(Bloomberg) -- An election in Slovakia pitting a pro-European group against a firebrand former premier was headed to a tight finish, as exit polls showed both parties neck-and-neck, raising the prospect of political deadlock. 

Progressive Slovakia under 39-year-old Michal Simecka took 23.5% in the ballot on Saturday, while Robert Fico’s Smer had 21.9%, an exit poll for TV Markiza showed. A second survey for the public broadcaster showed the parties at 20% and 19%, respectively.

A tight result would complicate forming a government, since no party came close to a majority in parliament, where at least seven parties overcame the threshold to enter the 150-seat assembly, the polls showed. 

Still, a win for Progressive Slovakia would mark a come-from-behind victory against Fico, a powerful force in Slovakia who had been the frontrunner to reclaim the premiership for months. As the former prime minister denounced the European Union’s sanctions against Russia and military aid to Ukraine, Progressive Slovakia appealed to voters who wanted to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions. 

The support for the pro-EU party is a challenge to the tide of nationalist and populist forces in Europe, which have gained traction by tapping electorates’ frustration over the pandemic, the region’s cost-of-living crisis and fatigue over the war in Ukraine. If confirmed as votes are counted, the results may be a boost for EU unity. 

Fico, 59, the most dominant political figure in the eastern European nation of 5.4 million since the fall of communism, is seeking a fourth term in office with a pledge to voters to boost social spending and disrupt EU policy on issues ranging from migration to security to climate. 

An ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Fico was abetted by a social media campaign that included several false claims, making the election a test case for new EU legislation that aims to staunch the spread of illegal or harmful online content. 

Slovakia has a track record of political tumult and fractious coalitions, with nine governments since it entered the EU in 2004. Party infighting helped bring down the cabinet of Prime Minister Eduard Heger late last year, an alliance that was elected in 2020 to tackle corruption.

Political stalemate is also a risk to Slovakia’s $115 billion economy. The euro-area member, which will need to secure as much as €10 billion ($10.6 billion) from financial markets next year, is aiming to control a widening budget deficit. 

Voters in Slovakia have challenged the rise of populist forces before. Zuzana Caputova, an anti-corruption reformer, was elected to the presidency in 2019. 

(Adds context, background on Fico’s bid from fourth paragraph.)

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