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22nd Nov 2019

Anti-corruption lawyer wins first round of Slovak elections

  • Zuzana Caputova has become the front runner in Slovakia's presidential race (Photo: Wikimedia)

An anti-corruption lawyer running on a liberal platform has won the first round in Slovakia's presidential election, as voters punish the ruling Smer party a year after the murder of an investigative journalist.

The 45-year old environmental campaigner, Zuzana Caputova, won 40.5 percent of the votes on Saturday (16 March), well ahead of EU commission vice-president and Smer-backed candidate Maros Sefcovic who received 18.7 percent of the votes.

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Their run-off will be on 30 March.

Slovak voters embraced Caputova's pro-European liberal message in what seems to be a backlash against rising national populism across Europe.

It is currently rare for a candidate promoting liberal democracy to be winning in the region, where a turn towards an authoritarian style of governing has been dominating politics in Hungary and Poland, and had an impact in neighbouring countries.

Slovakia's president does not hold power over the day-to-day political affairs of the country, but holds veto power over key appointments of prosecutors and judges,

Caputova, who hails from the small, non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, told supporters on Saturday that she sees a "strong call for change in this election following the tragic events last spring and a very strong public reaction".

"We stand at a crossroads between the loss and renewal of public trust, also in terms of Slovakia's foreign policy orientation," she said, according to Reuters.

Last February the murder of a young investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his finance, who was reporting on fraud cases involving politically well-connected businessmen triggered the biggest anti-government protests in Slovakia since the fall of communism there decades earlier.

The demonstrations led to the reluctant resignation of Smer leader and prime minister Robert Fico. A weakened Smer remained in power.

Two days before the first round of votes, special prosecutors said they had charged businessman Marian Kocner, a subject of Kuciak's reporting, with ordering the murder.

Caputova has had her own run-ins with Kocner, when Caputova spearheaded a campaign against a landfill site, which Kocner was involved in. The site was finally ordered to be closed after a 2015 European Court of Justice ruling.

Caputova, who has held no elected office before, was the target of an "intense disinformation campaign" according to Slovak think tank Globsec.

Sefcovic, who is taking an unpaid leave of absence from his commission job to run in Slovakia's presidential elections, could now turn to the right in the run-up to the second round.

Sefcovic could try to tap into the overall 25 per cent of votes cast for Stefan Harabin, a populist who campaigned against foreigners and Brussels, and far-right Marian Kotleba, who have railed against Muslim migrants threatening Europe and Christianity and advocated closer ties with Russia.

Smer-leader Fico could also push Sefcovic to take a harder line in the next few weeks, putting the Slovak EU politician - who is not a Smer member and himself has a reputation for a moderate in Brussels - in an awkward position.

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