Anti-graft campaigner leads first round in Slovak presidential vote

Slovakia's presidential candidate Zuzana Caputova speaks after the first unofficial results at a party election headquarters in Bratislava, Slovakia, March 16, 2019. REUTERS/David W Cerny

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – An anti-corruption campaigner with no experience of public office led the first round of Slovakia’s presidential election on Saturday after votes from half of polling stations were counted, as voters spurn the ruling Smer party a year after the murder of a journalist sparked mass protests.

The killing of Jan Kuciak, who reported on fraud cases involving politically connected businessmen, triggered the biggest anti-government protests in Slovakia since communism ended three decades earlier. It also led to the resignation of then prime minister, Smer leader Robert Fico.

Fico’s government remains in power, but Smer’s popularity has slumped. On the first anniversary of Kuciak’s murder, thousands of Slovaks rallied to protest against what they see as a lack of government action on the corruption he uncovered.

With results from more than 50 percent of polling stations counted, Zuzana Caputova looked set to take pole position with 39.1 percent of votes, far ahead of the governing party candidate, Maros Sefcovic, who had 18.8 percent.

If no candidate secures a majority of all votes cast in the European Union and NATO member country of 5.4 million, the top two candidates will contest a second round on March 30.

If elected, the 45-year-old Caputova, a pro-European liberal who belongs to the small, non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, will stand out among the populist nationalist politicians on the rise across much of Europe.

“I see a strong call for change in this election following the tragic events last spring and a very strong public reaction,” Caputova told reporters as she cast her ballot earlier on Saturday. “We stand at a crossroads between the loss and renewal of public trust, also in terms of Slovakia’s foreign policy orientation.”

Slovakia’s president does not wield day-to-day power but has veto power over the appointments of senior prosecutors and judges, pivotal in the fight against corruption.

The murder of Kuciak and his fiancee, who was shot dead alongside him, is still under investigation. The biggest breakthrough to date came just two days before the vote, when special prosecutors said they had charged businessman Marian Kocner, a subject of Kuciak’s reporting with connections across the political scene including with Smer, with ordering the murder.

“Caputova has a history of fighting for the common people as a public-interest lawyer and brings much-needed non-confrontational style and liberal values to the public debate,” Ivan Musak, 52, told Reuters in Bratislava.

Peter, a 69-year old pensioner who declined to give his full name, was concerned about her lack of political experience.

“Sefcovic is an experienced diplomat, he would be more capable of representing the country,” he said. “But I voted for him despite the Smer backing, not because of it.”

Supreme court judge and former justice minister Stefan Harabin, an independent, got 14.5 percent and secured the third place in the vote. He promises to fight immigration and dismantle EU sanctions against Russia.

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