Slovakia’s first female president-elect is an unapologetic liberal who will soon take power in a region increasingly consumed by right-wing populism and anti-European Union sentiment.
Last month, Zuzana Caputova, an accomplished lawyer with no previous political experience, secured 58 percent of the vote in a second round run-off against European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. She will assume office on June 15, becoming the first woman to hold the presidency, as well as the youngest at 45. Although Slovakia’s president is mostly ceremonial and political power rests with the prime minister, they do have the power to appoint judges and act as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Prior to her electoral victory, Caputova was an activist and anti-corruption lawyer who was well known for fighting against a landfill site in her hometown of Pezinok for more than 10 years.
In a combative presidential election, Caputova campaigned on fighting corruption and restoring civility in Slovak politics, refusing to engage her opponents in political smears, preferring to stay above the fray and focused on the issues she believed most affected voters.
One of the biggest issues facing Slovaks is deeply entrenched public corruption, especially in light of the February 2018 assassination of Jan Kuciak, a journalist who was reporting on graft and links to organized crime at the highest levels of power. The murder prompted mass protests against the government and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico.
The Kuciak murder inspired Caputova to run on a platform of transparency and tackling powerful corrupt elites.
Also top of her agenda is promoting progressive values, which are currently under assault from conservative nationalists in Eastern Europe.
Caputova defends LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, women’s equality, and supports same-sex unions in a country where same-sex marriage is still illegal.
She has positioned herself as a positive voice while also capitalizing on the anti-establishment mood that is prevalent across the democratic world.
“Caputova’s election happened at a time when voters across Europe are protesting their traditional leaders and supporting political newcomers. Some of them are right-wing and nationalist, which makes them ideologically different from Caputova, but Caputova shares with them the anti-establishment element,” Adriano Bosoni, Senior Europe Analyst at Stratfor, told Fox News.
Even the ruling center-left Smer party has drifted rightward in recent years and has tried to increase its electoral base by appealing to Christian voters.
Caputova's win is even more shocking given the strong tide of right-wing populism and nationalism that has dominated European politics over the last several years, particularly in Eastern Europe following the 2015-2016 refugee crisis.
The likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary and other leaders around Central Europe have exploited the migrant crisis and stoked anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment to stir up their base of support. Caputova, meanwhile, is unafraid of defending her liberal views and represented a sober and rationally based perspective on public policy matters.
Populists championing conservative values such as Orban’s Fidesz Party and Poland under the Law and Justice Party have experienced significant democratic backsliding, with nationalist leaders undermining the rule of law, independent media and civil society organizations, and assaulting the judiciary, while railing against Brussels and E.U. institutions.
Attacks against the E.U. and west have become commonplace for extremist forces that have risen in Eastern Europe. Caputova, on the other hand, has made it clear she supports the E.U., NATO, and western values and considers Slovakia an integral component of the rules-based international order.
Although anti-E.U. parties espousing similar xenophobic and anti-institutionalist rhetoric are expected to win in the upcoming E.U. elections in May, Caputova’s surprise victory is proof that far-right populism based on fear and hate does not have to be the paradigm in Eastern Europe.
“The notable thing about Caputova’s victory is that it shows that moderate candidates can win an election, and that voters will not always turn to far-right or anti-immigration candidates to show their dissatisfaction with the mainstream political parties,” Bosoni said.