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Slovak PM duels philanthropist in final battle for presidency

Slovakia's presidential candidate Andrej Kiska. ©Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa Slovakia's presidential candidate Andrej Kiska. ©Reuters/Radovan Stoklasa

Slovaks began voting Saturday to choose their president in a fractious and tight run-off between Prime Minister Robert Fico and political newcomer and philanthropist, Andrej Kiska, AFP reports.

Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0600 GMT) and will close at 10:00 pm with no exit poll and final results expected around midnight.

In the first round of voting on March 15, Social Democrat Fico captured 28 percent finishing narrowly ahead of centrist Kiska, who scored 24 percent.

Round two is expected to be very close, as the prospect of Fico and his Smer-Social Democrats winning control of both parliament and the presidency has galvanised opponents in the country of 5.4 million, which joined the European Union in 2004 and the eurozone in 2009.

No opinion polls were published ahed of the second round, but Kiska has been endorsed by candidates who captured a combined 34 percent in round one, a move analysts say could make him unbeatable.

"Kiska has a higher potential to mobilise voters who backed other candidates in round one, as well as so-called protest voters who would not back any partisan, while Fico only has the potential to mobilise Smer," Bratislava-based analyst Grigorij Meseznikov said.

An ex-Communist, Fico wound down his campaign by wooing voters with references to his traditional Catholic upbringing, all the while painting Kiska as a Scientologist, a claim the tycoon flatly denies.

"I have flirted with Judaism and Buddhism...only to return to Catholicism," Kiska, who earned his fortune in the consumer credit business, said in an autobiography titled "A Manager's Road from Hell".

Over 60 percent of Slovaks identified themselves as Roman Catholic in the 2011 census.

"Fico is trying to stir negative emotion by painting Kiska as an alien element in Slovakia's conservative, relatively homogenous society," Meseznikov told AFP.

Turnout could prove decisive

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 Kiska, 51, is capitalising on his image as a newcomer untainted by the allegations of corruption that have ravaged Slovakia's right-wing.

A non-partisan centrist with no Communist past, he 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.

"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.

Crucially, Kiska 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 has an 83-seat majority in the 150-member parliament with the next general election scheduled for 2016.

Analysts also warn that Fico could try to amend the constitution to boost presidential powers and transform the parliamentary system into a presidential one.

Fico could ride a fresh wave of support from voters who stayed home during round one, which saw a turnout of just over 43 percent.

"Some 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.

The leftist 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.

The next president will be sworn in on June 15, when leftist incumbent Ivan Gasparovic's second term ends.

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