Korcok, Pellegrini set for Slovak presidential runoff

Former Slovakia foreign minister Ivan Korcok is one of two leading candidates for the country's presidency (TOMAS BENEDIKOVIC)
Former Slovakia foreign minister Ivan Korcok is one of two leading candidates for the country's presidency (TOMAS BENEDIKOVIC)

Slovak ex-foreign minister Ivan Korcok and current parliament speaker Peter Pellegrini will face off in April's presidential election runoff, near-final results showed Saturday.

The liberal Korcok led with 42.44 percent backing with 99.9 percent of the vote counted, while former prime minister Pellegrini earned 37.07 percent, the Slovak Statistics Office said.

The result was expected by analysts as the 48-year-old Pellegrini and 59-year-old Korcok topped the opinion polls before the vote marked by deep divisions on the war in neighbouring Ukraine.

Korcok, backed by the opposition, is staunchly pro-Ukraine like outgoing president Zuzana Caputova, a government critic who chose not to seek a second term.

Former premier Pellegrini is a part of the Russia-leaning ruling camp led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has questioned Ukraine's sovereignty and called for peace with Russia.

Though the office is largely ceremonial, Slovakia's president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The head of the NATO and EU member of 5.4 million people can also veto laws passed by parliament.

- 'Slovakia's interests first' -

Korcok, who would likely face stiff opposition from the Fico team if elected, said he would "like to address all voters" before the April 6 runoff.

"I want to appeal to voters who disagree with the direction this government is dragging Slovakia... including in foreign policy."

"I want to be a president who... will represent the country abroad and at home and who will take independent decisions, without getting orders," Korcok added.

Pellegrini hailed the result as "a huge success", pointing out that many voters opted for nationalists among the nine presidential candidates.

"The results have shown that most people in Slovakia do not want a liberal, progressive president," he said.

Most Slovaks want "a president who will defend Slovakia's national interests, who will not drag Slovakia into a war but will talk about peace, who... will put Slovakia's interests first," Pellegrini added.

But, casting his ballot earlier on Saturday, he insisted Slovakia would stay anchored in the European Union and NATO after the election.

- 'Calm and wise' -

At a polling station in Bratislava, pensioner Juraj Jankovich said Pellegrini "was a calm and wise prime minister and he will be a good president".

Graphic designer Zora Puskacova in turn said Korcok "would be a worthy representative of Slovakia abroad".

Bratislava-based analyst Pavol Babos told AFP Pellegrini would "most likely act as an ally for the government coalition led by Robert Fico".

The two have been long-time political allies, and Fico has over the years appointed Pellegrini to various positions, including parliamentary speaker and education minister.

Pellegrini also became head of government in 2018 after Fico was toppled as premier.

Comprising Fico's Smer, Pellegrini's HLAS and the far-right SNS parties, the Slovak cabinet in office since last October has refused to provide military aid to Ukraine, battling a Russian invasion since February 2022.

- 'A counterweight' -

Pellegrini also urged "an immediate ceasefire and the opening of peace negotiations" on Ukraine in the last presidential debate.

Korcok, a diplomat who has represented Slovakia in the United States, Germany and Switzerland, has instead urged Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

"The Russian Federation has trampled on international law... I do not think Ukraine should give up part of its territory to achieve peace," he told AFP.

Babos said that Korcok would "very likely be a counterweight to the government coalition and... seek to correct the government's undemocratic tendencies" at home.

Fico's cabinet has recently come under fire for adopting a controversial criminal code reform including easing the penalties for corruption and economic crime.

Though running as an independent, Korcok is backed by opposition parties who believe a Pellegrini win would pave the way for presidential pardons of government allies found guilty of corruption.