Slovakia to vote for president in tough test for ruling party

Bratislava (AFP) –


Slovaks vote for a new president on Saturday in a test the ruling populist party looks set to fail one year after the murder of a journalist sparked anti-government protests and plunged the EU member into crisis.

Liberal environmental lawyer and vocal government critic Zuzana Caputova has emerged as the clear favourite for the post ahead of the 2020 general election.

Opinion polls give the 45-year-old divorced mother of two a double-digit lead over her main rival, government-backed EU energy commissioner Maros Sefcovic.

But neither is on track to win the required 50 percent of all eligible voters for victory in the first round. A run-off vote is expected on March 30.

Caputova, a deputy head of the non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, told AFP "people are calling for change".

She was among the tens of thousands who took to the streets of the eurozone country of 5.4 million people after investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down in February 2018.

He was about to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia as well as associated irregularities in EU farm subsidy payments.

The double murder and Kuciak's last explosive report, published posthumously, plunged the country into crisis, raising concerns about media freedom and corruption.

Then prime minister Robert Fico was forced to resign but he remains the leader of the ruling populist-left Smer-SD party and is a close ally of current premier Peter Pellegrini.

For Bratislava-based analyst Juraj Marusiak, the main election issues are "dissatisfaction with the Smer-SD party and a conservative-liberal rivalry".

- First female president? -

Caputova has vowed to restore public trust in the state, running on a billboard slogan of "Let us stand up to evil".

"Caputova appeals to voters who... are dissatisfied with the current political elite, whether at the government or opposition level," Marusiak told AFP.

She has been endorsed by outgoing President Andrej Kiska, a millionaire liberal at odds with the government who is not running for a second term for family reasons.

"I think Slovakia is ready to have its first female president," Maria Pavlova, a 67-year-old pensioner from the southern town of Nove Zamky, told AFP.

But Caputova is pro-choice and promotes greater rights for same-sex couples, views that may prove disadvantageous in conservative Slovakia.

"Her stances on many sensitive issues and her very direct responses may irritate the majority of voters a little," political analyst Pavol Babos told AFP.

Though standing as an independent, 52-year-old Sefcovic has Smer-SD backing, which guarantees him a certain number of votes but may also disqualify him in the eyes of those for whom the party is unacceptable.

"I would not 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. It is an unprecedented tragedy. Slovakia is still polarised and Smer hasn't changed a bit," she told AFP.

- Million-dollar smile -

But IT technician Roland Kutis said, "Sefcovic is an upright, competent, fully prepared candidate of whom we won't be ashamed abroad."

"Although he's not a saint or superman, he's the best choice for Slovakia," the 34-year-old added.

Campaigning on the slogan "Always for Slovakia", Sefcovic is known for his million-dollar smile, with a recent social media meme showing him with the caption "PresiDENT".

He is also a veteran EU politician who has been on the European Commission since 2009 and a vice-president since 2014.

Yet Sefcovic has "little insight into domestic politics", according to Marusiak.

Sefcovic was initially ahead in opinion polls until the largely unknown Caputova rocketed into first place when scientist Robert Mistrik dropped out of the race and endorsed her.

Caputova had 52.9 percent support compared to Sefcovic's 16.7 percent, according to a survey this month by the AKO agency, the last poll before a two-week moratorium.

Another poll by the Focus institute gave Caputova 44.8 percent and Sefcovic 22.1 percent.

Though the office is largely ceremonial, the president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges including the Supreme Court chief justice, and is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The head of state can also veto laws passed by parliament.

Thirteen candidates are vying for the job, including anti-migrant Supreme Court judge Stefan Harabin, far-right MP Marian Kotleba and veteran ethnic Hungarian politician Bela Bugar.

Polling stations open at 0600 GMT on Saturday and close at 2100 GMT.