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Race tightens; Fico has a closer rival

THOUGH billboards that have been imposing images of presidential candidates on the population for several months suggest otherwise, the official campaigning for the March 15 presidential vote officially started on February 28. Observers say this could still very much shuffle the deck, with the forthcoming televised debates remaining a major factor yet to come. The race has tightened up, as suggested by the pre-election polls, which no longer show the victory of Prime Minister Robert Fico as unshakeable, as it appeared to be two months ago. One poll has shown businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska climbing within 3 percent of Fico, whose popularity has been oscillating around 37 percent, on average. Pundits noted that Kiska might be benefiting from his still blank political slate.

THOUGH billboards that have been imposing images of presidential candidates on the population for several months suggest otherwise, the official campaigning for the March 15 presidential vote officially started on February 28. Observers say this could still very much shuffle the deck, with the forthcoming televised debates remaining a major factor yet to come. The race has tightened up, as suggested by the pre-election polls, which no longer show the victory of Prime Minister Robert Fico as unshakeable, as it appeared to be two months ago. One poll has shown businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska climbing within 3 percent of Fico, whose popularity has been oscillating around 37 percent, on average. Pundits noted that Kiska might be benefiting from his still blank political slate.

Meanwhile, Fico suffered a rupture of his Achilles tendon during a campaign football match, which required immediate surgery. Political analysts suggested that the injury might simply impact him physically.

Behind Fico, who is running with the disciplined support of his Smer party, and the independent candidate Kiska, the best performers in the polls are Milan Kňažko, a Velvet Revolution leader; Radoslav Procházka, a lawyer and a former member of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), both running as independent candidates; as well as Pavol Hrušovský, the candidate of the People’s Platform and former boss of the KDH, who has seen his support dropping in recent polls.

In a 1,868-respondent poll conducted by the Polis agency for the SITA newswire between February 16 and 22, Kiska received 23 percent of the vote compared to the 15.3 percent he collected in January. Kiska would, based on the poll, progress to the second round with Fico, who picked up 38.8 percent. Compared to January, when he had 40.5 percent, Fico dropped in the Polis poll. Kňažko and Procházka came in at 9.5 percent, both followed by Hrušovský, who has lost some of his 9.1 percent support from January. Gyula Bárdos, running for the Party of Hungarian Community (SMK), would get 4.3 percent.

A Median poll conducted for the public service Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) between February 17 and 21 showed only a 3.2-percent difference between Kiska and Fico, who led the race at 35.8 percent with Kiska trailing him at 32.6 percent. Procházka came in third with 9.2 percent, followed by Kňažko with 7.5 percent and Hrušovský with only 3.4 percent.

A January MVK poll, conducted through personal interviews on 1,106 respondents, showed Fico leading with 40.1 percent followed by Kiska at 13.2 percent, Procházka at 13.6 percent, Hrušovský at 9.0 percent and Kňažko at 8.9 percent.

A poll carried out by the Focus polling agency for RTVS between February 10 and 14 on a sample of 1,012 respondents showed Fico as a first-round winner with 37 percent, followed by Kiska with 20.4 percent and Kňažko in third with 12.9 percent, indicating a growing distance between the two.

Procházka would place fourth with 10.3 percent, while Hrušovský would be fifth with 7.3 percent.

Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) President Grigorij Mesežnikov suggested that Kiska’s success in the opinion polls is a combination of factors, with one being that he started his campaign early.

“Now it shows that the early start had a positive effect in contrast with the fact that Robert Fico had not even wanted to admit for a longer time that he was dealing with such a possibility,”

Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator, adding that it took the other parties longer to find their candidates, too.

The fact that Kiska had not been engaged in partisan activities might have robbed him of some experience, but on the other hand, established parties are losing trust and the lack of a political past is being viewed positively by the public, Mesežnikov said, adding that his philanthropic activities are a positive as well.

“In my view, Kiska’s shortcoming is that he is a candidate without a political ID card,” political scientist Miroslav Kusý told The Slovak Spectator. “We know nothing about him; his orientation. Is he a leftist or a rightist? Saying that this is an advantage when a non-political candidate, who is not tainted by politics, is entering the game is absurd.”

Mesežnikov agrees with Kusý that Kiska does not have a clear political profile and thus he is not repelling a larger group of voters, while attracting those who also lack some political profile, including voters coming from both liberal and conservative persuasions.

Kusý still assumes that Kiska, Kňažko and Procházka are the trio of relevant politicians who might challenge Fico.

“Even if Kiska’s lead in the polls is considerable, it is not necessarily definite, as various things might change, because the campaign is still running and several factors might enter the game,” he said.

The campaign

The official campaign runs through 7:00 March 13 when a moratorium goes into effect, banning any campaigning on behalf of the candidates until the polling stations close at 22:00 on March 15, election day.

“We know from the past that the campaigns meant quite a lot,” said Kusý, referring to Magda Vášáryová of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), whose performance in a televised debate led to her collapse in the final days of the election. “In that sense the televised debates are crucial. We know this from other countries, let’s say from the American campaigns, where a decisive importance is attributed exactly to such public performances that the potential voters are watching and based on which they are making their decisions.”

Though Mesežnikov agrees that the remaining days of the campaign can influence the voters’ preferences, he also says that now when Kiska “has jumped on this snowball effect, it is hard for me to guess whether the other candidates have a chance to catch up with him”.

Kiska’s success seems to Mesežnikov more probable than a couple weeks ago, unless Kiska completely fails in a debate or Smer manages to attack him effectively.

“He now has a confident 20 percent and thus perhaps even those who are undecided might lean towards him,” Mesežnikov said. “Nobody really knows how Kiska debates in those sharp discussions of the candidates. Though he attended several events, as far as I know, he did not come across as a political debater”.

When asked how Fico’s injury might influence the campaign, Kusý suggested that Fico will be disadvantaged by being less mobile and that he won’t be able to execute the whole programme as originally planned.

“Yet one should assume that the sympathy of the voters might play a significant role: look, the poor thing needs our support for being injured,” Kusý told The Slovak Spectator.

According to Mesežnikov, the messages Fico has been sending out are the very same messages that came when President Ivan Gašparovič was running for re-election: stability, solutions to social issues and a socially-oriented state.

“It is Smer’s traditional agenda,” said Mesežnikov.

While the so-called Hungarian card is unlikely to be played during the campaign, at least to the scale that it has in previous elections, Kusý did note that Fico appeals to some anti-Roma sentiments.

“He is saying that our statistics are being spoiled by the Roma,” Kusý said.

Mesežnikov suggests that Fico would not hesitate using the Hungarian card, but now does not really have a reason to: “towards whom, [Gyula] Bárdos? It would be ridiculous.”

“The Roma card might work universally and no specific candidate is needed to apply it,” Mesežnikov said, noting that in recent weeks statements by Fico and his allies in relation to Roma imply that he would not hesitate to use these issues if he believes that the rhetoric will bring votes.

Michaela Terenzani and Radka Minarechová contributed to this story

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