Mandatory Credit: Photo by MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10571191s) Leader of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLANO) party, Igor Matovic, prepares for an television debate of Czech Television after elections night in Bratislava, Slovakia, 01 March 2020. Following the second anniversary of the murder of Slovak journalist Kuciak, Slovakia voted on 29 February to elect all the 150 members of the National Council. According to official results, the opposition movement OLANO with leader Igor Matovic won the parliamentary elections with 25.02 percent. Government party Direction - Social Democracy (SMER) party ended up behind him, with 18.29 percent, and suffered SMER's first defeat since 2006 and is likely to head for the opposition Slovakia's parliamentary election 2020, Bratislava, Slovakia Slovak Republic - 01 Mar 2020
Ordinary People party leader Igor Matovic is on the brink of becoming prime minister © MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Igor Matovic has spent the past decade assailing Slovakia’s establishment and distancing himself from traditional politicians. Now the self-made millionaire is poised to become the central European nation’s next prime minister.

In an unexpectedly strong showing, Mr Matovic’s anti-corruption Ordinary People party stormed to victory in this weekend’s parliamentary election, putting it on course to oust the leftwing populist Smer party that has dominated Slovak politics for the past 14 years. His party won a quarter of the vote, up from 11 per cent in 2016, by tapping into the deep anger in Slovak society triggered by the murder of a young investigative journalist two years ago. 

“We wanted to reach the 2m people who had lost faith in politics,” Mr Matovic said, as it became clear Ordinary People was on course to win. “We take this result as a request from people who want us to clean up Slovakia.”

Mr Matovic’s surprise win was a sign of how shaken Slovak politics were by the murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in 2018. The brutal contract killing triggered the biggest protests in Slovakia’s independent history, forcing Smer's veteran leader Robert Fico to resign as prime minister and helping the liberal activist Zuzana Caputova to win the presidency last year.

The aftershocks affected the campaign. Leaks from the murder probe revealed allegedly widespread links between businessmen, politicians and judges, keeping corruption at the forefront of the political debate. 

Mr Matovic tapped into the angry public mood. In January, his party was polling in the single digits but an unorthodox campaign punctuated by colourful antics helped catapult him to the front of a fragmented field.

In one stunt, he filmed himself slapping signs reading “Property of the Slovak Republic” on the fence of a luxury villa in Cannes owned by a former Smer minister. Videos of the escapade have received hundreds of thousands of views online. 

When a nationalist politician appeared drunk during a parliamentary debate, Mr Matovic brandished a sign reading: “He's smashed.” He also once parked a caravan with a sign reading “Fico defends thieves” in front of parliament. 

Beyond his focus on fighting corruption, however, Mr Matovic's politics are harder to define. Ordinary People's members range from the liberal to the deeply conservative. Mr Matovic was first elected to parliament on the ticket of a liberal party in 2010, before falling out with its leadership. 

“Ordinary People is pro-EU and pro-Nato and anti-Putin, and in this respect I don’t expect a divergence from the path Slovakia has been on,” said Michal Vasecka of the Bratislava Policy Institute. “[They] might show greater animosity to the [social] values of western Europe.”

“He’s hard to put in one box,” said one diplomat. “He’s a campaigner. A champion against corruption. He’s seen as a maverick . . . Clearly there was a strong current in society that wanted change and he has been able to attract a large section of them.” 

The 46-year-old’s critics say his unpredictable style and lack of a clear platform beyond fighting corruption means any government he leads is likely to be unstable. “Matovic is like an unguided missile,” said Raul Rodrigues, a voter in Partizanske in central Slovakia. “It’s really hard to get an agreement on anything with him. I cannot imagine him as prime minister.”

Olga Gyarfasova, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Affairs in Bratislava, said that Mr Matovic was essentially a populist. “It starts with the name of the party: Ordinary People,” she said. “He wants to portray himself as the . . . voice of the people.”

Mr Matovic’s supporters said criticism of their leader stemmed from his willingness to tackle uncomfortable truths. “Matovic is a very good person who tells the truth. He is never quiet,” said Tomas Sudik, a candidate for Ordinary People. “Some people might not like it, but the truth always wins.” 

Mr Matovic, who ran a regional newspaper business before going into politics, said he would open coalition talks with the centre-right For The People party of former president Andrej Kiska, the liberal SaS party, and the populist We are Family group of Boris Kollar. Between them, they would be able to command a constitutional majority. 

The parties’ differing outlooks mean that talks may not be straightforward. But Milan Nic, from the German Council on Foreign Relations, said a deal is likely. 

“This result is an earthquake. The centre-right has been completely realigned and this is the beginning of the era of Igor Matovic,” he said. “We had expected a fragmented parliament, but we have a leader with a strong mandate. It may take time, but he will form a coalition.”

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