Former Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico's populist SMER-SSD party has won Slovakia's election, results showed on Sunday.
Fico leads a populist party that has vowed to stop military aid to Ukraine and is critical of the EU and NATO.
The Smer-SD party scored 23.3%, beating the centrist Progressive Slovakia on 17%, with almost all votes counted. Previously, two exit polls had indicated that Progressive Slovakia would be the winner.
If Fico successfully creates a majority coalition, he will lead the European nation for the fourth time.
"Fico is a technician of power, by far the best in Slovakia. He does not have a counterpart at the moment," said sociologist Michal Vasecka from the Bratislava Policy Institute.
"Fico is always following opinion polls, understands what is happening" in society, he added.
HLAS in key position
The HLAS (Voice) party, which could become the kingmaker for forming the next government, was third with just over 15% of the vote.
SMER-SSD, set to clinch 42 seats in the 150-member parliament, will need coalition partners to form Slovakia's next government. The HLAS, with an estimated 27 seats, could be a key partner.
"The distribution of seats confirms HLAS as a party without which any normally functioning government coalition cannot be put together," party leader Peter Pellegrini said as most results were known, indicating that his current party had no preference for "any combination or coalition."
Before the vote, Pellegrini kept all options open but hinted his party was closer to Fico.
However, PS party leader Michal Simecka has also not given up hope of forming the next government.
"It remains our aim for Slovakia to have after this election a stable pro-European government," Simecka told supporters when most votes were counted.
Fico profits by fueling 'anger' over pandemic and war
Electoral campaigns have been marked by sharp disagreement on foreign policy.
Fico has said if he returns to power, Slovakia will continue supporting Ukraine but will not provide arms or ammunition. He has been called pro-Russian by opponents, a criticism he rejects.
A Progressive Slovakia government would maintain Bratislava's current support for Kyiv.
"Fico benefited from all that anxiety brought by the (coronavirus) pandemic and the (Ukraine) war, by the anger spreading in Slovakia in the past three years, and fueling that anger," sociologist Michal Vasecka was cited by the Reuters news agency as saying.
Slovakia has the eurozone's highest inflation rate of 10% and a financially depleted health system.
Fico has also gained supporters amid public dissatisfaction with the previous ruling coalition. The center-right government collapsed last year, triggering early elections.
sdi/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)