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Slovakia heads to polls, a year after Kuciak murder

March 16, 2019

Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer and political neophyte, leads the pack ahead of the Slovak election. Many of her compatriots hope she will clean up corruption — a major topic after a journalist's murder shocked the country.

Slovakian presidential candidate Zuzana Caputova
Image: Reuters/R. Stoklasa

The people of Slovakia headed to the polls on Saturday to pick a new president. Slovak media regard this as a pivotal election that will determine the future of the country. Commentators believe the election will decide whether Slovakia will stay a country mired in corruption and clientelism, or finally move toward the rule of law and democracy.

In late February 2018, investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, were assassinated in a small town east of the Slovak capital, Bratislava. Kuciak's work had focused on the machinations of and ties between Slovak businessmen and politicians. His murder sent a shock wave through the county and precipitated the biggest political crisis since Slovak independence in 1993.

Kuciak's investigative reports, published after his death, and subsequent research conducted by Slovak media outlets exposed close ties between the country's decision-makers, corrupt businessmen and criminals. The revelations sparked public outrage and led to the biggest protests since Czechoslovakia's 1989 Velvet Revolution. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets, demanding Slovakia become a respectable country again.

Read more: After Kuciak slaying, killing journalists now 'within realm of possibility'

A memorial to murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak (r.) and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova
The brutal murders of Kuciak and his fiancee shocked the country, leading to the largest protests since independenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/CTK/S. Petr

Caputova sets sights on reform

Granted, Slovakia's powerful Prime Minister Robert Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kalinak resigned following Kuciak's assassination. Yet in the eyes of many Slovaks, that did little to improve the country's political situation. Which is why on February 21, exactly one year after Kuciak's death, some 10,000 people took to the streets demanding change.

Zuzana Caputova, a 45-year-old lawyer and activist who only entered politics one year ago, could deliver that change. She is running in Saturday's presidential election, and observers believe she has a good chance of winning.

Caputova spent 17 years working for a nongovernmental organization, where she spent years filing lawsuits against an illegal garbage dump in her hometown of Pezinok. In 2013, her efforts paid off and the garbage dump was ruled illegal. Marian Kocner was one of Caputova's adversaries during this protracted legal dispute, a businessman who today is behind bars for fraud and who police officially accuse of having ordered Kuciak's killing.

In December 2017, Caputova became the deputy leader of Slovakia's newly founded social-liberal party Progressive Slovakia (PS), and in January 2018 announced she was running for the presidency.

She has said her decision to go into politics was driven by the desire to thoroughly reform Slovakia's judiciary and public administration, which is why she has promised that "as the president, I want to devote my energy and the power vested in this office to make sure nobody needs to endure the lawlessness and arrogance of those in power."

If elected, she also wants to work on environmental protection, improve the health care sector and make sure the elderly enjoy better care.

Read more: Slovakia at an economic crossroads

Corruption hinders economy in Slovakia

A divided country

According to recent surveys, Caputova is the most popular of the presidential candidates. She could, in fact, take more 40 percent of the vote — whereas Maros Sefcovic, her closest rival who currently serves as the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, is projected to receive about 25 percent of the vote.

One survey even predicts Caputova winning over 50 percent, which would mean no runoff election would be necessary two weeks later. Many Slovak people want someone who will fight for the rule of law and push for democratic principles to be honored.

Yet the country is ideologically divided, with a large share of Slovak people also supporting the government's nationalist and populist stance. The coalition government, which is made up of Social Democrats (SMER), a Hungarian minority party and a far-right party, is known to disseminate divisive propaganda. The Social Democrats, in particular, have repeatedly railed against migrants, US billionaire George Soros, the EU, investigative journalists and Caputova.

Read more: Slovakia and the Visegrad Group

Fico's party labels front-runner a 'rabid liberal'

SMER, to which ex-PM Fico belongs, has lambasted Caputova as "a rabid liberal" who "has no regard for traditional family values." Underlying the accusation is the fact that Caputova once said she opposes registering same-sex couples and supports such couples adopting children — a hotly debated topic in the country. Former PM Fico has additionally alluded to rumors that Caputova is a lesbian and attacked her by saying the country needs a president with a "normal orientation."  

Maros Sefcovic, Slovak presidential candidate and vice-president of the European Commission
Sefcovic has painted himself as a cosmopolitan candidate but has attempted to appeal to both the left and rightImage: picture-alliance/abaca/ANDBZ/Monasse

Sefcovic, who is backed by SMER, has not succumbed to such mudslinging against Caputova. Instead, he has been keen to portray himself as an experienced and worldly politician and diplomat.

Sefcovic, who also has a good chance of emerging victorious, is an independent candidate who advocates left-wing policies. Yet while campaigning, he has also stressed his support for conservative social values and the importance of traditional families. Evidently, he is trying to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum; it's unclear if this will pay off at the ballot box.

Beata Balogova, editor-in-chief of Slovakia's biggest daily SME, says the presidential election could mark a crucial turning point. She thinks it will be a "referendum on whether we want a government inspired by autocrats like [Hungary's] Viktor Orban, or a country with democratic institutions and a free press."

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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter