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Political newcomer Kiska takes wide lead in Slovak presidential election

Source: Reuters - Sat, 29 Mar 2014 22:39 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Kiska leads by 19-pct-point margin with a third of polling stations counted

* Philanthropist Kiska draws support from centre-right

* Many voters do not want PM Fico's party to win more power (Adds partial results)

By Jiri Skacel and Jan Lopatka

BRATISLAVA, March 29 (Reuters) - Philanthropist and former businessman Andrej Kiska took a wide lead over Prime Minister Robert Fico in Slovakia's presidential election, partial results of the second election round showed on Saturday.

Data from 45 percent of voting districts showed the politically unaffiliated Kiska leading over the centre-left prime minister by 59.4 percent to 40.6 percent of the vote.

Kiska, 51, has been riding the wave of anti-Fico sentiment among right-wing voters as well as distrust in mainstream political parties because of graft scandals and persistently high unemployment.

The partial results seemed to reflect fear among Slovaks that the 49-year-old would amass too much power, which some see as unhealthy for democratic checks and balances.

A Fico victory would give his centre-left Smer party full control of all the main power centres in the euro zone country of 5.5 million, even if the Slovak constitution does not grant the president himself a huge political role.

The president has the power to name or approve some of the main figures in the country's prosecution and judicial branches, and this right has led to political clashes in the past.

Kiska made millions of dollars in consumer credit companies which he sold a decade ago, setting up a charity to help families with ill children.

Fico and other critics say he is a political amateur who made money in the past on unfairly high-interest loans, a charge Kiska denies.

CAMPAIGN FOR CHANGE

Rule of law is a key concern for Slovaks as well as foreign investors, the source of economic growth in the past decade.

Slovakia has lured big foreign manufacturers, such as automakers Kia and Volkswagen, which have helped keep growth and government debt at decent levels even as others in central Europe slipped into lengthy recession amid the euro zone crisis.

Unemployment, however, has only dipped slowly and stood at 13.5 percent in February, showing the economy still could not support many new jobs.

Kiska has campaigned on the argument that Slovakia needs a counterweight to Smer party.

"If the president is to represent people, he cannot be the extended hand of a political party," Kiska, an independent who has no party of his own, said in the final television debate earlier this week.

The candidates are close on Slovakia's foreign policy, which keeps the country firmly in the EU's pro-integration camp.

Fico would have to give up his post of prime minister if he wins, but his party would replace him with a Smer nominee. If he loses, he will keep his cabinet position.

Fico took Slovakia into the euro zone in 2009 and has kept the country friendly to investors despite levying extra taxes on banks and utilities. (Reporting by Jan Lopatka; editing by Tom Heneghan and G Crosse)

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