Populist party in the lead in Slovak election drama
The populist Smer-SD party is in the lead in a tight Slovak election, partial results showed on Sunday, despite exit polls predicting that their rival centrists Progressive Slovakia would come first.
Former prime minister Robert Fico's Smer-SD, which has vowed to stop aid to neighbouring Ukraine, was at 23.7 percent with more than 90 percent of votes counted.
Progressive Slovakia's tally was only 15.7 percent but was expected grow as it is more popular in big cities which take the longest to count.
The party led by European Parliament vice-speaker Michal Simecka was tipped to win by two exit polls published after voting on Saturday.
The partial results show either party would need help from smaller parties to form a majority coalition.
The vote in the EU and NATO member of 5.4 million people is seen as key to whether the country could stay on its pro-Western course or turn more towards Russia.
The campaign was marked by particularly high rates of online disinformation.
The new government will replace a wobbly centre-right coalition in power since 2020, which has seen three cabinets installed over the period and provided hefty military and humanitarian aid to war-stricken Ukraine.
In the heated election campaign, Fico took aim at the EU, NATO and LGBTQ people and rejected any further military aid to Ukraine.
Simecka has urged Slovaks to "elect the future" and vowed to rid Slovakia of "the past", referring to Fico's three terms as prime minister.
Simecka, who has vowed to continue aid to Ukraine, said when casting his ballot in Bratislava that he would "accept the election result with humility".
Smer candidate and deputy parliament speaker Juraj Blanar said: "People trust us and I firmly believe we will win."
- 'For the poor' -
Voting for Smer in Bratislava, Eliska Spisakova said the party was "the natural choice for the working poor, people like me".
"Progressive Slovakia is not interested in people, only gays, drug legalisation, Ukrainians and migrants," the 29-year-old court employee told AFP after voting.
Independent political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP the vote would determine Slovakia's focus "in foreign policy, defence and security policy, but also... the future of democracy".
Slovakia emerged as an independent country in 1993, following a peaceful split with the Czech Republic after Czechoslovakia shed four decades of totalitarian communist rule in 1989.
Although many Slovaks have experience with the Moscow-steered communist regime, many have voted for populists vowing to stop helping Ukraine.
A study by the Globsec think-tank last year showed a majority of Slovaks believe popular conspiracy theories, and rates of disinformation, including from Kremlin-linked sources, have spiked during the campaign, analysts said.
"Some think peace can be achieved by stopping any aid to Ukraine, and that's where I disagree," Slovak President Zuzana Caputova told AFP.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile thanked Slovakia "for standing with Ukraine" on Telegram on election day.
- Italian mafia -
Six parties and one three-party coalition looked set to win parliamentary seats.
Besides Smer and Progressive Slovakia, Hlas-SD -- Smer's spin-off led by former Smer vice-chairman Peter Pellegrini -- was due to become a sought-after ally in the future coalition with a solid result.
Pellegrini became premier in 2018 after Fico had to step down amid nationwide protests following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.
Kuciak uncovered links between the Italian mafia and Fico's government in his last article published posthumously.
Simecka could team up with Hlas and the right-wing SaS, but the projections showed they would only muster 66 votes together.
Other potential partners could be the right-wing OLaNO and the Christian Democrats.
But cooperation with OLaNO might turn out problematic because of its maverick leader Igor Matovic, Slovakia's premier in 2020-2021.
And Progressive Slovakia and the Christian Democrats are at odds over numerous issues, including LGBTQ rights.
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