“WELL, I have lost,” Prime Minister Robert Fico told journalists while briskly leaving the headquarters of the ruling Smer party after little more than half of the votes were counted on March 29, when it became clear that his rival, philanthropist Andrej Kiska, triumphed in the second round of the presidential elections and thus will replace Ivan Gašparovič in June. Though the pundits had expected a rather tight race, Kiska took the race with a comfortable lead after picking up 59.4 percent of the vote, leaving 40.6 percent to Fico, the official candidate of Smer.
Kiska, the first-ever independent candidate with no political background whatsoever to win the presidency, indeed was backed by 1,307,065 people, more votes than Fico’s Smer harvested in the last parliamentary elections in 2012 when it took the country with 1,134,280 votes in a landslide victory. Fico indeed was backed by 893,841 people, according to the official results confirmed by the Central Election Commission on March 30. The voter turnout was 50.48 percent.
“As the president I want to return dignity to the presidential office,” Kiska told the press shortly after the data indicated his victory, adding that he wants to stand behind each decent person of the country.
Fico admitted his election defeat shortly after more than half of the votes were counted by making a brief announcement without taking media questions.
“Congratulations Mr Kiska,” said Fico, thanking all his supporters and adding that he needs a couple of days for analysis and to heal his leg, referring to his recent Achilles tendon rupture.
Fico was accompanied by his closest allies, Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška, Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák and Culture Minister Marek Maďarič, who also served as head of his election team.
“The result is of course partly a disappointment; perhaps it is a reflection of that large part of the voters who want Robert Fico to be the prime minister,” Maďarič told TV Sme, adding that the other factor might be that people simply want their president to be apolitical.
Fico won the first round of the election with 28 percent of the vote, with 531,919 people backing him; Kiska finished just 4 percent behind at 24 percent, backed by 455,996 voters.
Referendum on Smer?
Shortly after the first round, Fico defined the presidential vote as a “referendum on Smer”. While the election results show that Fico and Smer still have the support of almost 900,000 people, which according to Grigorij Mesežnikov, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), is not a negligible number at all, but is also “not enough for the government to consider itself to stand for the entire society”.
“[The result] means that a larger part of the active Slovak society simply has not supported the ruling style of the Smer party and in the end not even its social-economic policies,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator.
If Fico called this election a referendum on Smer, he should draw consequences now and not shy away from self-reflection, according to the analyst.
“He must be humble and consider what to do next,” Mesežnikov said, adding that this does not mean that Fico should necessarily step down as prime minister or as party leader, but rather that the party needs to reconsider its ruling style for the next two years until the end of its term by taking measures that “reflect that a significant part of society is uncomfortable with this ruling style”.
Maďarič argued that the vote in no way influences Fico’s legitimacy as prime minister.
“These were presidential elections and on the contrary, paradoxically Smer might be very much strengthened in the next elections,” Maďarič told TV Sme.
Martin Slosiarik from the Focus polling agency agrees that the voters might have simply submitted the bill for the two years when Smer ruled the country alone and bears full responsibility for all the steps it has taken.
Nevertheless, given Smer’s support in the opinion polls, which currently oscillates around 38 percent, the party did a good job of mobilising its voters, Slosiarik said.
“Fico managed to do everything he could have done,” Slosiarik told The Slovak Spectator.
For those voters who normally support Fico’s opponents, the centre-right parties, this was a referendum on Robert Fico, Slosiarik noted. Kiska was a more acceptable candidate for them, and by voting for him, they were in fact assessing the Fico government’s performance. On the other hand, Kiska also managed to mobilise the so-called protest-voters with their anti-establishment mood, by criticising political parties in general, Slosiarik added.
“This was an important message for the people with no party preferences,” Slosiarik told The Slovak Spectator, noting that these are the people who would hesitate over whom to pick in parliamentary elections, or wouldn’t even vote at all.
The fact that all of Fico’s three main opponents in this race were from outside the traditional political parties shows that something is happening within these parties, said Marek Rybář, a political scientist with the School of Political Sciences at Comenius University.
According to Rybář, the fact that Kiska won as an independent and non-political candidate without any links to political parties or a political past is “a huge change”.
“It means that in this election there are several victors and one main defeated; this main defeated is Robert Fico,” Rybář told The Slovak Spectator, adding that Fico certainly had not assumed at the time he announced his candidacy that things might work out this way.
Kiska said he would strive to give politics a more human face and that he is now set to fulfil the promises he has made.
“I promise that I will try to fulfil what we need so much,” Kiska said, as quoted by the TASR newswire at his first post-election briefing, specifying that he means giving a more human face to politics while “restoring faith in decency”.
Kiska restated that he wants to be a president of all the citizens and that he wants to motivate and unify them.
“Slovakia is a country of amazing people and it is only up to us how we will use everything we have here for making people proud of this country so that young people want to live here and feel good here,” Kiska said.
Who is Kiska?
Andrej Kiska was the first candidate to announce his intention to run for president, almost two years before the actual election. He is known mainly as the founder of the Quatro and Triangel instalment companies, which he founded with his brother to fill a void in the market, and earned a fortune as a result. In 2006, the two companies were sold to VÚB Bank, and Kiska, together with his friend, founded the Good Angel charity project, which helps cancer patients and has become very popular in the country thanks to its transparent system of donations. During the campaign, Kiska was accused of misusing the charity project for political ends, but he denied such allegations.
Kiska claims he decided to run for president after his experience in business and charity allowed him to see that there are obstacles for citizens who want to do meaningful things in those two areas.
The main messages of his election campaign had been his independence and absence of links to politicians, as well as the need to create a counterweight to the ruling power in the presidential office, a claim which he used against his main competitor, Fico, whose party currently controls most of the high state offices except for the presidency.
Kiska had been favoured to make it to the second round to face Fico since about a month before the election, but his advancing with an almost equal percentage of votes against Fico came as a surprise.
Fico and Kiska thus entered the campaign before the run-off as equally strong candidates. In his campaign, Kiska mainly focused on stressing his business and charity experience. He was a target of a tough negative campaign, with anonymous leaflets and Fico accusing him of having ties with Scientologists and of practicing usury. Kiska denied those claims and filed a criminal complaint against Fico.
Kiska ran as an independent candidate, but all his major opponents from the first round supported him against Fico in the run-off, as did the major political parties on the Slovak political scene, with the obvious exception of Smer.
Radka Minarechová contributed to this story