does not rule in Slovakia.”

** Click here for an interactive graphic on election results:

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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