Slovakia votes on Saturday in its first general election since an investigative journalist and his fiancée were murdered in 2018.
The shooting of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova shocked the nation and toppled PM Robert Fico, but his Smer-SD party remains in office.
Polls are tight, and support has swelled for an ultra-nationalist party.
Kuciak was investigating high-level corruption – and that has become a key issue for voters.
All 150 seats in the national parliament are up for grabs.
The general election, through proportional representation, follows a presidential vote last year. Anti-corruption campaigner and lawyer Zuzana Caputova won, despite being a political newcomer.
Four have been charged over the 2018 murders, including entrepreneur Marian Kocner.
Kuciak was writing about corrupt Slovak businessmen, EU subsidies, VAT fraud and attempts by Italy’s notorious ‘Ndrangheta mafia to cultivate ties with Slovak politicians.
Who is running?
Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini took office in March 2018. His Social Democrats party (Smer-SD) remains the largest in parliament on 48 seats.
But in the wake of the murders, which forced Mr Fico’s resignation and caused massive protests in the country, their support has dropped sharply.
Things got worse a week before the vote when Mr Pellegrini fell sick with pneumonia and cancelled his schedule. The prime minister was forced to take to Twitter and deny he had coronavirus, after people online suggested he had the infection.
News site Politico’s poll of polls puts Smer-SD on about 17% – down from the 28% vote share they won in the 2016 general election.
Following them in second place are the centre-right Ordinary People party (OLaNO), which has seen its popularity soar in recent weeks, thanks to its anti-corruption agenda. One poll even put them first, 3% above Smer-SD.
Meanwhile the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) has risen to third, polls suggest. The party is led by Marian Kotleba, a man who used to dress in a uniform modelled on the Hlinka Guard, the militia of the 1939-45 Nazi-sponsored Slovak state.
Mr Kotleba is a fervent nationalist. He wants Slovakia to leave Nato – once calling the military alliance a “terrorist” organisation – and has spouted powerful anti-immigrant and anti-Roma rhetoric.
While the group has denied any links to fascism, it has been regularly accused of extremism.
Polls suggest that fourth and fifth, on 9% each, are centre-left liberal group Progressive Slovakia (PS-SPOLU) and the anti-graft liberal opposition party Za Ludi, meaning For People, led by former president Andrej Kiska.
Party support in Slovakia
Politico’s poll of polls
Even though the governing Smer-SD are ahead, their current coalition partners do not look set to win enough votes to qualify for seats, raising further doubts about Smer-SD’s grip on power.
An editor remembers
By Rob Cameron, BBC News, Bratislava
Peter Bardy – editor-in-chief of Aktuality.sk – says he still thinks almost daily of Jan Kuciak, the young investigative reporter who was murdered on his watch.
“It’s still unbelievable. There’s still a lot of sadness,” he said, as we sat in the meeting room of Aktuality.sk’s editorial offices. The ‘#AllForJan’ badge in his lapel is now a permanent fixture.
The shockwaves from Kuciak’s killing still reverberate through Slovak society, and they’re still redrawing Slovakia’s political landscape. Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party – the dominant power here for over a decade – has perhaps been mortally wounded by the affair.
“I think we woke up,” says Bardy.
“A lot of people thought Robert Fico and his regime would be in Slovakia until the end of time.”
Successive opinion polls suggest that might be about to change. But not all of the forces rushing in to fill the vacuum are benign, he warns. He’s particularly concerned at the threat posed by former neo-Nazi Marian Kotleba.
“Nobody in Germany in the 1930s and nobody in Czechoslovakia in 1948 knew that these would be the last democratic elections for a long time,” he warns.
How was the campaign?
The murder of Jan Kuciak is a powerful focus for many activists and politicians angry about corruption, and this has boosted liberal and centrist parties.
A coalition around the centre-right OLaNO party could come to power, with party leader Igor Matovic as prime minister.
“The most likely scenario is the creation of a centre-right, pro-democracy oriented government coalition of six or even seven parties,” political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP news agency.
Nationalism has also been a feature of the campaign, explaining the rising popularity of the far-right LSNS party.
It has verbally attacked the country’s Roma (Gypsy) minority at rallies, and Mr Kotleba favours closer ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia over the EU.
Surveys suggest it is the number one choice for first-time voters. The party could well double the 14 seats it won in the 2016 election.
The chances of it having a role in government however are slim. President Caputova vowed recently to do “everything possible” to block any coalition deal with the LSNS.
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