March 1, 2019 / 4:09 PM / 6 months ago

Opposition Slovak presidential candidate soars in final poll

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer and activist who has suddenly emerged as the front-runner in a presidential election in Slovakia, opened a seemingly insurmountable lead over the ruling party’s candidate in the final opinion poll two weeks before the vote.

Presidential candidate Zuzana Caputova speaks to Reuters at a news conference in Bratislava, Slovakia February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tatiana Jancarikova

A survey by the AKO agency, the last before a two-week moratorium on polls starting on Saturday, showed Caputova with 52.9 percent support. Maros Sefcovic, backed by former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, placed a distant second at just 16.7 percent.

Sefcovic, a career diplomat, had led in polls until just this week, when another challenger, scientist and entrepreneur Robert Mistrik, pulled out of the race and endorsed Caputova.

Caputova would still face a high hurdle to win the election in a single round, which requires winning the votes of more than 50 percent of all eligible voters, not just of those who turn up. Otherwise, the two top candidates will face each other in a run-off two weeks later.

Support for the three-party governing coalition has collapsed since the murder of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak, who was investigating tax fraud by politically connected businessmen when he was shot dead along with his fiancee a year ago. The killings ignited the biggest protests in Slovakia’s post-communist history.

Four people have been charged in the killings, which sparked an outcry over perceived corruption and impunity.

Fico — who had dominated Slovakian politics before Kuciak’s death, serving as prime minister for 10 of the previous 12 years — resigned under pressure from public protests last March but has remained ruling party boss.

Slovakia’s president wields little day-to-day power, but he or she approves the formation of new governments and appoints judges to the constitutional court. Fico has indicated that he hoped to retire from politics into a seat on the court.

A poll by Focus agency released on Thursday put Caputova at 44.8 percent and Sefcovic second with 22.1 percent.

Caputova, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016 for her 14-year fight against an illegal landfill site in her hometown, Pezinok, outside Bratislava, also has the support of the outgoing head of state, Andrej Kiska. He defeated Fico in the last presidential election in 2014.

“The street protests, organized by the platform ‘For a Decent Slovakia’ of mostly students and NGOs, have mobilized the civic society not only to rally but to take political action,” Bratislava-based political analyst Samuel Abraham said.

“Even though they did not openly endorse Caputova, they gave her the momentum to more than triple her support from a month ago,” he said.

Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Peter Graff

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