Polls have opened in Slovakia‘s presidential elections that a vocal government critic is poised to win after an investigative journalist’s murder dealt a blow to the ruling party.
In Saturday’s polling, 13 candidates are vying for the job, including Supreme Court judge Stefan Harabin, far-right MP Marian Kotleba and ethnic Hungarian politician Bela Bugar.
Frontrunner Zuzana Caputova, the environmental lawyer, has a double-digit lead over the closest rival, Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice president backed by the ruling centre-left Direction – Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party.
Caputova, 45, was among tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of the eurozone country of 5.4 million last year after journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova were shot dead at his home near the capital Bratislava in February 2018.
Kuciak had been working on a story about links between the Slovak government and the Italian Mafia.
Caputova has vowed to restore public trust in the state, running on a slogan “Let us stand up to evil”.
She may have gotten a last-minute boost on Thursday after prosecutors charged multimillionaire businessman Marian Kocner, who is believed to have ties to Smer-SD, with ordering the murder of the journalist.
Yet voters could also interpret the news as a sign the system works and those currently in power are doing a fine job.
If Caputova wins, she will be Slovakia’s first female head of state. She has been endorsed by incumbent President Andrej Kiska.
Her win could render Smer-SD more vulnerable in the run-up to the next parliamentary election in 2020.
Under Smer-SD, which has held the majority in parliament since 2006, Slovakia joined the eurozone and its growing economy is now the world’s largest per capita car producer.
But corruption remains a problem and this has galvanised anti-establishment voters.
Slovakia ranks 57th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, behind neighbours Poland and the Czech Republic but ahead of Hungary.
In the event that no candidate receives an absolute majority, a runoff will take place on March 30 between the two candidates with the most votes.
More than four million voters are eligible to vote. Polling stations opened at 7am (06:00 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 10pm (21:00 GMT). The results are expected on Sunday.
Though the office is largely ceremonial, the president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges and is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The head of state can also veto laws passed by parliament.