Four main players in Slovakia’s general election

(L-R) Slovakian Prime Minister and election leader of Direction Social Democratic (SMER) party, Peter Pellegrini, leader of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OL'aNO) party, Igor Matovic and leader of the far-right People's Party Our Slovakia (Kotlebovci-LSNS) Marian Kotleba, attend a television debate for the parliamentary elections at TV JOJ in Bratislava, Slovakia, 20 February 2020. The missing contender is former President Andrej Kiska. [Martin Divisek/EPA/EFE]

Slovaks vote on Saturday (29 February) in a pivotal general election which sees the populist-left coalition trying to cling on to power ahead of centre-right party OLaNO.

Following are snapshots of the leaders of the main parties vying to form the next government:

Polarising populist

Peter Pellegrini may be the incumbent prime minister but it is his populist-left Smer-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party colleague Robert Fico who is the power behind the throne.

Fico was forced out as premier after the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018 sparked public outrage against endemic corruption.

He stayed on as leader of the party he founded in 1999 and is widely regarded as the real force in the government.

Fico has long been a polarising figure. The 55-year-old with a background in law, has a history of targeting journalists, having called them “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes”, “silly hyenas” and “slimy snakes”.

He was cleared of incitement to racial hatred in January after having publicly approved hate speech by a far-right lawmaker against Slovakia’s large Roma minority.

Fico launched his political career in the Communist Party just before the 1989 Velvet Revolution and went on to spend 10 years in total as prime minister after Smer first won a parliamentary landslide in 2006.

His 2014 bid for the presidency fell flat when he lost to Andrej Kiska.

Smer won the last election in March 2016 but lost its parliamentary majority. The current government includes Smer, the small Hungarian Most-Hid party and the SNS nationalists.

Pellegrini, meanwhile, was hospitalised with pneumonia days ahead of the election. Social media exploded with speculations he might infected by the coronavirus.

Anti-graft campaigner

A self-proclaimed “man of the people”, surveys show that the 46-year-old Igor Matovic has propelled his centre-right anti-graft party to a close second spot behind Smer.

While supporters view him as a self-made man with a knack for self-promotion, critics accuse Matovic of being an unpredictable, attention-seeking control freak.

After studying financial management, Matovic founded a successful publishing house that now has dozens of regional newspapers in its portfolio.

When he entered politics a decade ago, Matovic transferred his considerable assets to his wife, Pavlina.

In 2010 Matovic created the anti-graft political movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) to tackle corruption entrenched in public life but several MPs soon quit the caucus due to in-fighting.

“He manages OLaNO like a dictator,” quipped remarked Michal Truban, the leader of the liberal PS/Spolu party, a potential coalition partner.

His critics also accuse Matovic of being addicted to the spotlight, saying he uses televised parliamentary debates to put on one-man shows complete with props like cardboard cut-outs, t-shirts or posters targeting rivals.

“His strong sides include political instinct and a gift for political marketing,” said analyst Juraj Marusiak, adding that Matovic’s “unpredictability makes him a problematic partner.”

Far-right lawmaker

Marian Kotleba, the former regional governor of his native Banska Bystrica, is notorious for having led street marches with party members dressed in neo-Nazi uniforms.

He was previously charged with hate speech, though never convicted and is facing a fresh trial in March for hate speech and promoting extremism.

An opposition MP for his eponymous Kotleba’s People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) party, Kotleba is hostile to both the Roma minority and the established elite and has expressed nostalgia for the puppet state of Father Jozef Tiso, an ally of Nazi Germany.

The 42-year-old former high school teacher sports a pencil moustache and has masters degrees in education and economics.

Having heavily campaigned against letting in migrants, the LSNS won seats in parliament for the first time in 2016.

Friendly with Russia, Kotleba wants Slovakia to exit the US-led NATO defence alliance and is also hostile towards the European Union.

Self-made philanthropist

Self-made millionaire turned philanthropist Andrej Kiska emerged from obscurity six years ago to become Slovakia’s first non-communist and non-partisan president since the country secured independence in 1993.

The 57-year-old decided not to run for a second term last year and instead created his “Za Ludi” (For the people) centrist party.

The twice-married father-of-four cultivates a down-to-earth image that resonates with voters disillusioned by high levels of corruption in public life.

Born in Poprad, a poor provincial town nestled in the foothills of the High Tatra mountains, Kiska emigrated to the US in 1990, a year after communism fell in the then Czechoslovakia.

After working in construction and retail, he returned home in 1992 to launch two successful micro-credit companies, Triangel and Quatro.

Kiska sold the companies in 2005 and used the money to launch Dobry Anjel (Good Angel), which helps terminally ill children and is Slovakia’s top charity. While in office, Kiska donated his presidential salary to people in need.

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