JUNE 12 2010 14:56h

Governing coalition shaky as Slovaks vote

Slovakia

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Slovaks cast ballots in a general election on Saturday to decide if the ruling leftist coalition will stay in power amid growing public debt and scandals battering the prime minister and his party.

Prime Minister Robert Fico's Smer-Social Democracy was tipped by opinion polls to place first with 30-percent voter support, according to the Focus agency.

But despite its pole position Smer's political prospects are uncertain as its current coalition partners may fail to garner the five percent of votes needed to win parliamentary seats, and opposition parties are reluctant to team up with Smer.

With the Greek debt crisis fresh in mind, Slovaks were voting on the future of generous social benefits and extra pensions introduced by Fico's government in the country of 5.4 million people where joblessness reached 12.25 percent in May.

Once boasting record economic growth -- 10.4 percent in 2007 and 6.4 percent in 2008 -- Slovakia's economy faced its first contraction of 4.7 percent in 2009 while the budget deficit reached 6.77 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Public debt, which stood at 28 percent of GDP before Slovakia's eurozone entry in 2009, is projected to rise to 41 percent next year -- still well below the eurozone's 60-percent ceiling.AFP-.--.-Right-wing opposition Slovak Democratic Christian Union (SDKU) leader, Iveta Radicova casts her ballot, during the general election day in village Nova Dedinka, 25 km south of Bratislava on June 12, 2010. Polls suggested Slovakia's governing leftist Smer-Social Democracy would emerge the winner of Saturday's general election, but with fewer choices, if any, of coalition partners.

"We support the welfare policy of the government," pensioners Anna and Stefan told AFP after casting ballots for the Smer party.

But shortly before the vote, Smer's popularity took a blow from allegations of illegal fundraising for the party and by Fico's controversial gift of 17,000 euros from a flood relief emergency funds for a blonde bombshell fitness model.

"We expect the elections will bring a change so we voted for a right-wing party," 67-year-old Edita and her 71-year-old husband Eduard said.

Opposition parties hope they will be able to put together a parliamentary majority built on a pledge to get the economy battered by the global downturn back on track.

"We have a great chance to turn Slovakia into Europe's tiger again," leader of the liberal SDKU-DS party, Iveta Radicova, told journalists after casting her ballot.

The SDKU-DS, the biggest opposition party with 12-percent support in polls, has promised to consolidate public finances without raising taxes or cutting social benefits.

Smer, in contrast, wants to maintain social benefits and boost pensions despite the global financial crisis, which has hit the country's small economy hard.

"Slovak people didn't cause the crisis and therefore they can't bear its impact," Fico said.

Analysts said up to eight parties have a realistic chance of crossing the threshold to get into parliament.

Fico's coalition partners -- the People's Party-Movement for Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) and the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) -- had support close to five percent in the latest polls.

Even if Smer finishes in first place, the liberal SDKU-DS and Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), the Christian Democrat KDH and two ethnic Hungarian parties SMK and Most-Hid could put together a parliamentary majority.

Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) for the more than four million eligible voters to choose 150 representatives to a single-chamber parliament among some 2,400 candidates from 18 parties.

Exit polls are to be published shortly after polling stations close at 10:00 pm (2000 GMT) and official results are expected later in the night.