The centre-left party of former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico looks on course to win an outright parliamentary majority, giving him a mandate to deliver on pledges to tax the rich and cut the budget deficit, early election results showed on Sunday.
Results from 67 percent of districts showed Smer took 46.2 percent of the vote on Saturday, which would give it 86 out of the 150 seats and displace a centre-right cabinet that collapsed in October after a liberal party refused to back a plan to beef up a fund to help crisis-hit euro zone countries.
A government led by the pro-European, 47-year-old lawyer would please Slovakia's euro zone partners, who were upset by the outgoing coalition's refusal to contribute to the first bailout of Greece and the delaying of the rescue fund.
I predict that Smer will have won the vote ... and will receive the mandate from the president to form a government, Fico said after exit polls earlier showed him far ahead of all rivals.
Fico's strong showing would knock his reformist rival Mikulas Dzurinda's centre-right SDKU out of power after the SDKU-led coalition fell apart after less than two years.
Damaged by allegations of graft, Dzurinda's party would win just 5.5 percent, according to the partial results, a third of what it won in the last election in 2010. But it was likely to avoid being knocked out of parliament altogether.
Another centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (KDH), had 8.8 percent in the partial results.
The partial results may be somewhat skewed in Fico's favour because larger urban districts, where Fico's Smer party has traditionally been weaker, tend to be counted later. But his lead seemed wide enough to secure an unprecedented victory for any single party in Slovakia's 19-year independent history.
Final results were expected to be released later on Sunday.
TAXING THE BANKS
The unrivalled leader of his centre-left party, Fico says he plans to use tax hikes to maintain welfare and cut the budget deficit, and continue the outgoing cabinet's effort to protect the country's sovereign credit ratings.
The country of 5.4 million people, which has maintained more investor confidence than other periphery euro zone states, has budget deficit targets of 4.6 percent of gross domestic product this year and 3 percent in 2013.
Fico, who served one term as the central European country's prime minister in 2006-2010, has pledged to dump Dzurinda's flagship reform - a 19 percent flat income tax - and reel in more from the rich, banks and other firms.
His plans involve almost doubling a special tax on bank deposits to 0.7 percent, raising corporate tax to 22 percent, from 19 percent now, and raising income tax for people earning over 33,000 euros per year.
We are against privatisations, we are for better legal protection for employees, we are for large public investments. This is our programme and we will strive to achieve it, Fico told reporters after the vote.
He has criticised labour reforms by the previous government that have made it easier to hire and fire workers, striking a chord among voters afraid of job insecurity in the euro zone's second-poorest country, where 13.7 percent are out of a job.
The minimum Slovak monthly salary is just 327 euros ($430), half of the minimum pay in crisis-hit Greece.
Fico, a former Communist Party member under Soviet-era Czechoslovakia in the 1980s who has praised socialist-era welfare policies, employed mildly nationalistic rhetoric against neighbouring Hungary when in power and pushed through a media law that human rights groups said infringed press freedom.
At the heart of the SDKU rout lies the leaking of a secret service file in December appearing to detail bugged conversations between politicians and businessmen in which they allegedly discuss kickbacks in return for the sale of public companies in the mid-2000s.
Details of the file, codenamed Gorilla, have drawn tens of thousands of outraged Slovaks onto the streets in the past month in a rare display of public anger.
Dzurinda and other SDKU officials have denied corruption.
(Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alison Williams)