Slovakia holds early parliamentary election

AP News
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Posted: Mar 10, 2012 8:07 AM
Slovakia holds early parliamentary election

Slovaks cast ballots Saturday in an early election brought on by the government's collapse in a confidence vote, with polls indicating success for one of the few leading politicians to escape voter anger over a major corruption scandal.

The outgoing four-party governing coalition is facing a strong challenge from former Prime Minister Robert Fico's left wing opposition party.

Fico was cautious after casting his ballot in the capital Saturday.

"There's still a very real threat that a coalition of five or six other parties might be created," he said. His party _ Smer-Social Democracy _ won the last election in 2010 but three center-right parties joined forces with a party of ethnic Hungarians to form a majority government.

Analysts have predicted a record low turnout of just 40 percent as voters register their anger over allegations that a private financial group bribed government and opposition politicians in 2005-06 to win lucrative privatization deals.

The "Gorilla" files _ posted online by an anonymous source in December and said to be based on wiretaps _ have rocked Slovak politics. One former economy minister is said to have received the equivalent of euro10 million ($13 million) for his assistance.

Outgoing Prime Minister Iveta Radicova's Slovak Democratic, and Christian Union look likely to be hardest hit by the allegations. Radicova's party was in power in 2005-06 and the then-prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, is now the foreign minister and party chairman. Polls indicate they'll win only 5 percent, despite overseeing an economic boom driven by solid growth, strong exports and the implementation of much-needed pension reforms.

"I hope the people will decide in a right and responsible manner," Radicova said Saturday. "Today's a day that could be very decisive for our future."

Disappointed by her government's collapse, Radicova is quitting politics and plans to lecture at Britain's Oxford University.

In October, Slovakia dramatically rejected Europe's expanded bailout fund _ and the government fell in a confidence vote, triggering this weekend's elections. The small nation of 5.4 million people _ once part of Czechoslovakia _ was accused of undermining the entire eurozone with its brinkmanship. Parliament eventually approved the expanded EU fund after Fico's party voted "yes" in exchange for early elections.

Expected winner Fico, whose party was in power in 2006-10, is pledging to maintain a welfare state, increase corporate tax and hike income tax for the highest-earners. He says he is innocent of the corruption allegations, even though he himself has been implicated, because he couldn't have influenced any decisions as he was in opposition.

Known for foul-mouthed tirades against journalists, polls predict he will win enough votes to gain an outright parliamentary majority _ or at worse to lead a coalition. His election promises included a plan to build a new national football stadium and not to increase the pension age for women because they "don't deserve it."

He is also against further privatization of state assets and opposes austerity measures, such as a value added tax increase, that would help keep the public finances healthy.

Analysts, however, warn Fico may not be ready to take the necessary steps to lower a high unemployment rate of more than 13 percent and reduce the deficit to three percent by 2013, as required after EU nations agreed on a deal to stop overspending in the 17 countries that use the euro.

"Unpopular measures have to be implemented," said Juraj Karpis, an analyst at the Bratislava Institute of Economic and Social Studies.

Parliament's 150 seats are at stake, with 26 parties in the running.