A pro-Western career diplomat faces an ally of the populist premier in Slovakia's presidential vote

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A poster for former Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, a pro-Western career diplomat, one of the candidates in the upcoming Slovak presidential election, in Bratislava, Slovakia, Friday, April 5, 2024. A pro-Western career diplomat and a close ally of Slovakias populist Prime Minister Robert Fico are facing each other in a presidential runoff on Saturday to determine who will be the next head of state. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

BRATISLAVA – A pro-Western career diplomat and a close ally of Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico are facing each other in a presidential runoff on Saturday to determine who will be the next head of state.

Former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok is up against Peter Pellegrini, who heads a coalition party in Fico’s government, in the vote for the largely ceremonial post as president of the nation of 5.4 million.

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A victory for Pellegrini, who currently serves as Parliament speaker, would cement Fico’s power by giving him and his allies control of major strategic posts.

It would also deprive Slovakia and the European Union of a key pro-Ukrainian voice. The current president, Zuzana Čaputová, a staunch backer of Slovakia’s neighbor Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s two-year invasion, did not stand for a second term.

A former liberal environmental activist, she has repeatedly come under attack from Fico, who won Sept. 30 parliamentary elections on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform and has accused Čaputová of being a U.S. agent.

The latest public polls predict a tight race. The winner will become the country’s sixth head of state since Slovakia gained independence in 1993 after Czechoslovakia split in two.


As none of the nine candidates won a majority in the March 23 first round, the two top vote-getters advanced to the runoff. Korčok won the first round with 42.5% of the votes, with Pellegrini trailing on 37%. A former justice minister and judge, Štefan Harabin, who has openly sided with Russia in its war with Ukraine, finished a distant third with 11.7%.


The 60-year-old is not affiliated with any political party but agreed to become the foreign minister in 2020 when he was the ambassador to the United States. During the coronavirus pandemic, Korčok opposed a secret deal to acquire Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine orchestrated by Prime Minister Igor Matovič, calling the vaccine a tool in Russia’s hybrid war against the West. Korčok represented the pro-business Freedom and Solidarity party in the post till 2022. Previously, he also served as the ambassador to Germany and was the country’s envoy to NATO and the European Union. He’s married, a father of two who firmly supports Slovakia’s EU and NATO memberships.


Pellegrini, 48, who favors a strong role for the state, heads the left-wing Hlas (Voice) party that finished third in last year's vote. His party joined a ruling coalition with Fico’s leftist Smer (Direction) party and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party. Critics worry Slovakia under Fico will abandon its pro-Western course and follow the direction of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets across Slovakia recently to rally against Fico’s pro-Russian and other policies that they fear undermine the rule of law while voicing their support for Korčok.

Pellegrini, who was Fico’s former deputy in Smer, became prime minister in 2018, after Fico was forced to resign following major anti-government street protests over the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee. Pellegrini had temporarily parted ways with Fico after the scandal-tainted Smer lost the previous election in 2020.


The war in neighboring Ukraine was a core campaign issue. Pellegrini’s candidacy is supported by Fico’s coalition that immediately stopped any military aid to Ukraine, saying the conflict has no military solution. Pellegrini accused Korčok of being a warmonger ready to draw his country into the war by sending troops to Ukraine. Korčok dismissed that.

In Slovakia, the government and parliament, but not the president, can approve Slovak troops' deployment abroad. Pellegrini also suggested that Slovakia would not be able to send its troops to other NATO members if they were attacked, a principle of NATO’s collective defense. He claimed the Slovak military is not armed well enough to do so.


Elected for a five-year term, the president picks the prime minister after parliamentary elections, swears in the new government and appoints Constitutional Court judges. The president can also veto laws, though Parliament can override the veto with a simple majority, and challenge them at the Constitutional Court. The head of state also has the right to pardon convicts.

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