Slovakia elects first woman President in rebuke to nationalism

Zuzana Caputova is Slovakia’s newly elected premier. (AFP pic)

BRATISLAVA: A pro-European Union anti-corruption lawyer won a landslide victory in Slovakia’s presidential election, dealing a blow to nationalist, euroskeptic political forces who have vowed to reshape how the bloc works.

As right-wing leaders from Poland to Italy are mounting an uprising against further integration and inclusive policies before the EU holds parliamentary elections in May, the victory of Zuzana Caputova signalled, at least in this small euro-area country, both strong support for the bloc’s liberal, democratic values and anger against established parties perceived to have lost touch with ordinary people.

The 45-year-old divorced mother of two – and Slovakia’s first woman president-elect – secured 58% in Saturday’s vote, according to final results from the Statistics Office.

She eclipsed her opponent Maros Sefcovic, a vice president in the EU Commission and the candidate of the ruling Smer party, who got 42%.

A political novice and relative unknown until late last year, Caputova rode a wave of public anger over the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancee that triggered the country’s largest anti-government protests since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Her victory contrasts with a lurch toward nationalism in neighbouring Poland and Hungary, whose leaders have drawn censure from the EU for undermining the bloc’s democratic values.

“You can enter a political contest with your own opinion, without succumbing to populism,” Caputova told supporters in Bratislava early Sunday morning.

While Slovakia’s presidency is mostly ceremonial, the post also has the crucial role of handing out government-forming mandates and appointing judges and other officials.

From migrants to Greece and Brexit, the world’s largest trading bloc has struggled for more than a decade to contain crises with a decision-making structure that’s accused of being both too invasive into members’ national interests and not powerful enough to fix things.

The populist parties that have capitalised on the turmoil hope to leverage that in the May EU Parliament elections to at least put the brakes on deeper cooperation and perhaps give its members more freedom to pursue policies that veer from the bloc’s rule-of-law norms.

A study by Bloomberg Economics showed 68% of the world’s 20 most influential economies are controlled by either populist rulers or non-democratic regimes, double the number three years ago.

But there’s signs of pushback in some countries from voters who, while dissatisfied with traditional parties, are loathe to abandon the relative prosperity and visa-free work and travel they enjoy under the EU umbrella.

An opinion poll this month showed the European Parliament’s two biggest political alliances trimmed losses.

To the south of Slovakia, the Fidesz party of nationalist standard bearer Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, was suspended from the EU’s largest political family this month.

And to the north, Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party, which like Fidesz has clashed with Brussels over its efforts to give politicians influence over the judiciary, is struggling to maintain its lead over a pro-EU opposition coalition in opinion polls.

“Caputova is everything that Orban is not,” said Lukas Kovanda, chief economist at Czech Fund, a Prague-based investment group. “The Slovak anti-establishment political forces won’t decide the direction of the country.”

Anti-establishment, pro-EU

Caputova’s win also deals a blow to Smer before next year’s general elections. The party’s leader, three-time Prime Minister Robert Fico, was forced to resign last year after the murder of reporter Jan Kuciak, who wrote about ties between government officials and criminals.

The party has ridden a wave of economic growth to rule unchallenged for most of this decade but failed to fight corruption.

That hurt its candidate, Sefcovic, and helped Caputova, whose previous claim to fame was her role in blocking an illegal landfill planned by the businessman who’s been charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder.

She also pushed forward with her open support of gay rights, a controversial topic in a predominantly Catholic region.

“We might have thought that fairness in politics is just a topic for intellectuals, but now we see that it’s what many people want,” she said.