Presidential Precedent: Liberal lawyer Caputova elected first female president of Slovakia

An election billboard for recently elected Slovak President Zuzana Caputova. (Wikimedia)

An election billboard for recently elected Slovak President Zuzana Caputova. (Wikimedia)

Lawyer and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Caputova won the Slovakian presidency on March 31, making her the first female president of the country. Her ascension to popular support comes as a surprise amidst the wave of populist nationalism that has drifted through Eastern Europe in recent elections.

Despite her exceptionality, Caputova’s victory against ruling-backed independent candidate Maros Sefcovic in the runoff elections was decisive: she surpassed 58 percent of the vote, compared to Sefcovic’s 42 percent, by the end of the ballot counting process.

Caputova began her ensuing acceptance speech by thanking her voters in 5 different languages—Slovak, Hungarian, Roma, Czech and Rusyn—as a symbolic display of unity and solidarity in an ethnically heterogeneous region marked by nationalist and populist governments. CNN op-ed panelist Kate Maltby, called this act “as potent an anti-nationalist statement as you can get from a new president.”

“I am happy not just for the result but mainly that it is possible not to succumb to populism, to tell the truth, to raise interest without aggressive vocabulary,” Caputova told a crowd of supporters.

Caputova may be a political newcomer, but she has ample experience as a lawyer. She is hailed as “Slovakia’s Erin Brokovich,” in reference to a famed American environmentalist and the hard-fought success of Caputova’s 14-year legal battle against a Slovakian company which planned to erect an illegal landfill in Caputova’s hometown. The effort earned her Europe’s 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize.

The Slovak President’s powers include the ability to approve or veto legislation, ratify international treaties, and appoint top judges. Caputova’s pro-Europe, anti-corruption, and pro-environment political stance will likely trickle down through the limited scope of presidential powers.

Upon her election, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, a non-profit European cooperative society which advocates for press freedom, issued an open letter to President-elect Caputova, shedding light on ongoing issues with freedom of speech in Slovakia and citing the past murder of anti-corruption journalist Jan Kuciak and former Prime Minister, head of the ruling Smer Party, Robert Fico’s newly heightened attacks against the media as tangible pockets of an anti-media environment.

In light of all of the international attention, the development of Caputova’s presidency may very well serve as a litmus test for East European liberal populism, and set an alternative political precedent in the region.