Centre right make gains in Slovakia


Centre-right parties won a majority in Slovakia's election, giving them a chance to oust prime minister Robert Fico with a coalition that must cut the budget gap and repair ties with neighbouring Hungary.

While voters chose the grouping of economic liberals whose reforms led Slovakia into the EU in 2004 and lured billions of euros in foreign investment, the leftist Fico remained the most popular politician in the euro zone's poorest country.

Loved for a tough leadership style favouring average Slovaks over big business, Mr Fico won the biggest single share of Saturday's vote with 34.8 per cent for his SMER party, according to complete preliminary results today.

But the vote count gave 79 of parliament's 150 seats to four centre-right and ethnic Hungarian parties.

The conservative SDKU, which introduced a flat tax rate, sold major state firms, and overhauled the pension and welfare sectors when it ruled from 1998 to 2006, was second with 15.4 per cent of the ballot from yesterday's election.

It hopes to form a coalition with the conservative Christian Democrats (KDH), the newly formed liberal Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), and the ethnic Hungarian Most-Hid party.

Analysts say a centre-right grouping would be better placed to cut a budget deficit that hit 6.8 per cent of gross domestic product last year to a target of 3 per cent in 2012.

"Let me thank those who ... showed confidence that we can have a solution and kick-start Slovakia, halt the arrogance of power, and let me say the wish is that this country again is called the tiger of Europe," SDKU leader Iveta Radicova said.

Slovakia's export-reliant economy, which shrank by 4.7 per cent last year, has been recovering and the EU forecasts 2.7 per cent growth this year, the bloc's fastest along with Poland.

As results were coming out, Ms Radicova met the leaders of her potential future allies for first informal talks.

Mr Fico said he would try to form a government, in line with the tradition that the president gives the first chance to the biggest party.

"When a party gets a result like 35 per cent, it has to give it a try," Mr Fico said in a post-election television debate.

But he admitted he was facing a tough task.

"If the right wing decides to form a cabinet, they will do it," he said.

All the four centre-right party leaders swiftly rejected Mr Fico's call for cooperation.

"We need a change, we need honest politics to prevail," said KDH chief Jan Figel, who used to serve as Slovakia's member of the European Commission.

Political analyst Samuel Abraham said Mr Fico had "almost zero chance".

President Ivan Gasparovic said today he wanted Mr Fico to try to form a new government.

Business and the opposition accuse Mr Fico, whose popularity was driven by a generous welfare agenda, of wasting public funds and polarising politics with a confrontational style.

The junior ruling HZDS party of former PM Vladimir Meciar, whose policies took the country into international isolation in the 1990s, did not win any seats.

The centre-right grouping is seen by analysts as the better force to fight corruption and improve frosty links with Hungary.

There have been strains over the rights of Slovakia's half a million Hungarian minority. Relations soured further after the far-right Slovak National Party joined Fico's cabinet in 2006.

In Hungary in April, right-winger Viktor Orban won an election on a ticket that included fighting for the rights of Hungarian minorities abroad.

Slovaks adopted the euro in 2009 and, with living standards at just 72 per cent of the EU average, have questioned whether they should help richer debt-laden euro zone countries.

SDKU and SaS have said they would refuse to pay Slovakia's €800-million share of the EU bailout for Greece.