Slovakia's far-right party, ruling leftists lose regional elections

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - The far-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia lost Saturday’s regional elections, turning the Central European country against the trend of far-right gains in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic in recent months.

Right-wing and anti-immigrant parties have been on the rise across Europe after years of slow economic growth and the arrival of more than a million migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

Slovakia’s economy has boomed and the country has seen little immigration, but rising public anger over graft scandals linked to conventional parties has generated support for fringe parties and protest groups.

Regional election four years ago saw a surprising first-time victory of People’s Party chairman Marian Kotleba as governor in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, and his party won 8 percent of the vote and its first-ever seats in national parliament last year.

Support for the party, which has launched a petition to hold a referendum to exit the EU and NATO, has since risen to about 10 percent, making it the third strongest group after leftist Smer and euroskeptic liberals, according to opinion polls.

On Saturday, Kotleba lost the reelection bid to an entrepreneur Jan Lunter, a non-partisan endorsed by all parties except the far-right, near-complete results from the Statistics Office showed on Sunday.

Kotleba’s right hand, the party’s deputy chairman Milan Uhrik also lost the governor’s race in the southwestern Nitra region.

Kotleba and two other lawmakers are facing extremism charges and prosecutors took steps in May to ban the entire party, saying it posed a threat to Slovakia’s democratic system.

The party, whose members have organized torch-lit marches wearing black uniforms modeled on a World War Two Nazi puppet state, denies any links to fascism. Last year they started patrolling trains, some carrying legally-held weapons, in regions with a strong Roma population.

In another upset, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s leftist Smer party only won two reelection bids, losing four regions to center-right opposition candidates, a sign of its weakening grip on power in the euro zone country.

General elections last year saw Smer’s support shrink to 28.3 percent from 44.4 percent in 2012, but it is still the strongest party with double the support of the euroskeptic liberal Freedom and Solidarity party, whose candidate was elected governor of the capital Bratislava region.

Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova, editing by G Crosse