Ukraine War Sceptic Peter Pellegrini Elected President of Slovakia, Cementing Populist Hold on Power

Presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini (L) and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (R) spea

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) – A close ally of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico beat a pro-Western career diplomat to become Slovakia’s new president, and succeed Zuzana Caputová, the country’s first female head of state.

Parliamentary speaker Peter Pellegrini received 53.26% of the vote with the ballots from almost all polling stations counted by the Statistics Office in Saturday´s runoff election, topping former Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok who had 46.73%.

“I can promise I will be a president of all Slovak citizens,” Pellegrini said. “I can promise I’ll be always by the side of Slovakia.”

Pellegrini becomes Slovakia’s sixth president since the country gained independence after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Caputová, a staunch backer of neighboring Ukraine in its fight against Russia´s invasion, didn’t seek a second term in the largely ceremonial post.

Pellegrini’s victory cemented Fico’s grip on power by giving him and his allies control of major strategic posts.

The president of the nation of 5.4 million people picks the prime minister after parliamentary elections, swears in the new government and appoints Constitutional Court judges. The president can also veto laws, though Parliament can override the veto with a simple majority, and challenge them at the Constitutional Court. The head of state also has the right to pardon convicts.

The government, led by the prime minister, possesses most executive powers.

Fico’s leftist Smer (Direction) party won Sept. 30 parliamentary elections on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform.

Pellegrini, 48, who favors a strong role for the state, heads the left-wing Hlas (Voice) party that finished third in the vote and joined a governing coalition with Fico and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party.

Critics worry Slovakia under Fico will abandon its pro-Western course and follow the direction of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The new government immediately halted any arms deliveries to Ukraine. Thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets across Slovakia recently to rally against Fico´s pro-Russian and other policies, including plans to amend the penal code and take control of the public media.

“A majority of people in Slovakia said that they prefer this way of ruling,” Fico said in his comments.

Korcok was critical of the government’s moves that the protesters fear could undermine the rule of law while Pellegrini backed the new government and didn´t question its policies.

Korcok is the former ambassador to the United States and Germany, who also served as the country´s envoy to NATO and the European Union. He firmly supports Slovakia’s EU and NATO memberships.

He conceded the defeat and congratulated the winner.

“I’m disappointed,” he said about the result.

Pellegrini, who was Fico´s former deputy in Smer, became prime minister in 2018, after Fico was forced to resign following major anti-government street protests over the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee.

Pellegrini had temporarily parted ways with Fico after the scandal-tainted Smer lost the previous election in 2020.

With Pellegrini’s win, Fico rebounded from two straight presidential election losses. Fico was defeated at the presidential vote by Andrej Kiska 10 years ago while Caputová claimed victory over a candidate he supported in the 2019 ballot.

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