Stockholm (Ekonamik) – With support for the governing three-party coalition collapsing since the murder of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s resignation last year after mass protests, a new challenger has emerged that looks set to upend Slovakia’s presidential election, which will be held in two rounds on March 16 and March 30.
Mr Kuciak was investigating tax fraud by politically connected businessmen when he and his fiancée were shot dead a year ago. The election is the first national referendum since his death, which sparked anti-corruption protests against the government the size of which had not been witnessed since the Velvet Revolution. Mr Fico, who served as prime minister for 10 of the previous 12 years, remains in charge of the ruling Smer party, despite stepping down as prime minister last March.
Zuzanna Čaputová, an environmental lawyer who suddenly emerged as the frontrunner in the final poll from the AKO agency two weeks before the first round vote, opened what looked like an insurmountable lead over the ruling party’s candidate, with 52,9%. Maroš Šefčovič, who is backed by Mr Fico and Smer, came in a distant second with 16,7%.
Despite this, it is still unclear whether Mrs Čaputová, a pro-Western liberal, can win the election in a single round, which requires winning over 50% of votes. If she does not clear the 50% mark, Ms Čaputová and likely Mr Šefčovič will face each other in the run-off two weeks later. Another possible opponent remains Štefan Harabin, a former Justice Minister and Supreme Court Justice whose campaign and politics are resolutely Trumpian.
Mr Šefčovič, a career diplomat and a Vice President of the European Commission, lost his lead in the polls when another challenger, the scientist and entrepreneur Robert Mistrik, pulled out of the race and endorsed Mrs Čaputová. She also has the support of Andrej Kiska, the outgoing pro-Western president, who defeated Mr Fico in the 2014 presidential election.
The presidency in Slovakia is a largely ceremonial post, but the office does approve the formation of new governments and appoints judges to the constitutional court. Mr Fico has suggested he would retire from politics and into a seat on the court, a proposition dimmed by Mrs Čaputová’s surge. Meanwhile, the governing coalition between Smer, a Slovak nationalist party, and a small Hungarian party, looks unlikely to last.
Mrs Čaputová is backed by a coalition of SPOLU-Civic Democracy, a centre-right party, and “Progressive Slovakia”, a centre-left party, both of which are new reformist parties formed in the wake of the Kuciak assassination and attendant protests that stand a good chance of taking over the government in next year’s parliamentary election. She has also benefitted from backing, if not open endorsement, from the ‘For a Decent Slovakia’ platform composed of students and NGOs, which gave her momentum to more than triple her support in the course of a month.
According to the latest OECD Economic Outlook released last month, Slovakia is set to become the fastest growing developed economy in the world in 2019. The OECD forecasts that the Slovak economy will grow at a rate of 4.3% in 2019 and 3.6% the following year. With turnout expected to be high, the larger question hovering over the election will be Slovakia’s direction and the degree of its European integration, alongside finding solutions to economic and social challenges such as ageing, low levels of R&D, and a large and badly integrated Roma population.