Can Zuzana Caputova Save Slovakia?
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.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—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.”
To regain that trust, she’s promoting herself as a face of a new generation of Slovak leaders, called mockingly by journalists “hipsters in power.” These are modern professionals—human-rights lawyers, think tankers, architects, and nonprofit activists in their mid-30s or early 40s—grouped around two nonparliamentary parties: Progressive Slovakia and Together-Civic Democracy. Both have backed Caputova, who until recently was a Progressive Slovakia deputy chairwoman. She still is a practitioner of Zen Buddhist yoga, which is likely the only thing that links her to what might be called hipster subculture.
There has been “high demand for change” in the past year, Irena Bihariova, a lawyer and herself a Progressive Slovakia deputy chairwoman, told me. “It can either turn into [the] rise of right-wing anti-elite movements, or, as in our case, a positive, constructive alternative to those who defend the status quo.”
The most recent presidential polls show Caputova hovering around 60 percent of the vote, well ahead of second-place Maros Sefcovic, a current EU commissioner. A 52-year-old Soviet-educated career diplomat who has gained a reputation for being genuinely pro-European, he was accused by opponents of pandering when, in order to attract right-wing voters, he appealed to “traditional, Christian values” in contrast to what he called Caputova’s “ultraliberal agenda.”
Potentially more damaging for Sefcovic is his political affiliation. Officially independent, he’s in fact backed by the ruling party. “Experience, optimism, linguistic skills, high name recognition in Europe,” said Monika Smolkova, a member of the European Parliament from Smer-SD, listing Sefcovic’s qualities in a phone interview. “But nothing will overshadow the main problem: that he runs with the Smer-SD’s support.”
Caputova speculated that, in a perfect world, she and Sefcovic would be on the same side. “We both are pro-European, and I’m glad I will face him, not any of the right-wing or radical candidates.” But he has not been able to escape the taint of the party backing him. Caputova has capitalized on that.
The endorsements of another prominent first-round candidate, liberal academic Robert Mistrik, and the majority of prominent media personalities have also boosted Caputova’s profile. She appeared three times in a row on the cover of .tyzden, the country’s most prominent weekly, once with the headline “Hope,” in an echo of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan. In contrast, earlier this year the weekly showed Fico in a prison jumpsuit and, in another issue, a smiling Sefcovic above the headline “The Opportunist.”
“I don’t think Ms. Caputova would be a bad president, but the media weren’t playing fair. They didn’t even pretend to be neutral,” said Smer-SD’s Smolkova, insisting that her party, unlike ruling parties in Hungary or Poland, didn’t establish government mouthpieces.
This cuts to the heart of the system Fico created: Slovakia, despite all of the misdeeds and crimes committed on his watch, including the murder of a journalist, didn’t head down the same path as its illiberal neighbors did by tightening the ruling elite’s grip on all state institutions. Nor was Slovakia’s independent judiciary the target of government crusades as it was in Hungary and Poland.
Fico had a long history of verbally attacking journalists and proposed a revision to the press code, which would give politicians and public officials a right to reply to criticism, rousing charges that the government sought to muzzle a free press. Even so, most of the country’s private media is demonstratively anti-Smer, while the public broadcaster, which has recently become more supportive of the government, is still far from being a fount of government propaganda, unlike state broadcasters in Hungary and Poland. And when the public has had enough, protesters have proved that they can successfully push for change.
Smer-SD, a party dependent on older voters from small towns and with a limited ability to attract young supporters, is focused on maintaining its friendly ties with business interest groups, and that makes corruption, not authoritarianism, the country’s biggest scourge.
Caputova has impeccable anti-corruption credentials, and she is unwavering in her liberal views. She was born to working-class parents in what she calls an “open-minded house.” According to her, same-sex unions should be legally recognized, LGBT adoption is better than leaving children in orphanages, and, although she personally declares herself against abortion, she believes in a “woman’s right to make a decision.”
This platform made her an easy target for right-wing groups and some members of the influential Roman Catholic Church, who claimed that voting for Caputova is a sin. “I know I could have lost a lot. But from the beginning I decided I won’t pretend to be someone else,” she said. “Among my voters are conservatives and Catholics. At present, what’s more important for a politician is personal honesty and integrity.”
Now, Caputova, a divorced mother of two daughters who has been living in an informal relationship with a photographer, is about to make history as the first female president elected in Slovakia. But the path was set down for her some 20 years ago.
In the 1999 election, the actress and diplomat Magda Vasaryova emerged as the front-runner, but after a nasty presidential campaign, she eventually finished third, gaining the support of some 200,000 Slovaks. A decade later, in 2009, Iveta Radicova, a former popular labor minister, came even closer, making it to the second round, where she was backed by almost 1 million Slovaks.
“We probably made it easier for other women to run for office,” Radicova, who later served as Slovakia’s first female prime minister from 2010 to 2012, told FP. “Women’s engagement in politics is still problematic for many voters, but, generally, Ms. Caputova’s success helps highlight how attitudes in Slovakia have changed over the last 20 years.”
Carried by youth and enthusiasm, Caputova clearly looks to French President Emmanuel Macron as one of her inspirations—along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mohandas Gandhi, and Obama. Asked if she isn’t afraid that, like Macron, she’ll soon lose her charm by making unpopular decisions, she replied with refreshing honesty for a presidential candidate: “I know people have high hopes and it’s very likely that support for me will drop sooner or later.”
“I won’t be able to meet all the expectations,” Caputova readily admitted. “But at least I’m honest about it. This is what makes me different from the ruling politicians.”