Slovakia: Activist poised to be first female president | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 29.03.2019

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Slovakia: Activist poised to be first female president

The lawyer and activist Zuzana Caputova appears set to win Saturday's runoff election. Such a development could have a strong impact on Slovakia — and perhaps inspire neighboring countries also fed up with corruption.

A little more than a year after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, Slovakia is facing a potentially trendsetting election this Saturday, both for the country and for central Europe: the runoff election for the office of president. After the first round of voting two weeks ago, the two leading candidates will stand again: social-liberal activist Zuzana Caputova (pictured) and independent European Energy Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, who has the backing of the populist ruling party, SMER.

Although the presidency of Slovakia has mainly representative powers, the election has been framed by many of the country's political analysts — such as Matus Kostolny, editor-in-chief of the Dennik N daily — as a vote on two alternatives: mafia or rule of law.

Caputova has a clear lead

According to opinion polls, the 45-year-old lawyer and political novice Caputova is clearly in the lead and could win over 60 percent of the votes. Her opponent, the 52-year-old career diplomat Sefcovic, is estimated to garner a little less than 40 percent of the votes. If those figures are confirmed by the election result, Caputova would win with a margin of more than 20 percentage points — a first in a Slovak presidential election.

Slovakia is a country with predominantly conservative values — although it is currently governed by a coalition led by SMER, officially a social-democratic party. In practice, SMER predominantly represents right-wing nationalist and right-wing populist views. The fact that now a female activist and lawyer — who espouses progressive political views, champions decidedly left-wing social policies and happens to be divorced — has turned into the election frontrunner appears to demonstrate a considerable desire for change in the country. 

However, this development only superficially contradicts the rise of populists across the region. Opinion polls conducted in several central eastern European countries show that many respondents request more rule of law, transparency and better governance.

Murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova

The murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova changed Slovak society

Caputova's political ascent could be explained, on the one hand, by the outrage felt by many Slovaks in the face of their ruling elites' involvement in corruption and other crimes, and by the lack of change following the murder of Jan Kuciak on the other. Although Slovakia's two most powerful men — head of government Robert Fico and interior minister Robert Kalinak — stepped down one year ago, this was not followed by fundamental changes in politics and government.

Combating corruption

The murder of anti-corruption journalist Kuciak and Kusnirova was partially cleared up. In addition, two of the most controversial Slovak entrepreneurs have been imprisoned over their involvement in fraud: real estate mogul Ladislav Basternak and businessman Marian Kocner, who allegedly gave the orders to kill Kuciak. In Slovakia, both men stand for corrupt and illegal business practices, with their success depending on assistance from the political system. For years, Basternak and Kocner cultivated very close ties to top politicians and top civil servants in the country. Robert Fico, for instance, resides to this day in a luxurious apartment of a housing complex that — until its recent confiscation —  belonged to Basternak's business empire.

Caputova, in turn, represents the struggle against such interrelations between politics and business. For almost two decades, she worked as a lawyer for citizens' rights, ultimately achieving a landmark verdict for Slovakia in the wake of a legal dispute dragged out over years. As a result, the setup of an illegal garbage dump in her hometown of Pezinok, situated southeast of Bratislava, was pre-empted.

Slovakian presidential candidate Maros Sefcovic

Caputova's opponent Maros Sefcovic has an image problem — and the wrong allies?

Caputova appears to be trustworthy not only because of her long-term work and her struggle against Slovakia's establishment, but also because she — even during her election campaign — has openly held views that don't conform to the Slovak mainstream, for example with respect to same-sex relationships and abortion. As a result, she is also equated with incorruptibility and integrity.

Rival with an image problem

By contrast, her opponent Maros Sefcovic, EU commissioner in charge of Energy Union, came across as increasingly unreliable in recent weeks. He is known as a left-wing Social Democrat. During the election campaign for presidential office, however, he presented himself as a defender of customary values and the traditional family, as a devout Christian and staunch Slovak patriot — a transition that many voters aren't buying.

In addition, support from the ruling party SMER does not necessarily work to his advantage, especially since the party keeps generating negative headlines. For example, SMER party leader Fico — who has already gained notoriety for bluster when it comes to independent media reporting — repeatedly released tirades of abuse against the press in recent weeks. Last Wednesday, he went on record claiming that the media were the biggest threat to democracy in the country. Since Kuciak was murdered, the general public takes a much more critical view of such tantrums. 

Beata Balogova is the editor-in-chief of Sme, Slovakia's leading daily. Fico has attacked her personally and is threatening legal action over her coverage. In the run-up to Saturday's election, she wrote in an editorial: "We don't need another powerful associate from the ranks of the oligarchs. What we need is an authentic authority who is able to differentiate between Good and Evil and who realizes that they have to set up decent policies."

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