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Slovaks vote in presidential election that might bolster PM Fico

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Slovaks vote in a presidential election on Saturday that could strengthen Prime Minister Robert Fico's grip on power as he seeks more control over public media, softer anti-corruption laws and a dissenting voice to EU support for Ukraine.

Slovakia's presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini talks to the media during the country's presidential election, in Bratislava, March 23, 2024. Reuters/Eva Korinkova

Slovaks vote in a presidential election on Saturday that could strengthen Prime Minister Robert Fico's grip on power as he seeks more control over public media, softer anti-corruption laws and a dissenting voice to EU support for Ukraine.

Polls are open in the first round of voting until 10:00 p.m. (2100 GMT). A likely run-off between the top two candidates is due on April 6, if no one wins a majority this weekend.

Fico's ally Peter Pellegrini, 48, has been a frontrunner in the race to replace President Zuzana Caputova, 50, who is a fierce opponent to Fico, although she is not seeking a new term.

Fico returned to power in an election last September after winning over voters with pledges to halt military aid to Ukraine in its fight against a Russian invasion, keep up spending to help people hit by price surges and end chaotic governance seen during a previous opposition-led administration.

Pellegrini, a former prime minister and ex-member of Fico's leftist SMER party and who is now the head of junior coalition partner HLAS, is hoping to duplicate Fico's success.

He said on Saturday the direction of the country was at stake with the ballot, with voters deciding on a president for the next five years "who will either cooperate with the government or put a brake on steps that are not in favour of the people."

Among the nine candidates competing, Pellegrini is facing close rival Ivan Korcok, 59, a pro-EU former foreign minister who wants to prevent the government from gaining the president's seat.

While Slovak presidents do not wield many executive powers, they have a role in government and judicial appointments, can veto laws and shape public debate as the liberal Caputova has often done.

Voters in the past have often rejected giving ruling parties both the government and presidential offices. Caputova won the last presidential election in 2019, riding an anti-corruption wave aimed at Fico's party, which was in power then.

"(People) know what I represent... It is their decision now," Korcok said after casting his vote.

UKRAINE SPLIT

Voters have become polarised in Slovakia in recent years amid a global pandemic, war in Ukraine and high inflation denting household budgets.

Fico, a four-time prime minister, has shifted policy quickly, ending state military supplies to Ukraine - while still allowing commercial supply deals - and opening dialogue with Moscow even as the EU isolates the Russian regime.

Pellegrini, like Fico, says the conflict in Ukraine does not have a military solution and supports peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, something that Korcok, like other critics, call capitulation when parts of Ukraine are occupied.

Fico's coalition government has also pushed through criminal law changes that critics say weaken the fight against corruption. Caputova, as president, has challenged the changes at the Constitutional Court.

The government has also shut a special prosecution unit, a move the European Commission criticised this week.

The government is now planning changes that will give it more control over public broadcaster RTVS, raising concern among media groups and advocates. Korcok has criticised the government's push for more power.

Alena, a 40-year-old gastronomy worker, said Slovakia's "bad direction" was guiding her vote. "We are sending bad signals to the world," she said without naming her preferred candidate.

Reporting by Radovan Stoklasa, David W. Cerny and Eva Korinkova in Bratislava, and Jason Hovet in Prague

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