BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - Vocal government critic Zuzana Caputova clinched pole position in round one of Slovakia's weekend presidential election, according to near-complete results of the first ballot since an investigative journalist's slaying dealt a blow to the political establishment.
The environmental lawyer secured 40.55 percent of the ballot with 99.88 percent of votes counted, while runner-up European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, the ruling Smer-SD party's candidate, garnered 18.66 percent, the Slovak Statistics Office said early Sunday.
Caputova is on course to become Slovakia's first female president, as a new opinion poll by the Focus pollster said she would win the runoff vote against career diplomat Sefcovic, 52, by a landslide on March 30.
The 45-year-old liberal thanked her supporters in the race for the largely ceremonial post, saying "thank you" in Slovak as well as in the languages of the country's largest minority groups.
Focus on public trust
Running on a slogan of "Stand up to evil," Caputova had appealed to voters tired of the country's main political players and vowed to restore public trust in the state.
She was among tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after last year's killing of journalist Jan Kuciak, which shocked the nation and raised fears about media freedom and political corruption.
They were the largest anti-government protests since communist times in the central European country of 5.4 million people, which spent decades behind the Iron Curtain before joining the European Union, the eurozone and NATO.
"It turns out that we want our country to be decent and fair. Zuzana Caputova is exactly the person who can pull Slovakia out of the crisis," outgoing President Andrej Kiska said in a Facebook video message after the results rolled in.
The president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is commander in chief of the armed forces and can also veto laws passed by parliament.
Turnout was just under 50 percent.
The voting did not go completely without a hitch, as a man ran out with the ballot box at the polling station in the eastern village of Medzany and threw it to the ground, scattering its contents on the street.
Caputova, a deputy head of the non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, cast her ballot in her southern city of Pezinok.
"Slovakia is at a crossroads in terms of regaining the public's trust," she said, flanked by her daughters and partner.
Symbol of change
Journalist Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down in February 2018 just as he was about to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.
The double murder and Kuciak's last explosive report, published posthumously, plunged the country into crisis.
Then-Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign but remains the leader of the populist-left Smer-SD and is a close ally of current Premier Peter Pellegrini.
Four people were charged with the killings.
On Thursday, prosecutors said they had also charged multimillionaire businessman Marian Kocner with ordering the killing of Kuciak, who had been investigating his business activities at the time.
Kocner is believed to have ties to Smer-SD.
"With this announcement, the authorities may have wanted to show just how effectively the state functions so it could help Sefcovic gain some points," Bratislava-based analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP.
"On the other hand, this could also be a vindication for Caputova, as she is the symbol of change."
On the streets of Bratislava, several voters said they were impressed by Caputova's fresh approach.
Project manager Nora Bajnokova, 33, said she backed Caputova because "she is a woman, a mother, a lawyer and not involved in active politics," while voter Ivan Jankovic, 31, called her "courageous and open-minded."
But for security guard Oto, 41, who did not give his last name, only Sefcovic was "serious" enough to be presidential material.
"Sefcovic is an experienced multilingual diplomat who can immediately represent Slovakia abroad," said another voter, Milan Perunko, 54.
A sports enthusiast and European Commission vice president since 2014, Sefcovic campaigned on the slogan "Always for Slovakia."
Official results will be announced at noon on Sunday.