Slovaks poised to oust Smer party in election clouded by graft
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Voters look poised to oust the centre-left Smer party that has dominated Slovakia's political landscape for more than a decade in a national election on Saturday overshadowed by anger over high-level graft.
Opinion polls ahead of a two-week moratorium before the ballot pointed to a rapid rise for anti-corruption movement Ordinary People (OLANO), increasing chances it may form a centre-right majority with smaller conservative and liberal parties to outmanoeuvre Smer.
OLANO leader Igor Matovic has pledged to clean up politics, an ambition encapsulated in his party's slogan: "Let's Beat the Mafia Together".
"My aim was to wake up a sleeping dragon - nonvoters. These are two million people who lost faith in the state and had a feeling that politics is just a lords' mischief," he said after voting in Trnava, 50km (30 miles) north of the capital. "I hope that these people will come to vote and decide the election."
The political shift in the euro zone member state, which has avoided fights with Brussels unlike its central European Visegrad Group neighbours Hungary and Poland, started with the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.
An investigation unearthed communications between a businessman now on trial for ordering the hit and politicians and judicial officials. He has denied the charges.
The killing led to the biggest street protests in the post-communist era, forcing Smer leader Robert Fico to resign, though his party's coalition held on to power.
"I hope this election will bring change - the change in politics, in attitude, in applying the rule of law," said public sector manager Stefan Varga, voting in Galanta, 50 km east of Bratislava.
Voting was extended by an hour to 11 p.m. local time (2200 GMT) at two out of nearly six thousand polling stations due to the death of a local election commission member. This meant publication of exit polls would also be delayed until those stations closed. Results were expected on Sunday.
OLANO's support surged after Matovic filmed a video outside a former Smer finance minister's villa in France last month and called for the property to be confiscated.
Matovic, 46, told Reuters last week he wanted to be a conciliatory voice toward the EU within Visegrad.
The former owner of regional newspapers, a lawmaker since 2010, calls himself a social conservative and economic liberal.
In the European Parliament, OLANO is aligned with the centre-right European People's Party.
An OLANO-led government might struggle to agree on policies, however, as it would be made up of up to six parties including eurosceptics, conservatives and progressives.
Smer was seen scoring its worst result since 2002, although it might still end up as the biggest party. Its nationalist and Hungarian minority allies faced the threat of dropping out of parliament.
Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini said after casting his vote in the central city of Banska Bystrica he was "ready to accept any result".
Smer might try to retain power by securing support from the far-right People's Party, but political analysts said that option looked increasingly unlikely.
No new government is likely to lift Slovakia's opposition to accepting migrants or allowing gay partnerships or marriages.
(Reporting by Tomas Mrva; Writing by Jan Lopatka, Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Louise Heavens)