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Outsider activist tipped to win Slovak presidency

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Bratislava (AFP)

An environmental lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner is poised to win Slovakia's presidential run-off Saturday, one year after the murder of an investigative journalist plunged the EU member state into crisis.

Political novice Zuzana Caputova could command 60 percent of the vote to become the first woman to hold the presidency in the eurozone member of 5.4 million people, according to two recent opinion polls.

The outspoken government critic will face off against EU energy commissioner Maros Sefcovic, a 52-year-old career diplomat backed by the governing Smer-SD party.

That support appears not to have served him well, as Sefcovic took just 19 percent of the vote in round one of the election earlier this month, while Caputova secured 40 percent.

"The ruling populist Smer-SD party is worn out and compromised by manifestations of arrogance of power, corruption, and relations with the oligarchs," Bratislava-based analyst Juraj Marusiak told AFP.

"Caputova's popularity is an expression of voter dissatisfaction."

The 45-year-old divorced mother of two was among tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down in February 2018.

Kuciak was about to publish a report on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia and associated irregularities in EU farm subsidy payments.

The weekly protests forced the government to resign in March 2018, though then premier Robert Fico was replaced by an ally and fellow Smer-SD member.

On Monday, Caputova won the endorsement of Jozef Kuciak, the slain journalist's brother. "I will definitely vote for Ms. Caputova," he wrote on his Facebook page.

"I will not vote for someone supported by oligarchs and their people who have deprived me of my brother and sister-in-law."

- 'Home stretch' -

Junior coalition member Most-Hid, the Hungarian minority party, also called on its supporters to back Caputova.

The third member of the ruling coalition, the far-right Slovak National Party, did not offer support either way.

Slovakia's president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can veto laws passed by parliament.

Though the office is largely ceremonial, Caputova has noted that "next year we'll be facing the election of a new attorney general appointed by the new president".

The former member of the centrist non-parliamentary party Progressive Slovakia -- which she left prior to the run-off -- told AFP she would choose carefully.

"Thorough investigations of corruption and the prosecution of these criminal activities are the most important steps to be taken," Caputova said.

"Our biggest problem is top-level corruption that concerns higher amounts of money."

On Sunday, hundreds of people joined Caputova for a hike up Slovakia's Sitno hill.

"From the very beginning, I've compared this campaign to climbing a steep mountain. Now we've hit the home stretch," she told supporters.

- 'Experienced president' -

"We share her ethical values, her idea of fighting corruption," said Emilia Jurcikova, a resident of the northern town of Dolny Kubin.

Caputova is no stranger to tough battles. The community activist won a top prize for grassroots environmental activism for her successful campaign to block a landfill in her hometown of Pezinok.

Those efforts won over voter Eva Kapustova.

"We are an environmental family, this was one of the reasons we voted for her," said the resident of the central town of Banska Stiavnica.

Gynaecologist Michal Lunicek, 52, told AFP he would vote for Caputova "because Sefcovic is linked to a party that is absolutely unacceptable for me".

Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini has expressed support for Sefcovic, without naming the multilingual European Commission vice-president directly.

"I would really wish to see an experienced president, one who is a seasoned politician and capable of plunging headlong into what is an extremely turbulent international life from day one," he said, the local TASR newswire reported.

Bratislava teacher Martin Chudoba also believes Sefcovic would "be a good advocate for Slovakia abroad.

"He never loses his temper and is a good diplomat," the 56-year-old told AFP.

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

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