By Tatiana Jancarikova
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovakia's ruling Smer party won regional elections this weekend but saw support shrink in the wake of the killing of an investigative journalist that prompted mass protests and led long-serving prime minister Robert Fico to resign in March.
The leftist Smer party won mayorships in 592 of Slovakia's 2,919 towns and cities, losing 255 towns since the 2014 regional election, final results published by the Statistics Office showed on Sunday.
President Andrej Kiska, who is unaffiliated with any party and who sided with protesters calling for Fico's ouster, said people in many parts of Slovakia voted for change.
"The appetite for a change in the style of politics is a promise for upcoming presidential, European Union and general elections."
Slovakia has seen living standards jump among its 5.4 million people, thanks to strong economic growth driven by automotive production. But many complain about perceived public corruption often involving well-connected businesspeople.
Most towns will now be governed by independent candidates who won 42.4 percent of the vote, in some cases unseating long-term Smer politicians.
The Slovak capital Bratislava and two major cities saw victories for candidates supported by the protest movement 'For a Decent Slovakia.' The movement organised the biggest protests in Slovakia's post-communist history this spring.
Reporter Jan Kuciak, who had been investigating political corruption and EU subsidy fraud by business people with alleged links to the government, was shot along with his fiancee at home in February in what prosecutors say was a contract killing.
Four people so far have been charged with the murder but the police are still investigating who ordered the hit.
Two junior coalition parties - centre-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and ethnic Hungarian Most-Hid party - gained 119 and 40 mayors respectively.
Parliamentary opposition parties each won less than one percent of mayors. Turnout stood at 48.7 percent, the same as four years ago.
A latest opinion poll by Focus agency has shown Smer would win the next general election in 2020 but not be able to hold a parliamentary majority with its current coalition partners.
"Smer is still the strongest party... but it is on a downward path and we don't hear any critical voices from within the party that could change the trend," Marian Lesko, a political analyst with Trend weekly told Reuters.
Kiska, a popular, respected figure said he would not seek re-election in 2019 but will remain active in politics. He did not rule out setting up a new political party and running in 2020.
(Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)