The activist lawyer became the first female president of Slovakia, a huge setback to both populist governments in Central Europe and corrupt forces that have ruled the country for the last 30 years.
Anticorruption activist Zuzana Caputova became the first female president of Slovakia after winning elections on Saturday, capping off an improbable run seen as a rebuke to the tide of populism that has swept Central Europe.
With 100 percent of the votes counted early Sunday morning, Caputova, who has never held an elected office, soundly beat ruling party candidate Maros Sefcovic with 58.40 percent of the vote, according to the country’s statistics office.
An environmental lawyer by trade, Caputova has a deep background fighting rampant corruption in Slovakia, most notably as the face of a decade-long campaign to clean up a toxic landfill said to be lining the pockets of well-connected businessmen. But she is also known for her experience as a public administrator in the non-profit sector, handling issues related to child abuse and exploitation.
She would not enter the political fray however until December 2017, when she announced her entry to the liberal Progressive Slovakia party. For Caputova, the move was one geared toward fighting a scandal-laden political establishment that has in recent years resorted to populist rhetoric in order to retain support.
"I am glad that today we see that someone can be successful with her own ideas, without using an aggressive language and without appealing to populism,” she said in a speech following the result just after midnight.
"Turns out that justice and fairness in politics is not just an intellectual topic, it is a desire of many people.”
The woman dubbed “Slovakia’s Erin Brokovich” was largely unknown before she launched her presidential run in the country of 5.4 million people last year. But with the murders of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiance Martina Kusnirova in January 2018, Slovaks grew increasingly disillusioned with the government, staging the largest nationwide protests since the end of communism.
Standing on the campaign slogan was "stand up to evil," she staged a meteoric rise with what observers say was the right message at the right time.
“She says she stayed true to her values, that she is authentic and people seem to appreciate that,” said Michaela Terenzani, editor-in-chief of English-language newspaper The Slovak Spectator. “At the same time, she carries the message of the 2018 protests, she says the same things that people demanded in the streets.”
Two months after the death of Kuciak, then-Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned from his post, but would continue on as party leader.
“Jan Kuciak and his fiance were murdered and this sparked a broad public movement that changed the atmosphere in society. She symbolizes this social movement,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, director of the Institute for Public Affairs, a think tank in the capital Bratislava.
While the role of the president in Slovakia is symbolic in many respects, Meseznikov he said that Caputova could provide an important liberal voice in a region where countries like Hungary and Poland have drifted towards autocracy under nationalist governments.
“Definitely, [this election] will be encouragement for all of these liberal democratic people in Central Europe,” he said.
At the same time, Caputova will have an important role to serve at home, with only four of 13 chairs filled at the Constitutional Court. It will be her responsibility to fill those positions – reversing what many believe was an attempt by the ruling Smer party to assert control over Slovakia’s judicial system.
“The presidency is more symbolic if the country is running well, but if you are talking about what is happening in Slovakia, where there are not enough judges in the constitutional court … then it is very important,” said Martin Poliacik, a member of the liberal Progressive Slovakia party, of which Caputova is deputy head.
For him, Caputova’s ascension to the presidency is also about much more than just symbols.
“Right now, we are trying to communicate through Caputova as the representative, a new way of politics for Slovakia,” he said.