The election of Zuzana Čaputová as Slovakia’s first female president was hailed Sunday (31 March) 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 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 known for taking part in mass anti-government protests last year after the shootings of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. The uproar toppled the then-premier.
“At the start of the campaign, Zuzana Čaputová was a largely unknown liberal candidate in a highly conservative, polarised and populist political environment,” said her chief election strategist, Michal Repa. He said she had answered “voters’ yearning for an honest and reliable candidate who would fight injustice”.
Čaputová won 58.4% of the vote according to a final tally of results released Sunday, compared with 41.6% for her ruling party rival, EU Commission Vice President and energy commissioner Maroš Šefčovič.
“A candidate embodying democratic forces has won, and Šefčovič, 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 Čaputová gives us hope but the real fight will only come now,” said Dennik N, a leading opposition daily.
European Council President Donald Tusk congratulated Čaputová Sunday, tweeting: “A strong vote, at the heart of Europe, for decency in politics, rule of law and tolerance.”
Čaputová ran on the slogan of “Stand up to evil” but made a point of keeping her rhetoric measured.
“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 Čaputová would “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 Šefčovič would have.”
‘Justice for all’
Čaputová, who will be sworn in on 15 June, 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 was also one of the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after Kuciak’s death in February 2018.
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, Čaputová said she would “initiate systematic changes that would deprive prosecutors and the police of political influence.”
In addition to fighting for justice for all, Čaputová had promised better care for the elderly and environmental protection.
Teacher Iveta Rabelyova said “Čaputová 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 Šefčovič had said the important position necessitated a man, yet “Čaputová won despite her sex” according to analyst Vilagi.
She had been “a strong opponent to Šefčovič more because of her story, her personality, values,” Vilagi told AFP.
Čaputová also won in conservative, Catholic Slovakia despite being openly pro-choice and promoting greater rights for same-sex couples.
Šefčovič 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, Čaputová not only won over big-city voters but she also took the lead for the more conservative rural electorate, if by a slim margin.
Yet fewer than 42% of eligible voters chose to cast a ballot — compared to 50% at the last presidential run-off — suggesting that Čaputová’s idea of change was not to the liking of everyone fed up with the main political players.