A vocal government critic was expected to take the lead in round one of the Slovak presidential election Saturday, the first ballot since an investigative journalist's murder dealt a blow to the political establishment.

Frontrunner Zuzana Caputova, 45, was among tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after the killing, which shocked the nation and raised fears about media freedom and political corruption.

They were the largest anti-government protests since communist times in the central European country of 5.4 million people, which spent decades behind the Iron Curtain before joining the European Union, the eurozone and NATO.

While most polling stations closed at on Saturday evening, voting was extended by an hour in the eastern village of Medzany after a man ran out with the ballot box and threw it to the ground, scattering its contents on the street. 

Opinion polls give the environmental lawyer a double-digit lead over European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, a 52-year-old career diplomat backed by the ruling Smer-SD party, in the race for the largely ceremonial post. 

"Caputova attracts those who abhor corruption and are dissatisfied with what they see as an increasingly... self-dealing government," said Kevin Deegan-Krause, a central Europe expert at Wayne State University. 

"Sefcovic appeals to those with a certain satisfaction with the progress of a country which, by many indicators, has not done at all badly over the last decade." 

Neither candidate is on track for an outright victory and a run-off vote is expected on March 30.

The president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can also veto laws passed by parliament.

Caputova, a deputy head of the non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party who would be Slovakia's first female president if elected, cast her ballot in her southern city of Pezinok.

"Slovakia is at a crossroads in terms of regaining the public's trust," she said, flanked by her daughters and partner.

'Symbol of change' 

Journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were gunned down in February 2018 just as he was about to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.

The double murder and Kuciak's last explosive report, published posthumously, plunged the country into crisis.

Then prime minister Robert Fico was forced to resign but remains the leader of the populist-left Smer-SD and is a close ally of current premier Peter Pellegrini.

Four people were charged with the killings. 

On Thursday, prosecutors said they had also charged multi-millionaire businessman Marian Kocner with ordering the murder of Kuciak, who had been investigating his business activities at the time. 

Kocner is believed to have ties to Smer-SD.

"With this announcement, the authorities may have wanted to show just how effectively the state functions so it could help Sefcovic gain some points," Bratislava-based analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP. 

"On the other hand, this could also be a vindication for Caputova, as she is the symbol of change."

Caputova won a vote from outgoing President Andrej Kiska on Saturday. "It is extremely important to continue this fight for a decent and fair Slovakia," he told reporters. 

On the streets of Bratislava, several voters said they were impressed by Caputova's fresh approach. 

Project manager Nora Bajnokova, 33, said she backed Caputova because "she is a woman, a mother, a lawyer and not involved in active politics", while 31-year-old voter Ivan Jankovic called her "courageous and open-minded".

But for 41-year-old security guard Oto, who did not give his last name, only Sefcovic was "serious" enough to be president material.

"Sefcovic is an experienced multilingual diplomat who can immediately represent Slovakia abroad," said another voter, Milan Perunko, 54. 

Campaigning on the slogan "Always for Slovakia", Sefcovic has promised greater social benefits for the elderly and young families.

A European Commission vice-president since 2014, Sefcovic is known for his passion for sports. 

After voting, he told reporters he would "have lunch with my family and in the afternoon, I want to do some physical activity".

Thirteen candidates are vying for the job, including Supreme Court judge Stefan Harabin, far-right MP Marian Kotleba and ethnic Hungarian politician Bela Bugar.


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