(Bloomberg) -- A liberal woman lawyer propelled by voters’ anger about corruption took a wide lead in Slovakia’s presidential election, ahead of a European Union official and a pro-Russian jurist, according to partial first-round results.
The rise of Zuzana Caputova, 45, may signal a counterpoint to nationalist populism in eastern Europe, where governments in Hungary and Poland have clashed with the EU over democratic standards. Known for stopping an illegal landfill in Slovakia’s wine region, Caputova rose to political prominence after the murder of an investigative journalist in February 2018 stoked popular revulsion and the biggest anti-government protests since the fall of communism .
Caputova is likely to head into a runoff against Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice president running on the governing Smer party’s ticket. Stefan Harabin, a Supreme Court judge who campaigned on criticism of the EU and anti-migrant rhetoric, was running third after almost two-thirds of voting districts were counted.
Caputova’s embrace of gay rights and the EU’s multicultural foundations contrast with the political mood in neighboring nations and her pledge to “fight the evil together” resonates with Slovaks, whose protests led three-term Prime Minister Robert Fico, the Smer leader, to resign a year ago.
Read more: How a Reporter’s Murder Forced Out Slovakia’s Premier
While Slovakia’s presidency has limited powers, it has a key role in granting politicians mandates to form a government and in appointing judges. The runoff vote on March 30 will pit voters turned off by alleged corruption among the ruling elite against government supporters attracted by generous social spending.
“While Sefcovic will likely win votes from supporters of unsuccessful nationalist and conservative candidates, the turnout will probably be substantially higher among those voters who want to see Caputova become an institutional counterweight to the current executive,” said Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels.
Wine vs. Landfill
Caputova, a divorced mother of two, led residents in a fight against an illegal landfill in the western Slovak town of Pezinok, the heart of the country’s wine-producing region. She captivated audience during televised campaign debates, leaping ahead of Sefcovic in polls.
Caputova had 39 percent of votes after 60 percent of ballot districts were counted, the statistics office said on its website on Saturday. No candidate was likely to win the presidency in the first round. Sefcovic had 19 percent in the partial results, followed by Harabin with 14 percent. Before the first round, opinion polls showed that Caputova would beat either Sefcovic or Harabin in the decisive ballot.
Slovaks generally support the EU, where Sefcovic has been the country’s most visible figure, though his popularity has been hurt by the governing party’s endorsement.
While Smer leader Fico oversaw Slovakia’s adoption of the euro and kept the nation of 5.4 million in the EU mainstream, his party faced allegations of graft linked to its officials. During last year’s protests, Fico alleged that foreigners such as billionaire philanthropist George Soros wanted to destabilize Slovakia.
President Andrej Kiska, a supporter of Slovakia’s pro-western orientation and critic of the Smer-led government, is stepping aside after a single five-year term.
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