PRAGUE – Environmental lawyer Zuzana Caputova has been elected president of Slovakia late on Saturday, the first woman to become head of state in this small post-communist democracy, which has been a member of the EU and NATO since 2004.
“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,” said the winner, after thinking voters in Slovak, Hungarian, Czech, Roma and Ruthenian.
“Decency in politics is not a sign of weakness but can be our strength,” said the lawyer at her election headquarters in Bratislava.
The new Slovak president will have a strong pro-European orientation, with emphasis on ecology and the strengthening of the rule of law and justice, according to Ivan Stefunko, president of the left-liberal party “Progresivne Slovensko” in which Caputova is still active.
After 95 percent of the votes were counted Caputova was leading with 58.2 percent compared to 41.8 percent for the experienced diplomat Maros Sefcovic, vice-president of the European Commission, who stood as an independent but was supported by the ruling government’s social democratic party Smer.
Despite appeals by the political leaders, there has not been a massive turnout of voters in this run-off elections, which had to choose between the two most voted candidates from the first round, held two weeks ago, and where other candidates of the populist right gained some 25 percent, but were left out of the second round.
This could have contributed to the low turnout of 41.91 percent, as the losing candidate, Sefcovic, was also pro Europe, and not an acceptable option for the followers of the Euroskeptics.
“I congratulated her (Caputova) and said that as of today she has a great responsibility. Despite the turbulent campaign, these are moments of unity in Slovakia,” Sefcovic said after acknowledging his defeat, in a call to close ranks for the country.
Caputova, 45, will be the successor to businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska, who ends his five-year term as head of state in June, where he has maintained tense relations with the Social Democratic majority coalition.
Among other items, he has been a critic of the way in which the government managed the institutional crisis in the wake of the assassination of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, who made inquiries into the links between organized crime and the highest spheres of power.
Kuciak’s murder started a massive wave of civil society protests joined by the head of state, amid outrage at the slow progress of the police investigation and the corruption scandal revealed by the reporter’s work.
Attending these street marches was always Caputova, who collaborated in several corruption investigations with Kuciak.
In her election campaign, the activist has called for “confronting evil,” alluding to the tentacles of the mafia in high politics, and a “fairer Slovakia.”
When casting his vote on Saturday, the current Prime Minister, Social Democrat Robert Pellegrini, wished for “good cooperation” with the new tenant of the Grassal Palace, the seat of the Presidency.
Pellegrini acknowledged that the “turbulent situation” after Kuciak’s assassination persists in the Central European country, and that the perpetrators of his murder have not yet been brought before a court.
This scandal has discredited the authorities and sowed public distrust of bodies such as the police, prosecutors, judges and the government.
Caputova declares herself a follower of liberal ideology and at the same time has shown how to gain sympathy from the conservative sectors, whose values she has said she will respect “fully,” in seeking a link between tradition and liberalism.
“Christianity and liberalism are not mutually exclusive, since the main value of Christianity is love, and also compassion, and this also applies to my life,” said the future president of a country with a Catholic majority.
In her campaign, Caputova has ignored foreign policy issues, such as the conflict in Ukraine or the conflicts with the EU of some neighbors of the Visegrad Group, made up of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, which she considers to have undermined the standards of democracy and the rule of law.