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Slovakia Votes Amid Scandals, Nationalist Tensions

Slovakia's three-party leftist governing coalition is fighting for survival in a parliamentary election Saturday as it is challenged in a tight race by the center-right opposition. The election campaign has been overshadowed by scandals, nationalism and tensions with neighboring Hungary.

As Slovaks begin voting Saturday, opinion polls show that the coalition of Prime Minister Robert Fico is under pressure.

His popularity has dropped after a Slovak newspaper published an audio recording on the Internet Thursday in which Mr. Fico allegedly strikes a deal for 75 million Slovak crowns, over $3 million, in illegal funding for his left-leaning SMER party.

Local media say the recording dates back to a meeting ahead of the 2002 parliamentary elections when Slovakia still used the Slovak crown, or koruna.

The country replaced it with the euro currency in January of last year.

Mr. Fico allegedly received the illegal funds after promising sponsors parliamentary mandates, state posts and public procurement contracts.

The prime minister dismisses the recording as forgery and says he will sue the chief editor of the newspaper that published the recording.

Despite the controversy, the main ruling SMER party is still expected to receive the most votes, as the alleged scandal came late in the campaign.

Yet, polls suggest that Prime Minister Fico will not be able to form another coalition in part because one or more key coalition parties are not expected to clear the five percent threshold for parliamentary representation.

Analysts say Mr. Fico's party also receives many votes because of his popular, publicly expressed anger, over developments in neighboring Hungary.

Despite Slovakia's ballooning budget deficit, the campaign has been dominated by debate over a new Hungarian citizenship law, not the economy.

Hungary's new government and parliament has introduced legislation making it easier for millions of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries to receive Hungarian citizenship.

Mr. Fico has described the law as a security threat and successfully introduced a counter-law banning double citizenship in most cases.

Hungary's legislation comes 90 years after the Peace Treaty of Trianon under which it lost two thirds of its territory.

Amid the tensions, a new moderate ethnic Hungarian party, "Most-Hid," or Bridge, supports reconciliation between Slovaks and the country's over half a million ethnic Hungarians.

One of the party's well-known supporters is Peter Huncik, who was an adviser to former Czech President Vaclav Havel. He tells VOA News that the party wants to battle extremism.

"About 60 or 65 percent of the members is from the Hungarian society, and 35 or 40 percent from the Slovak society," he said. "That is a very important message to the world and to the neighboring countries of Slovakia that not all the Slovaks are xenophobes and racists or hate their neighbors or the Hungarians."

Analysts say a trio of center-right challengers might be able to form the next governing coalition with support of Most-Hid and other ethnic Hungarian politicians.