BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Slovaks voted Saturday, March 16, in round one of a ballot that could usher in their first female president, a vocal government critic who emerged as the clear favorite after an investigative journalist's murder dealt a blow to the political establishment.
Frontrunner Zuzana Caputova, 45, was among tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of the eurozone country of 5.4 million last year over the killing, which sent shockwaves through the country and raised fears about media freedom and political corruption.
Opinion polls give the environmental lawyer a double-digit lead over European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, a 52-year-old career diplomat backed by the ruling Smer-SD party, in the contest for the presidency, a largely ceremonial post.
"Caputova attracts those who abhor corruption and are dissatisfied with what they see as an increasingly... self-dealing government," said Kevin Deegan-Krause, an expert on central Europe at Wayne State University.
"Sefcovic appeals to those with a certain satisfaction with the progress of a country which, by many indicators, has not done at all badly over the last decade," he told Agence France-Presse.
Neither candidate is on track for an outright victory and a run-off vote for the presidency is expected on March 30.
Murder probe update
Caputova, a deputy head of the non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, told AFP that "people are calling for change" as she campaigned earlier in March.
Journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down in February 2018, just as he was to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia plus associated irregularities in EU farm subsidy payments.
The double murder and Kuciak's last explosive report, published posthumously, plunged the country into crisis.
Then prime minister Robert Fico was forced to resign but remains the leader of the populist-left Smer-SD and is a close ally of current premier Peter Pellegrini.
Four people were charged last year with the killings.
On Thursday, prosecutors announced they had also charged multi-millionaire businessman Marian Kocner – believed to have ties to Smer-SD – with ordering the journalist's murder.
Kuciak had been investigating his business activities.
"With this announcement, the authorities may have wanted to show just how effectively the state functions, so it could help Sefcovic gain some points," Bratislava-based analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP.
"On the other hand, this could also be a vindication for Caputova, as she is the symbol of change."
Caputova won a vote from outgoing President Andrej Kiska, who told reporters that "it is extremely important to continue this fight for a decent and fair Slovakia".
She has appealed to voters tired of the country's main political players and vowed to restore public trust in the state, running on a slogan of: "Stand up to evil".
On the streets of Bratislava, several voters said they were impressed by her fresh approach.
Project manager Nora Bajnokova said she backed Caputova because "she is a woman, a mother, a lawyer and not involved in active politics".
"You just don't get the sense that she's lying," the 33-year-old from the southern town of Komarno told AFP.
Economist Katarina, 42, said Caputova "will ensure equality and fairness".
But 41-year-old security guard Oto said only Sefcovic was "serious" enough to be president material.
Another voter, Milan Perunko, 54, said: "Sefcovic is an experienced multilingual diplomat who can immediately represent Slovakia abroad."
Campaigning on the slogan "Always for Slovakia", Sefcovic has promised greater social benefits for the elderly and young families.
A European Commission vice-president since 2014, Sefcovic is known for his toothy smile. A recent social media meme showed him with the caption "PresiDENT".
Though an independent, Sefcovic has Smer-SD's backing, which guarantees him some voters but disqualifies him in the eyes of others.
"I wouldn't vote for anyone who supports Fico or is supported by Smer," said Maria, a biology student from the western town of Piestany.
"The Kuciak murder turned Slovakia upside down... Slovakia's still polarized and Smer hasn't changed a bit," she told AFP.
The president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can also veto laws passed by parliament.
Thirteen candidates are vying for the job, including Supreme Court judge Stefan Harabin, far-right MP Marian Kotleba and ethnic Hungarian politician Bela Bugar. – Rappler.com