A Bootleg Trader From Communist Era May Decide Who Runs Slovakia

A former black-market trader from communist times is gearing up to play the role of kingmaker in elections in Slovakia this month.

Boris Kollar — now a tycoon controlling a radio station, hotels and ski resorts — is well placed to pair his party up with as many as five from the opposition to unseat the government and snuff out a resurgence of the far right.

On the surface, the 54-year-old lawmaker makes an odd bedfellow: he’s a populist admirer of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and has 10 children with nine different women in the predominantly Roman Catholic country, which is a member of the European Union and the euro area.

But he insists necessity can make an alliance possible.

“There’s a lot of animosity” among the opposition, Kollar said in an interview in Bratislava, the capital. “But if they won’t have the numbers, they’ll need me. I’ll have my conditions.”

They include a pledge to build 50,000 housing units a year for the poor and writing off chunks of Slovaks’ debts. Those, he says, are non-negotiable. If they’re not met, he may opt to stay out of government altogether.

Slovaks go to polls on Feb. 29 — two years after the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancee triggered the biggest street protests since the fall of communism. Then-Prime Minister Robert Fico quit.

A corrupt web of politicians, law-enforcement officials and businessmen was later unearthed, fueling popular anger and support for new, mostly anti-establishment parties. Last year, Slovaks picked an anti-graft lawyer as their first woman president in the country of 5.6 million.

“People want change, but this desire is split between many opposition parties,” said Vaclav Hrich, director of the AKO pollster. “After elections, they should be able to find a compromise.”

Fico’s Smer party remains in power and is the frontrunner to win the election. But it will be short of an absolute majority, making it tough to form a government without backing from the far-right People’s Party and at least another group.

To avoid that scenario, ex-President Andrej Kiska — who’s party is fifth in polls — wants the opposition to unite. That may be hard as parties range from Kollar’s, which rails against same-sex unions and immigrants, to the left-leaning Progressives, who back just the opposite.

“We must stick together,” Kiska told a campaign rally in a packed movie theater in the town of Hlohovec, 74 kilometers (46 miles) from the capital. “If we fail, there’s a risk the fascists will rule. Slovakia’s ours — let’s not let them take it away from us.”

Kollar, for his part, will be waiting in the wings. He’s as unapologetic about his past ties to local mafia figures as he is uncompromising over his political demands.

“There were three night clubs in town back then,” he said. “You simply had to meet these people there.”

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