Zuzana Caputova: winds of change are blowing in Slovakia

Long years of corruption and authoritarian policies may be coming to an end in Slovakia, where Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer and activist, is the front-runner in the presidential election tomorrow

Zuzana Caputova: winds of change are blowing in Slovakia
Zuzana Caputova, Slovakian presidential candidate, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bratislava, Slovakia - Photo: Radovan Stoklasa/REUTERS
English 15/03/2019 17:44 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 18:35

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Long years of corruption and authoritarian policies may be coming to an end in Slovakia, where Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer and activist, is the front-runner in the presidential election tomorrow, according to the final opinion polls.

A political novice, Caputova, 45, suddenly emerged as the favorite candidate in the tiny Central European country on March 1, 2019, opening a seemingly insurmountable lead over the ruling party’s candidate, Maros Sefcovic.

A survey by the AKO agency, the last before a two-week moratorium, showed Caputova with 52.9% support, while Sefcovic, backed by former prime minister Robert Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy (Smer) party, placed a distant second at just 16.7%.

Another poll by Focus agency put Caputova at 44.8% and Sefcovic second with 22.1%.

In a process with 15 candidates, including Marian Kotleba from the far-right People’s Party, known for praising Nazi Slovak collaborator Jozef Tiso, Caputova would still face a high hurdle to win the election in Saturday’s first round, which requires winning the votes of more than 50% of all eligible voters, not just from those who turn up.

Otherwise, the top two candidates will face each other in the 30 March second round.

Slovakia’s executive branch wields little day-to-day power, yet it approves the formation of new governments and appoints judges to the constitutional court as well as senior prosecutors.

Fico, who is still leader of the Smer party, has said that he hoped to retire from politics into a seat in the tribunal.

Caputova won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016 for her 14-year fight against an illegal waste dump in her hometown, Pezinok, outside Slovakia’s capital Bratislava.

The waste dump was near an older landfill that leaked toxic chemicals and led to incidence of one particular cancer being eight times higher than the national average.

In 2017, she was part of a campaign that led Parliament to cancel amnesties granted by former prime minister Vladimir Meciar to his intelligence chief and others over the 1995 kidnapping of then-president Michal Kovac’s son.

The pardons were seen by many as an attempt to ensure that state-sponsored crime would go unpunished.

Meciar, who was the architect of the “velvet divorce” between Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1992-1993, as well as the first Chairman of the Government (prime minister) of the new Slovak Republic, has denied responsibility for the kidnapping.

Founding member and the Deputy Chairman of the non-parliamentary socially liberal party Progresivne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia), Caputova also has the support of the outgoing head of state, Andrej Kiska. He defeated Fico in the last presidential election in 2014.

Career diplomat

Sefcovic, a career diplomat and European Commission vice president for administrative reform, schools, and security, had led in polls until February, when another challenger, scientist and entrepreneur Robert Mistrik, pulled out of the race and endorsed Caputova.

During the last years, Slovakia has been among the fastest growing members in the European Union, yet it ranks 57th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Index.

The climate of frustration and impunity that characterized Fico’s period—he was prime minister for ten of the previous 12 years, after communism and the autocratic era of Meciar, known as Meciarizmus (Meciarism)—reached its climax in 2018 with the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak.

Kuciak, who was looking into tax fraud cases involving politically-connected businessmen and the Italian mafia, was shot at home with his fiancee. Four people have been charged, yet the authorities have not explained the motive behind the killings.

The protests that followed, supported by Caputova, were the biggest against the government in Slovakia’s three-decade post-communist history and led to the resignation of Fico.

Slovakia shows signs of state capture: power is not carried out by those elected yet by those pulling the strings from behind. We have a problem with corruption, as other European countries, and with making those responsible accountable. Yet I see hope in people who take action, who protest and call for change,” Caputova declared in an interview with Reuters.

A divorced mother of two, she has spoken out against calls to ban abortion and supported adoptions for gay couples, alienating some voters in the socially conservative nation.

However, Caputova enjoys the momentum ignited by the mobilization of civil society, symbolized by the platform “For a Decent Slovakia” of mostly students and NGO’s.

If elected, Caputova will join the field of world leaders without a career in formal politics, which often raises more questions than certainties in such areas as foreign policy.

Slovakia currently holds the rotating presidency of the Eurosceptic Visegrad Group, an alliance established in 1991 by Bratislava, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland that has repeatedly clashed with Brussels regarding immigration, independence of the press, and the rule of law.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Bratislava, urging Slovakia and neighboring countries to remain within “the transatlantic community of democracies.”

Before a meeting with Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, he warned about “Russian aggression” and said that China is expanding its influence in the region.

According to United States official sources, China has made major diplomatic and commercial investment in Central Europe, wooing NATO members such as Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland with billions in loans and the hope of technological development.

The insertion of Chinese telecommunications networks into NATO member-states “could compromise military cooperation within the alliance in a crisis,” they said.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen