Slovakia set to elect anti-graft lawyer as first female president

March 30, 2019

By Tatiana Jancarikova

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Riding a wave of public fury over corruption, liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova looked set to win Slovakia’s presidential election on Saturday, bucking a trend that has seen populist, anti-European Union politicians make gains across the continent.

Corruption and change have been the main themes ahead of the run-off vote, which takes place a year after journalist Jan Kuciak, who investigated high-profile fraud cases, and his fiancee were murdered at their home.

Caputova, pro-European Union political novice who would become Slovakia’s first female president, won the election’s first round two weeks ago with 40.6 percent of the vote, ahead of European Commissioner Maros Sefcovic on 18.7 percent.

Sefcovic, a respected diplomat who is also pro-EU, is backed by the ruling party Smer, the largest grouping in parliament and which has dominated Slovak politics since 2006.

Caputova campaigned to end what she calls the capture of the state “by people pulling strings from behind”, a message that opinion polls show resonates with younger, educated voters.

Voting stations opened at 7 a.m. (0600 GMT) and were due to close at 10 p.m., with results expected overnight.

“I was convinced by Caputova’s history. She knows what it is like to face injustice and she has always had the back of those who fought against the oligarchs,” said Zuzana Behrikova, voter at a polling station in Bratislava.

“I believe she will be able to resist the pressures that come with the position.”

Slovakia’s president wields little day-to-day power but appoints prime ministers and can veto appointments of senior prosecutors and judges.

Five people have been charged with the murders of Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova, including businessman Marian Kocner, who was investigated by Kuciak, and who has become a symbol of perceived impunity after more than a decade of rule by Smer. Kocner denies any wrongdoing.

The killings ignited the biggest protests in Slovakia’s post-communist history.

Caputova waged a 14-year fight with a company Kocner represented that wanted to build an illegal landfill in her home town. She eventually won the case, earning her the nickname “Slovakia’s Erin Brockovich”, after the American environmentalist famously portrayed by Julia Roberts in a 2000 film.

‘WILL TO CHANGE’

“Slovakia is waking up, showing great will to change and hope linked to this and the following election,” Caputova said in the last televised debate this week, hinting at the upcoming European Parliament vote and the 2020 general election.

An opinion poll by Median agency, the only survey released between the first and the second round of voting, put support for Caputova at 60.5 percent. Sefcovic, who has campaigned on his experience and personal relationships with foreign leaders, held a 39.5 percent vote share, according to the poll.

Courting voters who backed anti-immigration candidates in the first round of the presidential election, Sefcovic has said he rejects the vision of an EU “where the distribution of migrants would be decided by someone other than Slovakia”.

The Moscow-educated politician supported the government’s opposition to mandatory migrant quotas suggested by the European Commission, where he is a vice-president.

Sefcovic, who joined the Communist Party in what was then Czechoslovakia just months before communism collapsed in November 1989, has stressed his Christian beliefs in the campaign. He called Caputova’s support for abortion rights and LGBT rights “ultra-liberal”.

“I chose Sefcovic because of his opposition to gay marriage and adoption,” said voter Juraj, 57, in Bratislava. “Family is the future of the nation. I don’t want gay people to be allowed to adopt children.”

(Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Frances Kerry and Catherine Evans)

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