Slovaks vote as anti-corruption activist tipped for presidency

Zuzana Caputov, an environmental lawyer may become Slovakia’s new female president. (AFP pic)

BRATISLAVA: Slovakia voted Saturday in an election dominated by calls for change, with an anti-corruption activist likely to be chosen as its first female president a year after a journalist’s murder sparked mass anti-government protests.

An environmental lawyer with no experience in political office, Zuzana Caputova is on course to win the run-off against ruling party’s candidate and EU energy commissioner Maros Sefcovic.

Two recent opinion polls gave at least 60% of the vote to Caputova, who campaigned on a slogan of “Stand up to evil” in this central European country of 5.4 million.

She was one of tens of thousands of protesters who rallied after investigative journalist Jan Kuciak was gunned down alongside his fiancee.

He had been preparing to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.

The killing forced then prime minister Robert Fico to resign but he remains 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 ordering the murders.

The European Parliament has urged Slovakia to continue investigating, “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.”

Smer-SD has backed Sefcovic, which may have cost him in the first round when the 52-year-old took just 19% of the vote compared with Caputova’s 40 percent.

Jozef Kuciak, the slain journalist’s brother, 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, endorsing Caputova, a 45-year-old divorcee with two children.

Caputova ‘like Macron’

Analysts 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 fellow 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.”

Slovakia’s President Andrej Kiska, a millionaire liberal at odds with the government, has expressed satisfaction that both candidates were “democratic and pro-European” but has personally endorsed Caputova.

“We need politicians who will fight for a decent and just Slovakia,” he said on Saturday.

‘Rather have a man’  

Speaking to AFP, Caputova said that if elected, she would “initiate systematic changes that would deprive prosecutors and the police of political influence.”

In addition to fighting for justice for all, Caputova has promised better care for the elderly and environmental protection.

Sefcovic’s campaign promises include greater social benefits for seniors and young families, a stronger industrial policy and a revitalisation of the country’s agricultural sector.

After casting his ballot in Bratislava, Sefcovic said he was hoping for a high turnout, which “means greater legitimacy for the elected president.”

“I want to take a walk and profit from this nice spring day,” he told reporters after a family lunch described as “festive”.

One of those who voted for him was 59-year-old Ondrej Hutira.

“I’d rather have a man for such an important position,” he told AFP.

‘Trustworthy and humane’

Bratislava teacher Edita Sladkova is also cast her ballot for Sefcovic, who is “fluent in three foreign languages… broad-minded and erudite in all areas.”

But economist Ivan Polakovic believes Sefcovic “has made a mistake. He’s a career diplomat. He should have stayed in Brussels.”

“I knew who I didn’t want to vote for. Therefore Caputova was my only choice,” the 44-year-old told AFP.

Financier Slavomir Kubani, 39, also backed Caputova, whom he called “a trustworthy person, humane and reasonable.”

“I didn’t want to vote for someone backed by the Smer party, we have had enough bad experience with them.”

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.

Polling stations close at 2100 (9pm). Provisional results are expected around midnight.

The new president will be sworn in on June 15.