An anti-corruption activist was expected to become Slovakia’s first female president after the eurozone nation voted in a run-off election Saturday, one year after a journalist’s murder triggered mass protests and calls for change.
Partial results were due around midnight. An opinion poll released after voting ended at 2100 GMT showed environmental lawyer Zuzana Caputova, 45, would win against the ruling party candidate, 52-year-old EU energy commissioner Maros Sefcovic.
Caputova, who has no experience in political office and ran on a slogan of “Stand up to evil”, could get 55.20 percent of the vote according to the survey conducted by the Focus agency on the eve of the run-off.
“This campaign has shown that values such as humanism, solidarity and truth are important to our society,” Caputova said in a speech thanking her supporters and team just before the opinion poll was made public.
Earlier Saturday, she had called the last few weeks “extremely challenging” and “an intense journey”.
No stranger to tough battles, Caputova won a 2016 award for successfully blocking a planned landfill in her hometown of Pezinok.
More recently, she took to the streets of the central European country of 5.4 million along with tens of thousands of other anti-government protesters after investigative journalist Jan Kuciak was gunned down alongside his fiancee in February 2018.
He had been preparing to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.
The killings forced then prime minister Robert Fico to resign but he remains leader of the governing populist-left Smer-SD party and is a close ally of the current premier.
Five people have been charged, including a millionaire businessman with alleged Smer-SD ties who is suspected of ordering the murders.
– Caputova ‘like Macron’ –
The European Parliament has urged Slovakia to look into “any possible political links to the crimes.”
MEPs voiced “concern about the allegations of corruption, conflicts of interest, impunity and revolving doors in Slovakia’s circles of power.”
Speaking to AFP on the campaign trail, Caputova said that if elected, she would “initiate systematic changes that would deprive prosecutors and the police of political influence.”
Earlier this week, she won an endorsement from Jozef Kuciak, the slain journalist’s brother, who denounced Sefcovic for his ties to the political establishment.
“I will not vote for someone supported by oligarchs and their people who have deprived me of my brother and sister-in-law,” he said.
Outgoing President Andrej Kiska also endorsed Caputova, saying Saturday: “We need politicians who will fight for a decent and just Slovakia.”
Observers have compared Caputova to French President Emmanuel Macron, an outsider who swept to power on a reformist agenda.
“A similar story unfolded during the last presidential election in France, where the representative of the new political trend and a new political movement prevailed,” analyst Aneta Vilagi told AFP.
But analyst Juraj Marusiak cautioned that both “their programmes were formulated within vague contours, so they can also bring great disappointment.”
“Caputova, like Macron, is a symbol of a very hazily defined hope.”
– ‘Anyone but him’ –
Pensioner Ladislav Kuchta, 66, said he did not want a woman as head of state.
“The president is an important post, we need a man for it,” he told AFP.
“We don’t want an Angela Merkel in Slovakia,” he added, referring to the German chancellor.
Bratislava teacher Edita Sladkova also backed Sefcovic, calling him “fluent in three foreign languages… broad-minded and erudite in all areas.”
But IT technician Oliver Strycek said Caputova’s lack of political experience was refreshing.
“I don’t see anyone among our politicians who’d be trustworthy, not even within the opposition parties,” said the 55-year-old Bratislava voter.
Data analyst Viliam Gregus, 28, in the southern town of Komarno, said his choice of Caputova was “a protest vote against Sefcovic and the ruling coalition.”
Artist Andrej Petrovic, 37, applauded Caputova’s landfill battle, adding: “She will be good for this country.”
Though the office is largely ceremonial, the president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can veto laws passed by parliament.