Slovakia holds early parliamentary election
A protester holds a toy monkey in a cage during an anti corruption demonstration in Bratislava, Slovakia, Friday, March 9, 2012. Hundreds of Slovaks are protesting in the capital to demand that top politicians accused of corruption step down. Slovakia is holding early general elections on Saturday, March 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek) / Petr David Josek
The outgoing four-party governing coalition is facing a strong challenge from former Prime Minister Robert Fico's left wing opposition party.
Analysts have predicted that Slovaks could turn out in record low numbers of just 40 percent to register their anger, and the first few hours of voting seemed to confirm that.
Slovak TA3 news television reported that mostly elderly voters in relatively low numbers had visited polling stations across the country in the first few hours of voting.
Outgoing Prime Minister Iveta Radicova's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union looks likely to be hardest hit by allegations that a private financial group bribed government and opposition politicians in 2005-06 to win lucrative privatization deals.
The "Gorilla" files — posted online by an anonymous source in December and said to be based on wiretaps — have rocked the already-raucous world of Slovak politics.
One former economy minister is said to have received the equivalent of euro10 million ($13 million) for his assistance.
Radicova's party was in power in 2005-06 and the then-prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, is now the foreign minister and party chairman. Polls indicate they'll win only 5 percent, despite overseeing an economic boom driven by solid growth, strong exports and the implementation of much-needed pension reforms.
In October, Slovakia dramatically rejected Europe's expanded bailout fund — and the government fell in a confidence vote, triggering this weekend's elections. The small nation of 5.4 million people — once part of Czechoslovakia — was accused of undermining the entire eurozone with its brinkmanship. Parliament eventually approved the expanded EU fund after Fico's party voted "yes" in exchange for early elections.
Expected winner Fico, whose Smer-Social Democracy party was in power in 2006-10, is pledging to maintain a welfare state, increase corporate tax and hike income tax for the highest-earners. He says he is innocent of the corruption allegations, even though he himself has been implicated, because he couldn't have influenced any decisions as he was in opposition.
Known for foul-mouthed tirades against journalists, polls predict he will win enough votes to gain an outright parliamentary majority — or at worst to lead a coalition. Fico's election promises included a plan to build a new national football stadium and not to increase the pension age for women because they "don't deserve it."
He is also against further privatization of state assets and opposes austerity measures, such as a value added tax increase, that would help keep the public finances healthy.
Analysts, however, warn Fico may not be ready to take the necessary steps to lower a high unemployment rate of more than 13 percent and reduce the deficit to three percent by 2013, as required after EU nations agreed on a deal to stop overspending in the 17 countries that use the euro.
"Unpopular measures have to be implemented," said Juraj Karpis, an analyst at the Bratislava Institute of Economic and Social Studies.
Parliament's 150 seats are at stake, with 26 parties in the running.
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