Provisional results showed Caputova securing more than twice the votes of her rival Maros Sefcovic, suggesting the electorate had shunned the political establishment following last year’s shock murder of an investigative journalist probing corruption.
The liberal environmental lawyer, who secured 40 percent of the vote, is almost certain to win the March 30 run-off against European Commission vice-president Sefcovic, who took just 19 percent.
The outcome is likely to spell trouble for the governing Smer-SD ahead of next year’s general election.
“Caputova has such a large lead that Sefcovic would have to attract nearly all the unsuccessful candidates’ voters and that is improbable,” Bratislava-based analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP.
“By choosing Caputova, people have strongly called for change for the better in accordance with the values of liberal democracy,” he said.
“Those who want continuity and Smer-SD to remain in power are in the clear minority.”
Mass protests were key
Running on a slogan of “Stand up to evil,” the divorced mother of two had joined tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after the killing of journalist Jan Kuciak who was investigating political corruption.
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 murder shocked the nation and raised fears about media freedom and political corruption.
It also sparked 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.
Robert Fico, who was prime minister at the time, was forced to resign but he remains leader of the populist-left Smer-SD and is a close ally of current premier Peter Pellegrini.
“These anti-government protests and their consequences showed the people that their opinion mattered. It was a very important factor in the election,” Meseznikov said.
‘On the right track’
“Slovakia is on the right track,” said outgoing President Andrej Kiska, a liberal millionaire who has endorsed Caputova.
“Caputova is exactly the person who can pull Slovakia out of the crisis,” he said in a Facebook video message after the results rolled in.
Speaking on Sunday, Caputova said she would “try to address voters whose candidates did not make it to the second round”.
One of the leaders of Progressive Slovakia, a non-parliamentary party, she is a community activist who won a top prize for grassroots environmental activism for her successful campaign to block a landfill in her native town of Pezinok.
She is also known for being pro-choice and promoting greater rights for same-sex couples — views that Sefcovic appears keen to use to his advantage in conservative Slovakia.
“I want to address those who insist that Slovakia remain a Christian country and do not want the elections to be perceived as a referendum on a new super liberal agenda that Caputova is promoting,” he said during a televised debate Sunday.
‘In our hands’
Though many Slovaks are fed up with the main political players, Caputova’s version of change is not to everyone’s liking, with some more conservative voters also dissatisfied with Smer, said political analyst Pavol Babos.
That electorate voted for two anti-migrant candidates: Supreme Court judge and EU critic Stefan Harabin, and Marian Kotleba, a far-right lawmaker known for his hostility to the Roma minority.
“These two candidates earned 25 percent together which is not a negligible part of the society,” Babos told AFP.
According to a new opinion poll by the Focus pollster, Caputova would secure 64 percent of the run-off vote to Sefcovic’s 36.
Bratislava voter Lubomir Brecka is counting on her to win.
“I hope we all realise we have it in our hands and we won’t let this change go,” he told AFP.
Though the office is largely ceremonial, the president ratifies international treaties, appoints top judges, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can veto laws passed by parliament.
Turnout in round one of the presidential election was nearly 49 percent, a little higher than what the country is used to.