The killing of Jan Kuciak, who reported on fraud cases involving politically connected businessmen, triggered the biggest anti-government protests in Slovakia since communism ended three decades earlier. It also led to the resignation of then prime minister, Smer leader Robert Fico. Fico's government remains in power, but Smer's popularity has slumped. On the first anniversary of Kuciak's murder, thousands of Slovaks rallied to protest against what they see as a lack of government action on the corruption he uncovered.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) across the European Union and NATO member country of 5.4 million people, and will close at 10 p.m. The two best performing candidates will face a run-off on March 30. Polls show the Smer-backed candidate, EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic, trailing far behind political newcomer and lawyer Zuzana Caputova, whose endorsement by the protest movement has catapulted her to frontrunner position with support at more than 50 percent.
If elected, the 45-year-old Caputova, a pro-European liberal who belongs to the small, non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, will stand out among the populist nationalist politicians on the rise across much of Europe. "I see a strong call for change in this election following the tragic events last spring and a very strong public reaction," Caputova told reporters as she cast vote in her home town Pezinok. "We stand on a crossroads between the loss and renewal of public trust, also in terms of Slovakia's foreign policy orientation."
Sefcovic, who voted in Bratislava and ran on a platform of unity and continuity, said he would "expect the results with suspense. The people will decide." The president does not wield day-to-day power but has veto power over the appointments of senior prosecutors and judges, pivotal in that fight.
The murder of Kuciak and his fiancee, who was shot dead alongside him, is still under investigation. The biggest breakthrough to date came just two days before the vote, when special prosecutors said they had charged businessman Marian Kocner, a subject of Kuciak's reporting with connections across the political scene including with Smer, with ordering the murder. "Caputova has a history of fighting for the common people as a public-interest lawyer and brings much-needed non-confrontational style and liberal values to the public debate," Ivan Musak, 52, told Reuters in Bratislava.
Peter, a 69-year old pensioner who declined to give his full name, was concerned about her lack of political experience. "Sefcovic is an experienced diplomat, he would be more capable of representing the country," he said. "But I voted for him despite the Smer backing, not because of it."
The last AKO agency poll before the vote published on March 1, showed support for Caputova at 52.9 percent and Sefcovic at 16.7 percent. Supreme court judge and former justice minister Stefan Harabin, an independent, got 11.4 percent. He promises to fight immigration and dismantle EU sanctions against Russia. He slams LGBT rights as "sick ideology" and says he would "renounce all international treaties that Slovakia joined under pressure". (Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Jason Hovet, Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Potter, William Maclean)