Slovakia opposition talks collapse ahead of February election

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovakia’s opposition parties failed to reach agreement on forming a “coalition of change” on Thursday ahead of February’s general election, complicating their goal of replacing the ruling three-party government led by the leftist Smer party that has dominated politics for the past decade.

Smer has seen a slide in support since last year’s murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancee that triggered mass protests over corruption and ousted long-time prime minister Robert Fico.

But his ruling coalition has survived, let by his hand-picked successor Peter Pellegrini, and the socially conservative Smer remains favorite for next year’s election.

Opinion polls put at least three opposition parties just above the 5% threshold needed to get into parliament. A possible union with stronger opposition parties would increase their chances, but such a broad coalition of socially liberal and conservative groups would be volatile.

Former president and leader of a new centrist party For the People Andrej Kiska was the first to announce the failure of the negotiations on Thursday.

“Coalitions make sense only if the support for such coalitions would be higher than the combined support for individual parties,” he told reporters, adding that some voters might see such a disparate grouping as unconvincing.

The liberal Progressive Slovakia/Together, second in opinion polls, said it was disappointed with the decision by Kiska, whom they see as a natural partner after the Feb. 29 vote.

Opposition parties and voters fighting what they saw as tainted system got a huge boost with the victory of a liberal, pro-EU lawyer, Zuzana Caputova, in the presidential election last year but it is far from clear this can be repeated in the parliamentary election.

The opposition has ruled out cooperation with Smer or its junior coalition partners, while all parties including Smer have ruled out a coalition with the far-right People’s Party-Our Slovakia, currently the third or fourth strongest group in polls.

That might lead to a post-election stalemate, leaving the likely winner, Smer, without partners to form a government.

Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Giles Elgood