BRATISLAVA—Environmental lawyer Zuzana Caputova has vaulted past the Slovak ruling party's candidate in opinion polls, just weeks before a presidential election which voters may use to give their verdict on government efforts to crack down on corruption.
With the first round of voting on March 16, surveys this week showed Caputova taking a strong lead over Maros Sefcovic, the candidate of former prime minister Robert Fico's Smer party, which has been in power almost continuously since the mid-2000s.
The election is a challenge for the three-party governing coalition a year after the murder of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee ignited the biggest protests in the central European country's post-communist history.
The killings, over which four people have been charged although the motive remains unclear, sparked an outcry over perceived state corruption and impunity that many say has not been addressed by the cabinet.
Fico resigned as prime minister last year to prevent snap elections and keep the government intact.
Sefcovic, a career diplomat and European Commission vice-president, had been ahead in the polls until this week.
Caputova, whose most prominent legal case was a 14-year fight against an illegal landfill site in her hometown Pezinok, outside Bratislava, for which she won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016, also has the support of outgoing head of state Andrej Kiska. He defeated Fico in the most recent presidential election in 2014.
Slovakia's president wields little day-to-day power but must approve the formation of new governments and appoints judges to the constitutional court.
Smer, which is still led by Fico, has taken a hit in opinion polls over the past year but remains 10 percent ahead of its closest rival for power in parliament. The next general election is in 2020.
The party has had almost continuous control of parliament since the mid-2000s, during which time the country of 5.4 million has joined the euro currency and enjoyed fast economic growth fueled by sectors such as car production.