Slovaks began voting Saturday for a new president with the favourite an outsider whose anti-corruption stance has resonated with voters, still reeling from the fallout from an investigative journalist's murder.
An environmental lawyer with no experience in political office, Zuzana Caputova could become the EU and eurozone member's first female president.
Her rival in the run-off election is the ruling party's candidate, EU energy commissioner and career diplomat Maros Sefcovic.
Two recent opinion polls give at least 60 percent of the vote to Caputova, who ran on a slogan of ‘Stand up to evil’, telling AFP that ‘People are calling for change’ in the central European country of 5.4 million.
She was among tens of thousands of anti-government protesters who rallied last year after journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down as he was preparing to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.
Then prime minister Robert Fico was forced to resign but remains the leader of the populist-left Smer-SD party and is a close ally of the current premier.
Five people have been charged in the Kuciak case, including a millionaire businessman with alleged ties to Smer-SD who is suspected of having ordered the murders.
The European Parliament urged Slovakia on Thursday to continue to investigate, ‘including 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.’
The Smer-SD has backed Sefcovic, support that appears not to have served him well, as the 52-year-old took just 19 percent of the vote in the first round of the election compared with Caputova's 40 percent.
The slain journalist's brother is among voters who have ruled out Sefcovic because of 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,’ Jozef Kuciak wrote on his Facebook page earlier this week.
‘I will definitely vote for Ms. Caputova.’
- Pro-democracy, pro-Europe -
Analysts compare the 45-year-old divorced mother of two to French President Emmanuel Macron, an outsider who swept to power in 2017 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 fellow analyst Juraj Marusiak cautioned that the comparison also came with a darker side as ‘Caputova, like Macron, is a symbol of a very hazily defined hope.’
‘Their programmes were formulated within vague contours, so they can also bring great disappointment,’ he said.
Caputova's campaign promises include environmental protection, better care for the elderly and justice for all.
‘I intend to actively initiate systematic changes that would deprive prosecutors and the police of political influence,’ Caputova told AFP.
Sefcovic for his part has promised greater social benefits for seniors and young families, a stronger industrial policy and a revitalisation of the country's agricultural sector.
Outgoing President Andrej Kiska said he was pleased that ‘two democratic and pro-European candidates have advanced to the run-off.’
‘Believe me, this is something that many countries envy us for,’ he added in a televised address Wednesday.
Kiska has endorsed Caputova, while Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini implied support for Sefcovic by calling for ‘an experienced president’.
- What the people want -
Teacher Edita Sladkova said she is backing Sefcovic for his know-how and work abroad.
‘Sefcovic is an educated man, fluent in three foreign languages. He is broad-minded and erudite in all areas and a real diplomat,’ the Bratislava resident told AFP.
Pensioner Anna Kutisova is also on team Sefcovic.
‘My heart tells me he is a good man and would be a good president. So he has my full confidence,’ said the 78-year-old from the western city of Nitra.
Gynaecologist Michal Lunicek however says ‘Sefcovic is linked to a party that is absolutely unacceptable for me.’
‘There are problems with the police and rule of law in the country. That is what the next president will have to tackle,’ the 52-year-old told AFP.
Caputova would also ‘have to fight Fico and this mafia,’ added fellow supporter Miroslava Slivkova, a resident of the central village of Hronska Dubrava.
Though the office is largely ceremonial, the president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The head of state can also veto laws passed by parliament.
Polling stations close at 2100 GMT. Provisional results are expected around midnight.
The new president will be sworn in on June 15.
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