A pro-West diplomat and an ally of populist premier to meet in runoff for Slovakia’s presidency

FILE - Slovakia's Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok listens his Serbian counterpart Nikola Selakovic during a press conference after their talks in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, a pro-Western career diplomat, is one of the nine candidates ahead of the first round of the Slovakia's presidential election which will be held on Saturday March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

FILE – Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok listens his Serbian counterpart Nikola Selakovic during a press conference after their talks in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, a pro-Western career diplomat, is one of the nine candidates ahead of the first round of the Slovakia’s presidential election which will be held on Saturday March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — A pro-western career diplomat defeated a close ally of Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico in the first round of the presidential election Sunday to set up a runoff between the two to decide who will succeed Zuzana Čaputová, the country’s first female president.

Former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok had 42.13% of the votes late Sunday, with nearly all polling stations counted by Slovakia’s Statistics Office. Peter Pellegrini was in second with 37.28%

Because no candidate won an outright majority, a runoff will be held April 6 in this central European nation of 5.4 million people.

A former justice minister and judge, Štefan Harabin, 66, who has openly sided with Russia in its war with Ukraine was a distant third with 11.79%.

In all, nine male candidates sought to become Slovakia’s sixth head of state since it gained independence in 1993 after Czechoslovakia split in two.

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

Korčok called the result “encouraging” and “promising,” but added that “we have to do more to win the runoff.”

“I’m planning to approach all voters,” he said.

Korčok has also served as Slovakia’s ambassador to the United States and Germany and firmly supports his country’s membership in the EU and NATO.

Pellegrini was considered a favorite in the race, and opinion polls suggested he would beat any candidate in the runoff.

He congratulated Korčok on his victory in the first round and predicted a close contest in the runoff.

“It will likely be a tight race,” Pellegrini said.

A victory for Pellegrini, who currently serves as Parliament speaker, would cement Fico’s power by giving him and his allies control of strategic posts.

Pellegrini, 48, who favors a strong role for the state, heads the left-wing Hlas (Voice) party that finished third in the Sept. 30 parliamentary elections. His party joined a governing coalition with Fico’s leftist Smer (Direction) party and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party.

The new government immediately halted 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.

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

Pellegrini said Saturday that Slovakia’s membership in the European Union and NATO hasn’t been questioned.

“That we talk about a more sovereign voice of Slovakia or about a sovereign foreign policy … doesn’t necessarily mean that we change the basic direction of our foreign policy,” Pellegrini said.

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