Can Zuzana Caputova Save Slovakia?

Source: Foreign Policy / / By Dariusz Kalan /

A political newcomer is poised to become president by standing up for liberal democratic values—and seeking to halt the spread of right-wing populism across Central and Eastern Europe.

Caputova by JOE KLAMAR
Presidential candidate Zuzana Caputova (C) waits for the first exit polls at her election headquarters during the first round of the presidential elections in Bratislava, Slovakia, on March 16, 2019. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)


Two months ago, Zuzana Caputova, with a young and highly inexperienced team, low name recognition, and polls pegging her backing at only 9 percent, was a long shot in Slovakia’s presidential election.

Now, after winning by a landslide in first round (taking 40.6 percent of the vote compared with 18.7 percent for the second-place finisher), Caputova, once called an “unknown girl” by the speaker of the National Council, Slovakia’s parliament, has become the front-runner in the final round scheduled for March 30. Many observers also see her as a rising star of Central European politics, one who is willing and able to confront right-wing alpha males such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Caputova, a 45-year-old lawyer and anti-corruption activist with limited political experience, plays down such expectations, arguing that Slovakia’s president doesn’t have the influence enjoyed by, for instance, France’s leader. But, she told Foreign Policy at her office in Bratislava on March 21, “I won’t be afraid to discuss my values.”

A talented orator, Caputova comes across as reserved but confident, the qualities she first showed to the public in televised presidential debates in February and March. She speaks openly about truth, justice, and equality, which, according to her supporters, embodies a positive message reminiscent of Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned president of Czechoslovakia, who has remained a political and moral icon in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic since they split apart.

The crucial factor, though, that helped her to pull ahead is her “ethos of a civil rights leader, who successfully fought against powerful political and economic interest groups,” said Olga Gyarfasova, a sociologist at Comenius University in Bratislava.

Caputova’s greatest triumph as a lawyer—and her ticket to the national political stage—was a victory against an illegal dumpsite in her hometown of Pezinok in western Slovakia.

The 14-year battle against a wealthy developer with ties to local authorities—which involved filing lawsuits, organizing protests, and petitions to European Union institutions—won her the 2016 Goldman Prize, a leading award honoring environmental activists often called the Green Nobel.

But Caputova’s sudden rise is also rooted in the country’s current turbulence. Slovakia is still riding a wave of anger and activism inspired by the massive protests that erupted after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in February 2018. As Milan Bubak, a Roman Catholic priest, declared at last month’s rally on the anniversary of their deaths, this tragic event’s impact on Slovakia is comparable to the shock of the 9/11 attacks in the United States: It was a historic turning point, the effects of which will be felt for years to come.

Two days before the first round of the election, police charged the millionaire Marian Kocner, who was already in jail on separate charges, with ordering the murder. Kuciak had covered Kocner’s alleged tax fraud in his last story published before he was killed. The yearlong investigation shed light on Kocner’s powers. He hired spies and recorded conversations to collect a dossier of compromising materials, worked closely with two police officers in the city of Banska Bystrica who investigated cases involving him but never brought charges, and, according to local media, might have bribed a former prosecutor who was Kocner’s old friend from the army.

The charges against Kocner cemented the image of a government influenced from behind the scenes by shady businessmen who operated with impunity.

This was a blow to the ruling Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party, which has been in power for 11 of the past 13 years. Kocner has been friends with several members of Smer-SD for decades and was even a neighbor in the luxurious Bonaparte apartment complex of former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who stepped down after the murder in 2018 but is still a leader of the party.

Given the ruling party’s close ties with an indicted tycoon, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Caputova, who was a frequent participant at anti-government demonstrations after the murders, has cast her campaign as a struggle between good and evil. With the catchy Star Wars-like election slogan “Postavme sa zlu, spolu to dokazeme” (“Let’s face the evil together”), she offered herself as a new breed of politician: exciting, different, and untainted by scandals.

She denies, however, that Fico is the face of this evil. He’s not Darth Vader, Caputova conceded. “The evil we’ve been talking about and want to fight against is more deep-rooted,” she argued. “For the last 30 years, we haven’t been able to curb the abuse of power, shadowy business-government relationships, and corruption. This is what makes people disillusioned with politicians and keeps them away from politics.”