By Jan Lopatka
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - With its slogan "Let's beat the mafia together", Igor Matovic's anti-graft movement has ridden a wave of public anger over corruption to emerge as the unexpected favorite to oust Slovakia's ruling party in a Feb. 29 election.
The vote is the first since the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018 prompted mass street protests, forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Robert Fico and launched a number of investigations into cozy ties between politicians, business and justice officials.
An influential businessman is on trial charged with orchestrating the murder.
"In this atmosphere, I feel it on the streets, people in Slovakia have risen up to say that is enough," Matovic told Reuters.
Matovic, 46, expressed surprise at the meteoric rise of his Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLANO) in the opinion polls, which have put it almost neck-and-neck with the ruling left-leaning Smer party.
"We thought we would take third or fourth place but it is now possible that we come first," he said, adding he had yet to decide whether he would want to serve as prime minister.
The party's election campaign stunts have included lighting 5,000 candles outside the government building to symbolize deaths that OLANO says were caused by shortfalls in healthcare funding due to corruption.
OLANO has promised to enact policies on social spending and fighting corruption that people support in its ongoing internet survey if it sweeps to power.
Matovic also took a swipe at right-wing governments in neighboring Hungary and Poland that have clashed with the EU over the rule of law and media freedoms, saying: "We want to show in this election that central Europe has not gone crazy."
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Michael Kahn and Gareth Jones)