Slovak environmental activist Zuzana Caputova took a step closer to becoming her country’s first female president after winning the first round of nationwide elections, signalling a potential sea change for a country that has fallen victim to rampant corruption since it was established in 1993.
Among the 13 candidates vying for the presidency, Caputova secured 40.56 percent of the vote on Saturday, with more than 99 percent of all districts reporting.
She beat Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president backed by the ruling centre-left Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party, which took the second place with 18.66 percent of the vote.
The two leaders will now compete in a runoff election scheduled for March 30.
The result follows an impressive campaign from Caputova, a lawyer with no public office experience, who for years fought to clean up a toxic landfill.
Since she announced her candidacy a year ago, she has staged a meteoric rise in the polls as the anti-corruption candidate standing up to a government that has become increasingly unpopular since the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak last year.
“I see a strong call for change in this election following the tragic events last spring,” Caputova told reporters as she cast vote in her home town Pezinok. “We stand on a crossroads between the loss and renewal of public trust.”
With a population of just 5.54 million and half of all eligible voters casting their ballots in the election, it became impossible for any one candidate to win outright in the first round.
Slovakia‘s election rules mandate a candidate take at least 50 percent of all eligible votes, not only among those who participated.
Caputova’s resounding first-round victory poses a potential threat to the current political establishment under Smer-SD, experts believe.
Though the party is pro-European Union, it has used a populist platform to strengthen political support, taking a strong stand against migration and EU decision-makers in Brussels.
“The mood in Slovakia fundamentally changed following the murders of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova 13 months ago,” said Rick Zednik, an American-Slovak who established the English-language newspaper ‘Slovak Spectator’ in 1995.
Found shot dead at his home near Bratislava last February, Kuciak at the time was investigating an alleged connection between Italy’s Ndrangheta crime syndicate and high-ranking officials in the Slovak government.
The high-profile murders of Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, months before their wedding, sparked the largest nationwide protests in Slovakia since the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
Weeks later, the then Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned from his post, but remained the head of his party.
“Caputova stepped into this context as a political outsider. That, along with her achievements as a public defender, made her a credible alternative to the political establishment,” Zednik told Al Jazeera, adding that her ascension could be an important factor in the run-up to the next parliamentary election in 2020.
Earlier this week, Slovak prosecutors formally charged a controversial businessman with alleged ties to the mafia with the murders of the 27-year-old Kuciak and Kusnirova.
While the role of the president in Slovakia is symbolic in many respects, it wields a limited but important role in policy, with veto power over any bill passed by the National Council.
The president can also shape the country’s currently vulnerable judicial system, with the ability to appoint judges to the Constitutional Court as well as the judicial council.
“We only have four judges [serving in the Constitutional Court] and we need nine more elected, and Slovakia is waiting for a new president to choose those judges,” said Martin Poliacik, a member of the liberal Progressive Slovakia party, of which Caputova is deputy head.
He hopes that her success could lead to a further backlash against the tide of populism that has swept much of Europe in recent years.
“I think the outcome of these elections will show us how much Slovakia is crying for a change, and not only internally, but for regional civilisation,” he said.
“She would give hope to those other countries as well.”