BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — A pro-Western career diplomat defeated a close ally of Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico in the first round of the presidential election Saturday to set up a runoff between the two to decide who will succeed Zuzana Caputová, the country’s first female president.

Former Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok had 42.13% of the votes with nearly all polling stations counted by Slovakia’s Statistics Office. Peter Pellegrini was in second with 37.28%.

Because no candidate won an outright majority, a runoff will be held April 6 in this central European nation of 5.4 million people.

A former justice minister and judge, Štefan Harabin, 66, who has openly sided with Russia in its war with Ukraine, was a distant third with 11.79%.

In all, nine male candidates sought to become Slovakia’s sixth head of state since it gained independence in 1993 after Czechoslovakia split in two.

Caputová, a staunch backer of neighboring Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion, didn’t seek a second term in the largely ceremonial post.

Korcok called the result “encouraging” and “promising,” but added that “we have to do more to win the runoff.”

“I’m planning to approach all voters,” he said.

Korcok has also served as Slovakia’s ambassador to the United States and Germany and firmly supports his country’s membership in the EU and NATO.

Pellegrini was considered a favorite in the race, and opinion polls suggested he would beat any candidate in the runoff.

He congratulated Korcok on his victory in the first round and predicted a close contest in the runoff.

“It will likely be a tight race,” Pellegrini said.

A victory for Pellegrini, who currently serves as Parliament speaker, would cement Fico’s power by giving him and his allies control of strategic posts.

Pellegrini, 48, who favors a strong role for the state, heads the left-wing Hlas (Voice) party that finished third in the Sept. 30 parliamentary elections. His party joined a governing coalition with Fico’s leftist Smer (Direction) party and the ultranationalist Slovak National Party.

The new government immediately halted arms deliveries to Ukraine. Thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets across Slovakia recently to rally against Fico’s pro-Russian and other policies, including plans to amend the penal code and take control of the public media.

Pellegrini said Saturday that Slovakia’s membership in the European Union and NATO hasn’t been questioned.

“That we talk about a more sovereign voice of Slovakia or about a sovereign foreign policy … doesn’t necessarily mean that we change the basic direction of our foreign policy,” Pellegrini said.

    Presidential candidate Ivan Korcok, a pro-Western career diplomat, arrives at his election headquarters to acknowledge the preliminary results of the first round of the presidential election in Bratislava, Slovakia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
 
 
  photo  Presidential candidate Ivan Korcok, a pro-Western career diplomat, addresses the media after casting his vote during the first round of the presidential election, in Senec, Slovakia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
 
 
  photo  FILE – Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini delivers a speech at the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic, on Nov. 17, 2019. Pellegrini, who currently serves as Parliament’s speaker, leads a field of nine candidates ahead of the first round of the Slovakia’s presidential election which will be held on Saturday March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)
 
 
  photo  Presidential candidate Ivan Korcok prepares to cast his vote during the first round of the presidential election in Senec, Slovakia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
 
 
  photo  A woman casts her ballot during a first round of presidential election in Senec, Slovakia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
 
 
  photo  FILE – Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok listens his Serbian counterpart Nikola Selakovic during a press conference after their talks in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, a pro-Western career diplomat, is one of the nine candidates ahead of the first round of the Slovakia’s presidential election which will be held on Saturday March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic, File)
 
 
  photo  Presidential candidate Ivan Korcok addresses the media after casting his vote during the first round of the presidential election,l in Senec, Slovakia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
 
 
  photo  Presidential candidate Ivan Korcok prepares to cast his vote during the first round of the presidential election, in Senec, Slovakia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
 
 
  photo  Presidential candidate Ivan Korcok, a pro-Western career diplomat, accompanied by his wife Sona arrives to cast his vote during the first round of the presidential election, in Senec, Slovakia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
 
 
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