BRATISLAVA - Slovak government critic Zuzana Caputova will become the EU member’s first female president after winning a run-off election Saturday against the ruling party’s candidate.
“Let us look for what connects us. Let us promote cooperation above personal interests,” the 45-year-old environmental lawyer told reporters after the results rolled in.
The community activist was largely unknown before she launched her presidential run in the eurozone member of 5.4 million.
She won the election with 58 percent of the ballot thanks in part to voter disillusionment with the governing coalition a year after the murder of a journalist investigating high-level corruption plunged the country into crisis. Caputova was among the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, were gunned down at home in February 2018.
Kuciak was about to publish a report on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian Mafia and associated irregularities in EU farm subsidy payments.
Then-Prime Minister Robert Fico was forced to resign, but he remains the leader of the ruling Smer-SD party and is a close ally of current Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini.
Caputova, who gave up membership in the nonparliamentary party Progressive Slovakia before the runoff, has vowed to fight for justice for all.
“In the eyes of voters, she is a response to our current problems,” analyst Grigorij Meseznikov said.
Caputova has a gift for rhetoric and was endorsed by outgoing liberal President Andrej Kiska as well as Jozef Kuciak, the slain journalist’s brother.
She is pro-choice and promotes greater rights for same-sex couples, arguing that a child “would be better off with two loving beings of the same sex” than having to grow up in an orphanage.
Caputova concedes that her lack of knowledge in the field of defense and security is a disadvantage.
“I will have to rely on my advisers when it comes to those topics,” she said on the campaign trail. “Also, punctuality is not my strong suit.”
Born in the capital, Bratislava, on June 21, 1973, Caputova spent her early years in the nearby town of Pezinok.
After studying law at Bratislava’s Comenius University, she joined Via Iuris, a leading Slovak legal advocacy organization.
There, she spearheaded a successful campaign to block a dump site proposed for her native Pezinok that would have been the size of 12 football fields.
For 14 years the town’s residents fought against the planned landfill, with Caputova organizing what was dubbed the largest mobilization of citizens since the 1989 Velvet Revolution — the peaceful uprising that toppled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
In 2013, the Slovak Supreme Court ruled in favor of the residents and annulled the authorization to build the landfill.
The case also prompted the Court of Justice of the European Union to lay down rules requiring public access to urban planning decisions concerning projects that affect the environment.
“This story from small-town Slovakia has actually had an important international impact,” Caputova later said.
Caputova won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s top award for grassroots environmental activism, for her efforts.
A member of the nonprofit organization Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, Caputova lists drawing, basketball, hiking and swimming among her hobbies.
The English-speaker says she regrets having forgotten her Russian, which she would like to brush up on.
She is divorced and has two teenage daughters. Her current partner is a musician and photographer.