Slovak PM Fico's ally in tight presidential runoff with pro-west challenger

By Jan Lopatka

(Reuters) - Ivan Korcok, a pro-Western diplomat and former foreign minister, is hoping to ride a wave of support energised by his first-round victory to edge out government party candidate Peter Pellegrini in Slovakia's presidential election run-off on Saturday.

Korcok, 59, surprisingly won the first round two weeks ago over Pellegrini, 48, on pledges to be a counterbalance to the government of Robert Fico, which has taken a pro-Russian stance on Ukraine and launched reforms criticised for weakening the rule of law.

Final opinion polls ahead of a moratorium on polling showed a dead heat.

NMS agency poll for news website on Wednesday showed Korcok leading 51.7% to 48.3%, while a poll by Focus agency for TV Markiza on Tuesday showed Pellegrini ahead with 50.8% to 49.2%.

"We will decide on Saturday whether we maintain a balance of powers or allow the government camp to also take the last constitutional post," Korcok said in a campaign video on Wednesday.

Slovak presidents do not have many executive powers, but can veto laws or challenge them in the constitutional court. They nominate constitutional court judges, which may become important in upcoming battles over Fico's reforms of criminal law that would dramatically ease punishments for corruption.

Presidents, like the outgoing pro-western liberal Zuzana Caputova who did not seek a second five-year term, also represent the country at various forums abroad.

Pellegrini backed Fico's turn to what he calls "sovereign" foreign policy, meaning Slovakia remains an EU and NATO member but takes its own course in relations with Russia and others.

"Slovakia should not be merely a passive receiver of what is dictated in Washington and Brussels," Pellegrini said in a television debate on Tuesday.

Pellegrini said he promoted peace by favouring negotiations in neighbouring Ukraine instead of military aid. Ukraine and its allies say this would only lead to Russia's advantage on the battlefield.

Sociologist Michal Vasecka said Korcok represented an attempt to keep Slovakia aligned with Western allies, while a victory for Pellegrini would create a situation similar to the one which prevailed in Poland until last year, when nationalists PiS controlled both the government and the elected presidency.

"He may take a position against some excesses... but not stand up to Fico in key issues that may protect the rule of law," Vasecka said.

The independent Korcok was Slovakia's envoy to the EU and later ambassador to the United States, before taking the foreign ministry post in centre-right governments in 2021-2022.

At the time, Slovakia was a staunch ally of Ukraine, providing it air defence and fighter jets. Fico's cabinet halted official supplies after taking power.

Pellegrini, now speaker of parliament, was long-time ally of Fico, who hand-picked him to be prime minister after Fico was forced to resign amid public protests against corruption following the murder of an investigative journalist in 2018.

He later split off from Fico to set up his own party Hlas (Voice) as more centrist and liberal than Fico's populist-leftist SMER-SSD, but formed a government with Fico and nationalist SNS last October.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka in Prague; Editing by Peter Graff)