In what CNN has called a “rebuke of populism,” Slovakia elected its first female and youngest ever president Zuzana Caputova in a landmark 58% victory vote this past week. Her campaign focused on fighting corruption by stripping the police and prosecutors of their political influence.
She made sure to thank supporters in the languages of many minority groups in Slovakia, showing that she intends to maintain a sense of unity among them. In expressing her gratefulness for victory, she announced these sentiments to supporters: “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.” From humble beginnings, driven by a desire to end corruption and further liberal ideas in a traditionally conservative Slovakia, Caputova's election is a step towards positive political development.
Caputova’s early career began in the local government of her hometown Pezinok, assisting the legal department and then serving as deputy to the town mayor. From there she moved further into the public sector, focusing her work in public administration on the issue of abused and exploited children. Between 2001 and 2017 she worked as a lawyer, a campaign manager, and ultimately opened her own law firm.
At this law firm, she gained attention when she led a successful case against a wealthy land developer planning to implement a toxic landfill in her hometown. Caputova organized protests, filed lawsuits, and wrote petitions to the European Union until she finally won the case. For this, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize in 2016.
Winning the case was an important turning point in her attitude towards and confidence in politics. When accepting the Goldman Environmental prize, she expressed that the case had been “a lesson in bravery” and “an intense experience with the arrogance and vulgarity of political and economical power. It was an experience with evil.” The evidence of the impact the case had on her campaign is clear in its slogan: “Let’s fight evil together.”
In 2017, Caputova became active in the new party Progressive Slovakia, so new it had yet to ever produce a candidate for an election. In January of 2018, she was elected vice chairwoman at the party’s first Congress. The party provides a reliably socially-liberal contrast to the long-established conservatism in Slovakia, part of the reason its recent steps into the political sphere held such a solid foothold. Caputova’s win came with the defeat of contender Maros Sefcovic, an Independent backed by the previously dominant Smer-SD party. The success of the party came as a surprise to most of central Europe, where a rhetoric of nationalism has been rising over the years.
Her campaign focused on four primary issues:
- Making the police force an independent institution in order to strip it of its political influence
- Stopping illegal deforestation
- Registering partnerships for same-sex couples
- An opinion on abortion best summarized in her own words, "If there is an extreme situation and the dilemma is between deciding whether to adopt a legal norm that will intrude upon the personal lives of citizens or leave it to women's responsibility and their personal choice, I choose the responsibility of a woman."
Caputova’s role as president is somewhat ceremonial since the prime minister handles oversight of the government, but in addition to significant influence, she retains important blocking powers, the power to appoint top judges, and assumes the position of commander-in-chief of the Slovak armed forces.
The election of a female president in Slovakia begs the question for countries still yet to do so—when will we follow suit? As of October 2018, Wikipedia cites 25 modern states with current female heads of state or government and 76 modern states that have previously had female heads of state or government. The United States, a self-described “liberal” modern state, is not, however, part of this group. Local governments in the U.S. have been able to move towards closing the gender gap in political leadership, most recently in the election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor of Chicago—the first Black woman to win this seat.
What will it take for these progressive sentiments to make it to the federal level? With 2020 candidate discussions on the rise,
There’s plenty to celebrate with Caputova’s victory in Slovakia, and hopefully plenty for the United States to take note of and learn from as well.