WARSAW/BRATISLAVA — The election of Zuzana Caputova as Slovakia’s first female president was greeted on Sunday as a vote for change, with the anti-graft activist expected to provide a check on a government tarnished after last year’s murder of a journalist.
The 45-year-old environmental lawyer’s clear victory on Saturday over the ruling party’s candidate was a blow to the populist-left Smer-SD — the largest grouping in parliament — and could spell trouble for them in the EU elections and next year’s general vote.
She is a relative political newcomer who rose to national prominence in the aftermath of the shootings of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee in February 2018, which sparked mass protests and toppled the then-premier.
Caputova won 58.4 per cent of the vote according to a final tally of results released Sunday, compared with 41.6 per cent for her ruling party rival, EU energy commissioner Maros Sefcovic.
“A candidate embodying democratic forces has won, and Sefcovic, who was a symbol of continuity, has lost,” analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP.
Headlines from the country’s newspapers on Sunday suggested the vote was a fresh start for the central European nation of 5.4 million.
“Zuzana Caputova gives us hope but the real fight will only come now,” said Dennik N, a leading opposition daily.
She ran on the slogan of “Stand up to evil” but made a point to keep her rhetoric hostility-free.
“Let us look for what connects us. Let us promote cooperation above personal interests,” she said as the results rolled in.
The office of president is largely ceremonial, but the role does involve ratifying international treaties, appointing top judges. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can veto laws passed by parliament.
Analyst Aneta Vilagi predicted Caputova will “engage in a purposeful confrontation with the government… rather than become an opposition president criticising everything the ruling coalition does”.
Yet, “She will represent a stronger system of checks and balances in relation to the government than Sefcovic would have.”
‘Justice for all’
Caputova, who will be sworn in on June 15, is no stranger to tough battles. She is known for having successfully blocked a planned landfill in her hometown of Pezinok after a decade-long grassroots campaign.
She became a familiar figure in the anti-government protests last year, joining tens of thousands of people who demonstrated after Kuciak’s death.
The journalist had been preparing to publish a story on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia.
The killings forced then prime minister Robert Fico to resign but he remains the Smer-SD’s leader and is a close ally of the current premier.
Five people have been charged, including a millionaire businessman with alleged Smer-SD ties who is suspected of ordering the murders over Kuciak’s investigation into his activity.
Speaking to AFP on the campaign trail, Caputova said she would “initiate systematic changes that would deprive prosecutors and the police of political influence”.
In addition to fighting for justice for all, Caputova had promised better care for the elderly and environmental protection.
Teacher Iveta Rabelyova said “Caputova has challenged the typical image of a top politician: She is a woman, divorced, a political novice.”
“It is a good feeling that our citizens chose someone who breaks all these stereotypes,” the 34-year-old told AFP.
“Women are under-represented at top-level posts, this might begin to change now,” added the resident of the southern town of Komarno.
Many Slovaks who voted for Sefcovic had said the important position necessitated a man, yet “Caputova won despite her sex” according to analyst Vilagi.
She had been “a strong opponent to Sefcovic more because of her story, her personality, values and strong argumentation skills”, Vilagi told AFP.
Caputova also won in conservative, Catholic Slovakia despite being openly pro-choice and promoting greater rights for same-sex couples.
Sefcovic had tried to use that liberal stance to his advantage by stressing traditional family values on the campaign trail, appealing to voters “who insist that Slovakia remain a Christian country”.
But according to official statistics, Caputova not only won over big-city voters but she also took the lead for the more conservative rural elecorate, if by a slim margin.
Yet, fewer than 42 per cent of eligible voters chose to cast a ballot — compared to 50 per cent at the last presidential run-off — suggesting that Caputova’s idea of change was not to the liking of everyone fed up with the main political players.