Slovakia has elected its first female head of state, after Zuzana Caputova, an anti-corruption lawyer who entered politics only a year ago, scored a crushing victory in the central European country’s presidential election.
With 86.4 per cent of ballots counted, Ms Caputova — a liberal, pro-European candidate whose campaign tapped into deep public anger at the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée last year — had won 57.8 per cent of the vote.
Maros Sefcovic, a veteran diplomat and Slovakia’s current EU commissioner who was backed by Smer, Slovakia’s biggest party, had garnered 42.2 per cent.
“This campaign has shown . . . that values like humanity, solidarity, truth are important for a lot of people in Slovakia. I stand here today because of that,” Ms Caputova told a hall of jubilant supporters in downtown Bratislava who clapped, cheered and chanted “Zuzana, Zuzana, Zuzana”, as results began to filter through.
Ms Caputova’s journey from political obscurity to Slovakia’s highest office is a sign of how dramatically Slovak politics have been upended by the brutal killing of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova thirteen months ago.
Police linked the murder of the young couple to Kuciak’s work probing corruption, a revelation that triggered Slovakia’s biggest protests since 1989, and ultimately forced Robert Fico, who had dominated Slovak politics for a decade, to resign as prime minister.
Ms Caputova — who came to prominence by spearheading a 14-year battle against the expansion of a toxic waste site in her home town of Pezinok — rode a wave of popular revulsion at the killings, making “against evil” her campaign slogan, and promising to fight “corruption, the misuse of power, extremism, and lying in public life”.
Her emphatic victory represents a rare success for liberal forces in central Europe, where populist and nationalist parties have racked up a string of victories in recent years, and pushed through illiberal reforms that have sparked consternation in Brussels that the region is drifting away from its democratic moorings.
“Caputova’s win is an important signal for central Europe, which has been sending negative messages for a long time. This is a . . . message that these countries haven’t lost western values, and that some of them are still fighting,” said Michal Vasecka, programme director at the Bratislava Policy Institute.
“It’s a sign of a certain shift towards the part of Slovakia that desperately wants to be a western country. Not only prosperous . . . but also western. She is a symbol of this battle that is going on, and will probably go on for years.”
Ms Caputova began her campaign as a relatively unknown figure, but after performing well in campaign debates and being endorsed by another moderate opposition candidate, she convincingly won the first round of the election two weeks ago, picking up 40.6 per cent of the vote to Mr Sefcovic’s 18.7 per cent.
Mr Sefcovic tried to close the gap on Ms Caputova by portraying her liberal values — she is a supporter of LGBT rights as well as a woman’s right to choose an abortion — as out of kilter with Slovakia’s Catholic heritage.
He was helped by nationalist politicians who on Friday forced through a parliamentary resolution asking Slovakia’s government not to ratify the Istanbul Convention, in a move widely seen as an effort to fire up conservative voters. The treaty is aimed at protecting women from domestic violence but is hated by some Slovak conservatives as it also has clauses covering LGBT rights.
However, Ms Caputova’s allies said that her focus on social, economic and environmental justice had trumped the attacks from her opponents.
“The country is crying out for change . . . I think we hit rock bottom last year with the tragic events of last spring. People want to move forward,” said Martin Dubeci, from Progressive Slovakia, the upstart political grouping that backed Ms Caputova’s campaign.
“For me the main take away is that justice is such an important issue for the Slovak people . . . [Ms Caputova] was able to build a coalition around her values which was unlike anything we have seen before in Slovakia.”