Beneficial Unconventionality – how Zuzana Čaputová became Slovakia’s first female president8 min read
As Slovakia’s first female president, Zuzana Čaputová can be considered somewhat of an anomaly in the Slovakian political landscape. As a lawyer and activist turned stateswomen, Čaputová liberal ideas, cultivated rhetoric and personality is an interesting story that is worthy of further investigation.
A few weeks ago, people in Slovakia remembered the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, which dramatically changed the state of affairs in the country. Three years after the murder, two chief political officials in Slovakia decided to approach this anniversary in a different manner. Prime Minister Igor Matovič openly called journalists biased, superficial and supercilious and stated that “it is time to tell the truth about the quality of the Slovak journalism.”
On the other hand, Zuzana Čaputová, the first female president ever elected in Slovakia remembered the tragic event differently. She expressed respect for Jan’s work as a journalist and emphasized the importance of maintaining independent media in the country. “Jan’s work and his death are a memento for all of us about how risky, yet very important the work of a journalist is […] It is our duty as politicians to do everything in our power to ensure that the tragedy of Jan is never repeated”.
Her conflict-free and calm voice stood in direct contrast to the words of the prime minister. Not abusing the country’s tragic events for political gain is an anomaly in Slovakian history.
Čaputová’s rise to fame
Čaputová first gained public recognition following an anti-waste dumping campaign in her hometown of Pezinok. The case went to court and lasted for more than ten years. The seriousness of the case was enhanced by the substantial engagement and influence of political and economic actors. Čaputová blamed two powerful interests: Smer, the previous ruling party, and Marián Kočner, an oligarch who was sentenced to 19 years in jail for forgery. Kočner is also accused of organizing the murder of aforementioned journalist Ján Kuciak – who often wrote about Kočner and his corruption scandals. In 2016 Čaputová received the Goldman Environmental Prize for playing a significant role in shutting down the waste site.
Her political career started in 2017 when she joined the newly established party Progressive Slovakia. The party was created in response to overwhelming corruption and Slovakia’s dysfunctional judiciary system, which appeared to cooperate with then-ruling party Smer and people closely affiliated with it.
Generally, there has been deep distrust in courts among Slovaks, a sentiment that peaked in 2020, when as many as 72 percent of people did not trust in the rule of law in Slovakia. Progressive Slovakia aimed to merge and recruit talented and successful people with high moral credit and uncontroversial pasts to join the party. Its socio-liberal agenda was supposed to be an alternative to the predominantly conservative parties in Slovakian politics.
Bringing new topics into the discourse
The murder of Kuciak was the catalyst for Čaputová to run for president. Being confident enough to kill a journalist strongly suggests that the judicial system in the country is dysfunctional. Therefore, this tragedy was the last straw for her to realize that she must try to remedy such a corrupted system.
On 29 March 2018, approximately one month after Jan’s assassination, she announced that she would be running for president. She was endorsed by multiple parties, Progressive Slovakia and SaS, which are both liberal parties, but also by SPOLU. Endorsement from these parties, combined with her personal values, generated a candidate rather unprecedented and potentially unpopular in the environment of Slovakian politics. She ran as a liberal woman.
As an environmental activist, she introduced environmental protection into the political discourse. She also openly spoke about LGBT rights, abortion and reproductive rights, as well as social justice issues. While improving the judicial system was the core message of her campaign, shedding light on often neglected or tabooed ethical or cultural issues brought her praise, but also contempt.
For a population mostly represented by conservative values, this was a shock. The idea of violating the status quo through liberal ideas, was difficult for some people to deal with. Slovakian laws do not recognise any form of same-sex union, and also general public opinion is moderate regarding support for LGBT rights. Hence, unfolding such topics brought a breath of fresh air into public discourse.
Additionally, many argued that a president must have prior political experience. However, having no prior political experience was what differentiated Čaputová from the other candidates. This could be easily spotted in televised political debates which were dominated by her. She maintained a rock-solid position of not falling into personal attacks by the other candidates and remained consistent throughout debates. This put her in a different light because she represented a new, polite, and mature political culture. The unbreakable convention where a liberal woman can’t become president started to vanish gradually.
In one of the final debates before the election, Čaputová pointed to the need for change in political culture “We each represent a certain group of people and we are responsible for how people perceive us. People are tired of our quarrels and they are tired of the fact that we engage in personal conflicts instead of participating in solving the problems of this country. This is a huge responsibility that goes beyond our candidacy and is related to whether people will stop believing in democracy and political representatives in general, so we should manage these elections with decency and fairness.”
Čaputová’s moral appeal
Apart from the political discussions she participated in, some interviews effectively uncovered her personal traits. Her contemplative, self-reflective, even meditative character only naturally added to her calm and well-mannered public appearance. As a lawyer, she started her career in the non-profit sector, where she was devoted to fighting for abused and exploited children. Generally, she was close to non-profit organisations and worked with organisations like Greenpeace. She has advocated for people her whole career and it seems like a natural continuity to do the same as president.
The role of the president in Slovakia is representative and its executive powers are limited. This is something that Čaputová is well aware of. The president has quite a decent field of competence in that it is a public authority to draw attention. Whether it is to the media or the public, nothing can prevent her from organizing a debate or initiating solutions to specific social problems. “Is it the activity of the president to be with people as I have been in my legal practise so far, as a president nothing can prevent me from being in the fields where people must be heard,” she has stated.
A transformative victory
On 30 March 2019, Čaputová secured the victory and became the first female president in Slovak history as well as in Central Europe. Many people celebrated it as a victory of reason and culture. From this moment, Slovakia has had an authentic stateswoman capable of representing the country and its people in domestic politics but also abroad. However, questions soon started to emerge. Would she be able to accomplish her political agenda and maintain her anti-conflict personality? Would she be able to streamline her rhetoric, aimed at national cooperation rather than division and hatred?
In any case, her victory was a special event in Slovakian politics and Čaputová summarized it well in her acceptance speech. “I am pleased not only with the victory but above all, that it happened in a way that many doubted could work – that it is possible to enter the political contest with one’s own opinion, that one can avoid succumbing into populism, that one can tell the truth, that one can earn trust even without aggressive rhetoric and without malicious personal conflicts.”
Surely, it may sound like a typical acceptance speech for any newly elected politician in a chief position. However, she has indeed avoided populism. She has successfully avoided aggressive rhetoric, and she did manage to win the elections based on liberal values within an unsupportive conservative environment. The combination of these facts renders a rather fascinating victory.
During her presidency, she has continued to keep her word. She has found ways to speak for people, and she continues to fights for equality. She has stood on the side of women whose reproductive rights were to be restricted. During the pandemic, she has been standing on the side of reason, participating in discussions with, and listening to scientists. She has consulted experts on appropriate measures to combat the pandemic and publicly emphasizes the importance of their work. She also stands on the side of the law. She has endorsed a massive judicial reform that should enhance the trust and quality of rule of law in the country.
One of the indications that she indeed does represent many people in Slovakia and that she tries to fulfil the notion of being a voice for the people is proved by the fact that she has remained the most trusted politician during her presidency. In a recent poll, around 70 percent of people trusted her, giving her a big lead before other politicians.
She set the bar for Slovakia’s political culture much higher than her colleagues. Slovakia has only existed as an independent country for a brief time – during which its political scene has been dominated by uncultured and corrupt politicians – therefore, Čaputová is the leader that Slovakia needs.