Frontrunner in Slovak Poll 'Flirted with Judaism'
Slovaks return to the polls on Saturday to choose their president in an increasingly close and fractious run-off between Prime Minister Robert Fico and political newcomer and millionaire, Andrej Kiska.
In round one, on March 15, Social Democrat Fico polled 28 percent finishing narrowly ahead of centrist Kiska, who scored 24 percent.
Saturday's run-off promises to be just as close.
Although no opinion polls are allowed to be published before election day, Kiska has been endorsed by candidates who captured a combined 34 percent in round one, a move analysts say could make him unbeatable.
The prospect of an extremely close result has ensured that campaigning has become more desperate in the final days before the vote.
Fico has attempted to woo voters with warm memories of his staunchly traditional Catholic upbringing, while at the same painting Kiska as a Scientologist, a claim the tycoon flatly denies.
Over 60 percent of Slovaks identified as Roman Catholic in the 2011 census, the last available.
"I have flirted with Judaism and Buddhism...only to return to Catholicism," Kiska, who earned his fortune in the consumer credit business, revealed in an autobiography titled "A Manager's Road from Hell".
"Fico is trying to stir negative emotion by painting Kiska as an alien element in Slovakia's conservative, relatively homogenous society," Bratislava-based political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP.
Endorsed by heavyweight European socialists like French President Francois Hollande and European Parliament chief Martin Schulz, veteran leftist Fico, 49, has also tried to cast Kiska as politically naive and out of his depth.
But it is precisely that lack of political experience which is proving a boon to 51-year-old Kiska, who is capitalising on his image as a newcomer and thus untainted by the allegations of corruption that have ravaged Slovakia's right-wing.
A non-partisan centrist with no communist past, Kiska is seen as having a nose for business and being incorruptible due to the fact that he has given much of his self-made fortune to charity.
Crucially, he is also selling himself as a bulwark against a possible Fico power monopoly.
A victory for Fico would mean the presidency, parliament and government all being controlled by the same party, the Smer-Social Democrats, for the first time since Slovakia won independence in 1993.
Fico's party control an 83-seat majority in the 150-member parliament with the next general election scheduled for 2016.
Such a prospect has galvanized both politicians and voters in the country of 5.4 million, which joined the European Union in 2004 and the eurozone in 2009.
Analysts also warn that Fico could try to amend the constitution to boost presidential powers and transform the parliamentary system into a presidential one.
But Fico could still ride a fresh wave of support from voters who stayed home during round one, which saw a turnout of just over 43 percent.
"Some of Fico supporters might have stayed home because they thought his victory was a given," Bratislava-based analyst Pavol Haulik told AFP, noting that Smer won over 1.1 million votes in the 2012 general election while Fico himself scored only 530,000 votes in round one.
Fico has earned considerable political capital during his years as prime minister, touting an anti-austerity agenda tempered by fiscal discipline.
The economy is set to expand by 2.3 percent this year, driven by the electronics sector and car exports.
Bratislava pensioner Helena says that Fico's penchant for generous welfare spending has won her vote.
"Life during his six years as prime minister has been good and very calm," the 84-year old, who did not give her family name, told AFP.
Kiska's supporters meanwhile insist his business success proves he understands the market and has economic vision.
"Kiska is new to politics and clean. He's rich enough so it's less likely he'll be corruptible by lobbyists and financial sharks," Bratislava pensioner Stefan Bodnar told AFP.
Should he win, Kiska would become the first Slovak president to be elected since independence in 1993 who does not have a Communist party past.
One area which the pair of potential presidents have in common is Europe; both Fico and Kiska dub themselves as euro-enthusiasts, so any outcome will likely seal Slovakia's pro-EU foreign policy.
The next president will be sworn in on June 15, when leftist incumbent Ivan Gasparovic's second term ends.