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Europe

Slovak voters decide future of controversial leader

Slovaks have gone to the polls in an election that will decide whether controversial Prime Minister Robert Fico remains in power. The center-left leader is seen as a protector by some and "the European Chavez" by others.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico

Fico and his party still lead the field in polls

Voting is under way in Slovakia in elections that will decide whether the controversial center-left leader, Robert Fico, should stay in government for another four years.

Dubbed "the European Chavez" by his opponents, Fico has taken an uncompromising stance towards the media and risked political isolation in Europe when he formed a coalition with far-right and populist parties in 2006. Ahead of Saturday's vote, Fico and his SMER party continued to lead the field, but this election - which has been overshadowed by a bitter row with neighboring Hungary - has the potential for surprises.

Fico is a divisive figure in the central European country: he seems to be loved and loathed in equal measure.

Driving into Bratislava, feeling the road dip gently as it heads downwards towards the Danube River, you pass two billboards.

Slovakian and Hungarian flags over a map showing the countries in red

Critics accuse Fico of exploiting differences with Hungary

One is for SMER, the leftist party that Fico propelled to power in 2006, after eight years of center-right, pro-reform government. In it, Fico - with his blonde crew cut and energetic, confident air - meets your gaze with a look of steely determination.

"SMER," it says. "A Guarantee In Hard Times."

A few meters on, there's another billboard, this time by the razor-sharp Slovak cartoonist Shooty. It's the artist's caricature of the same billboard, but this time Fico appears demented, a fuming, bad-tempered child with eyes set much too close together.

"SMER," reads the caption. "A Guarantee Of Hard Times."

I was later told that Shooty launched a Facebook campaign in a bid to raise 3,000 euros ($3,600) to buy billboard space for his cartoons. Within a week he'd raised 70,000 euros.

Popular protector

Despite the mocking cartoons, Fico remains extremely popular. His party enjoys between 30 percent and 35 percent in the opinion polls, far ahead of any of his rivals. SMER is almost certain to emerge as the biggest party this weekend.

"Fico's constant theme is protection," said analyst Milan Nic.

"He says - I'm protecting you from Hungarian revisionism. I'm protecting you from the consequences of the global financial crisis."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with supporters, announcing his party's victory

Viktor Orban and his FIDESZ party have offered passports to ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia

In other words, said Nic, Fico has managed to convince Slovak voters that he's the one to protect them.

'Brown plague'

The number one "threat" in these elections is what some in Slovakia say is a revanchist, aggressive and increasingly assertive Hungary, now governed by the nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban.

Since his FIDESZ party came to power in a landslide election earlier this year, Orban has introduced legislation offering passports to the 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians who've found themselves living outside Hungary's borders since Hungary was dismembered under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Some 500,000 ethnic Hungarians now live just over the Danube in southern Slovakia - 10 percent of the country's population.

The Slovak response to the new law in Budapest was swift and furious. Fico's government pushed through its own legislation, under which those Slovaks who apply for foreign passports will automatically lose their Slovak citizenship and face a hefty fine.

A performance by the Slovak-Hungarian band Gypsy Devils

There is little evidence of ethnic tension in the capital Bratislava

Fico has described the law as a threat to Slovakia's national security, even branding Hungary as "an extremist country that exports its brown plague," a reference to the far-right Jobbik party.

Building bridges

The citizenship row now overshadows this election; evil tongues say that's the way both Fico and Orban want it, to distract attention from alleged corruption and cronyism at home. But will relations get worse? Few believe so. Analysts are convinced "the Hungarian card" is a temporary ploy to win nationalist votes, and after the elections, the rhetoric will be toned down.

Certainly there's little sign of ethnic tension in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. On a stage in the city's Hlavne Namesti, a Slovak-Hungarian gypsy band called "Gypsy Devils" played songs by a Hungarian-French composer of Jewish origin at a rally organized by a new Slovak-Hungarian political party called Most-Hid.

"I must be optimistic," said Ivan Svejna, deputy chairman of Most-Hid.

A campaign stall for Slovakia's Most-Hid party

The Most-Hid party claims it aims to build a bridge between Slovaks and Hungarians

"Our party's name comes from the word for 'bridge' in Slovak and Hungarian. This means that we want to find - in a peaceful way - a solution to a lot of questions. We are Europeans. We are members of the EU. So it means we have to look not to the past, but to the future."

Unpredictable outcome

Analysts are uncomfortable predicting the outcome of this weekend's poll, as only SMER and three center-right parties are more or less guaranteed to pass the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament. The ethnic Hungarian vote is split between Most-Hid and an older Hungarian party, the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) - both are flirting with the 5 percent mark. Fico's present coalition partners - the ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) and the populist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) - also face an uncertain future.

That makes crystal ball-gazing extremely difficult, if not impossible. If the SNS and HZDS manage to return to parliament, Fico may simply re-form his current coalition. If they do not, he may look for other partners - even the Hungarian parties who've been on the receiving end of so much of his vitriol have not ruled out working with him. And if the center-right win a majority, he may simply be outmaneuvered in the 150-seat parliament. All will become clearer in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Author: Rob Cameron, Bratislava
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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