The leftist sweeps Slovak vote
Former prime-minister Robert Fico stages a comeback with promises of social welfare and higher taxes on the rich
17 March, 2012Firebrand Slovak leftist Robert Fico was set to return as premier with a solid majority after 20 months in opposition as his Smer-SD on 10 March swept away rivals dogged by graft allegations. Voters angry over an unprecedented corruption affair and worried by an economic downturn handed victory to Fico who wooed them with promises of social welfare and higher taxes on the rich. A government led by the 47-year-old europhile, who was prime minister between 2006 and 2010, will please Slovakia's partners. They were upset by a refusal by the outgoing centre-right coalition to contribute to the first bailout of Greece and the delaying of plans to beef up a rescue fund for troubled countries. Fico promised to support EU efforts to protect the euro currency, adopted by Slovakia in 2009. "The European Union can lean on Smer because we realize that Slovakia, as a small country living in Europe and wanting to live in Europe ... desires to maintain the euro zone and the euro as a strong European currency," he said at the party headquarters, to the cheers and applause of supporters.He is often dismissed as a populist and even demagogue by his critics. Ahead of the elections, he pledged a host of changes to benefit the most underprivileged among the 5.4-million population of the country, which is the second poorest in the Eurozone after Estonia. Fico has vowed to dump the ruling right-wing SDKU-DS party leader Mikulas Dzurinda's flagship policy - a 19% flat income tax - and raising income tax for those earning over €33,000 per year. "If you post record profits, you must also pay record tax," he asserted in his election campaign. His plans involve almost doubling a tax on bank deposits to 0.7%, raising corporate tax to 22% from 19%. "We will aim for tough regulations on utility prices. We have the energy and the strength to do it," the politician told his supporters. "We don't want to go only the way of cuts and savings ... We will not touch Slovaks with lower incomes. We can realize a program of a social state, a program of improving the public finances that won't be at the cost of people with low and middle incomes."Slovakia's economy has contracted sharply in recent years, from a record high of 10.5% in 2007 to 3.3% last year, due mainly to falling demand in EU markets for Slovak products. The country is battling unemployment above 13%. Although growth this year is forecast at 1.1%, its export-driven economy makes it vulnerable to the region's wider slump. The former lawyer says he plans to continue the outgoing cabinet's work to protect the Slovakia's sovereign credit rating. The country, which has maintained more investor confidence than other peripheral Eurozone states, has budget deficit targets of 4.6% of GDP this year and below 3% in 2013. A man of humble origin - Fico was born on 15 September 1964 in Topolcany, a small provincial town some hundred kilometres northeast of Bratislava - the future prime-minister joined the Communist party two years ahead of the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In his own words, often quoted by his political rivals, he "did not notice the change of regime in 1989." Having graduated from the Law Faculty of the Comenius University of Bratislava, he pushed into politics after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. He built a reputation for himself as Slovakia's representative at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Left out of account when ministerial posts were doled out, he established a party of his own, Direction - Social Democracy (Smer), surrounding himself with entrepreneurs and business people ready to fund his movement. It was this circle that prompted some to question how sincere his attachment to the left wing is. A football fan, high-end cars and watches, Fico prefers keeping his personal life out of the spotlight and can rarely be seen publicly with wife Svetlana, who is a professor at the Law Faculty of the University of Bratislava. The couple have a son, Mikhal.