By Tatiana Jancarikova
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico offered to resign on Wednesday on condition that his party be allowed to choose his successor, as the ruling coalition sought to calm a political crisis sparked by the murder of a journalist.
Fico has been fighting to keep his three-party government intact after calls for snap elections amid the largest street protests in the central European nation since the fall of communism in 1989.
The murder of 27-year-old investigative reporter Jan Kuciak, who wrote about fraud cases involving businessmen with political ties, has fuelled public anger over corruption in Slovakia, a member of the European Union, the euro zone and NATO.
It was only the fifth case of a reporter or reporters being killed in the EU in the past decade. No one has been charged over the killing of Kuciak, who was found shot dead at home with his fiancée.
The junior coalition party Most-Hid (Bridge) threatened on Monday to leave the government unless new elections were agreed. Parties had been in talks since Tuesday before coalition leaders agreed to revamp the government and met with President Andrej Kiska.
“I proposed that in order to solve the political crisis I am ready to resign as prime minister,” Fico told a televised news conference, flanked by the other two coalition leaders.
Fico said the conditions for his resignation were that Kiska respected the last election results and coalition agreement, giving his party the chance to nominate the next prime minister.
Most-Hid leader Bela Bugar said his party welcomed the plan. “I think this decision can bring calm to the situation,” he said.
Kiska’s spokesman said in a statement that coalition leaders informed the president they would bring signed support of a majority in parliament for the proposed change. His office cancelled his travel plans for Thursday.
Kiska and Fico were opponents in the last presidential run-off vote and have battled again in the crisis. The president had early on called for a major government reshuffle or fresh elections to rebuild public trust.
Fico, meanwhile, accused outside forces of trying to destabilise the country and questioned Kiska’s meeting last year with financier George Soros – echoing attacks on the Hungarian-born billionaire by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
How far Fico’s exit as prime minister can calm public pressure is still to be seen. Michal Vasecka, of the Bratislava Policy Institute, said the move looked “cosmetic”.
The political fallout from Kuciak’s killing has tarnished Fico, in power for much of the past 12 years during which Slovakia’s economy has grown rapidly and the country of 5.4 million has become a major hub for international carmakers.
Fico is midway through a third term and had last year called Slovakia a “pro-European island” in central Europe as he sought to stand out from largely eurosceptic leaders in the region.
His Smer party has won the last four elections since 2006, staying popular thanks to a policy mix of giving handouts to voters, such as free train tickets for students and pensioners, while controlling deficits.
But many fault Fico for not clamping down on corruption and cronyism more.
Just before he was found shot dead along with his fiancee at his house outside of Bratislava, Kuciak had been looking into suspected mafia links of Italians with businesses in Slovakia.
One of the Italians had past business links with two Slovaks, including a former model, who later worked in Fico’s office. Both have resigned but deny connections to the murder.
Their Italian former business partner has denied having connections with the mafia.
(Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova, additional reporting by Robert Muller and Petra Vodstrcilova in Prague, writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Gareth Jones)