Cars, corruption and love: five things to know about Slovakia

Thursday February 27 2020

People attend a memorial named

People attend a memorial named "For a Decent Slovakia" on the second anniversary of the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in Bratislava, on February 20, 2020. - Investigative journalist Jan Kuciak was found shot dead with his fiancee Martina Kusnirova at the couple's home near Bratislava on February 21, 2018, plunging the country into crisis and sparking mass demonstrations. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP) 

Bratislava . Slovaks vote in a pivotal general election on Saturday that could see a surging centre-right opposition party make gains over the populist, left-leaning government.

The polls are taking place in the wake of the shock 2018 murder of a journalist investigating high-level corruption.

The killing sparked widespread protests and upended politics in the central European state of 5.4 million people.

Here are five things to know about the ex-communist nation ahead of elections on Saturday.

- Car-driven economy -

With the world's highest per capita auto production, Slovakia is home to Volkswagen, Kia Motors, PSA Peugeot Citroen and Jaguar Land Rover car plants.

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Last year more than 1.1 million cars rolled off its assembly lines, and the car-making sector has a 49.5 percent share of Slovakia's total industrial production.

The economy is projected to slow slightly to 2.2 percent growth this year, before hitting 2.6 percent in 2021, according to the European Commission's latest forecast.

- Big steel -

Steel is another major engine of the Slovak economy.

But one of its major employers, the US Steel Corporation said last year it would cut around a fifth of its workforce in Slovakia by 2021, citing competition from cheap steel imports from outside the EU.

The layoffs will affect some 2,500 of the 12,000 workers at the Kosice plant located in Slovakia's impoverished east, where unemployment is endemic.

Around 1,000 employees have already been let go.

The steel mill ranks among the largest employers in the eurozone country.

- Murdered journalist -

Investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down in February 2018 as he was about to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.

His murder and explosive last report published posthumously plunged the country into crisis, raising concerns about media freedom and  corruption and sparking protests that forced the government to resign.

Four suspects are currently on trial for the murder including well-connected Slovak businessman Marian Kocner, accused of ordering the hit on Kuciak who had been probing his business activities.

Last year, Slovakia earned its worst corruption score since 2013. It placed 59th on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index out of 180 countries.

- 'Love-o-meter' -

According to the World Record Academy, Slovakia boasts the longest love poem. Written in 1844, "Marina" has 2,900 lines and recounts the doomed love between poet Andrej Sladkovic and his muse Maria Pischlova.

They were star-crossed lovers but Pischlova's parents shunned the poor poet and forced her to marry a wealthy gingerbread maker.

The house where she lived in the medieval silver mining town of Banska Stiavnica is today called the "Epicentre of Love".

The exhibition includes a "love-o-meter" that measures the strength of a couple's affection.

- Velvet Revolution -

The Slovak Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, which declared independence from the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

It remained a stable democracy until 1938 when it was dismembered.

During Nazi occupation, Slovakia became a puppet state under the regime of Father Jozef Tiso, a Roman Catholic priest who agreed to send tens of thousands of Jews to Germany's World War II death camps.

Czechoslovakia was eventually liberated and a republic restored in 1945. Three years later the country fell under Soviet domination following a communist coup.

The Velvet Revolution toppled totalitarian rule in 1989 and in 1993 Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Slovakia joined the NATO western defence alliance and the European Union in 2004 and went on to enter the eurozone in 2009.