Slovakia’s populists win vote with anti-corruption stance

International News

Leader of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party Igor Matovic addresses his supporters, acknowledging preliminary results of the general election in Trnava, Slovakia, Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Slovakia’s center-right populist opposition claimed victory Sunday in the country’s parliamentary election, ending the reign of the long-dominant but scandal-tainted leftist party in a move that analysts said showed a strong desire by voters to end corruption.

According to final results released Sunday by the Statistics Office, the Ordinary People group captured 25% of Saturday’s vote and 53 seats in the 150-seat parliament. The senior ruling leftist Smer-Social Democracy party led by former populist Prime Minister Robert Fico came in second with 18.3% or 38 seats.

The results steered the country to the right and could eventually make a local ally of France’s far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen a part of Slovakia’s governing coalition.

“We will try to form the best government Slovakia’s ever had,” Ordinary People chairman Igor Matovic told 2,000 cheering supporters in a sports hall in his hometown of Trnava, northeast of the capital, Bratislava.

The pro-western Matovic, 46, has made fighting corruption and attacking Fico the central tenet of his campaign. He is likely to become the country’s next prime minister.

Officials measured the temperature of every person coming into the hall due to fears about the new coronavirus. Slovakia hasn’t a single confirmed case yet.

The ruling Smer party has been in power for most of the past 14 years, winning big in every election since 2006 in Slovakia, a European Union nation of almost 5.5 million people in central Europe. The party won 28.3% in 2016 after campaigning on an anti-migrant ticket but it was damaged by political turmoil following the 2018 slayings of an investigative journalist and his fiancee.

The killings of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, triggered major street protests and a political crisis that led to the collapse of Fico’s three-party coalition government. Kuciak had been writing about alleged ties between the Italian mafia and people close to Fico when he was killed and also wrote about corruption scandals linked to Fico’s party.

A new cabinet was made up of ministers from the same three parties.

“This was a clear vote against corruption practices of the ruling party, against the links between politicians and semi-mafia in this country and the quest for rule of law,” said Olga Gyarfasova, an analyst from Comenius University in Bratislava.

In a further blow to Smer, its two current coalition partners, the ultra-nationalist Slovak National Party and a party of ethnic Hungarians, didn’t win any seats in Parliament.

Matovic is expected to govern with the pro-business Freedom and Solidarity party, which captured 6.2% support and 13 seats and the conservative For People established by former President Andrej Kiska that finished with 5.8% of the vote and 12 seats.

Although the three parties would have a majority with 78 seats, Matovic said he also wanted to rule with Le Pen’s ally, We Are Family, a populist right-wing group that placed third in Saturday’s vote with 8.2% support and 17 seats.

“I’d like to assure everybody that there’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “We’re not here to fight cultural wars.”

Matovic is a skilled politician who knows how to make news.

In January, he traveled to an upscale neighborhood in Cannes, France, where he placed a poster that read “the property of Slovakia” in front of a luxurious villa that belongs to Jan Pociatek, Fico’s former finance minister. Matovic accused Pociatek of corruption, saying he could never earn so much money to afford the villa. Pociatek denied wrongdoing. A video of the event went viral on social media.

The extreme far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia, whose members use Nazi salutes and want Slovakia out of the EU and NATO, became the fourth-most popular party in the country with 8% support and 17 seats. But all other parties have ruled out cooperating with it, for the party backs the legacy of the Slovak Nazi puppet World War II state.

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Associated Press video journalist Jan Gebert in Bratislava contributed.

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