When Slovakia’s newly elected President Zuzana Caputova — the country’s first ever female head of state — delivered her acceptance speech on Saturday she immediately set herself apart from the wave of populist parties sweeping Europe.
The 45-year-old liberal lawyer thanked voters not just in Slovak — but in Hungarian, Czech, Roma and Ruthenian — in a show of unity with the nation’s minority groups and rejection of the nationalist rhetoric popular in some neighboring countries.
“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,” she told supporters, Reuters reported.
Caputova is a political newbie who’s anti-corruption campaign struck a chord in a country still grappling with the murder in February last year of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova.
The murder — and subsequent trial of Slovak businessman Marian Kocner who was charged with ordering the killing — triggered some of the biggest protests seen in post-communist Slovakia and ultimately led to the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico.
Then-President Andrej Kiska was also forced not to stand for a second term.
The killings also motivated Caputova to run for office for the very first time, calling for an end to people “pulling the strings from behind (government),” Reuters reported.
In a New York Times interview earlier this month, Caputova said: “People are feeling frustrated and disappointed and are yearning for change.
“Some candidates have chosen to exploit this fear — but for me, using the emotions of hatred and fear is destructive.”
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But Caputova’s connection with journalist Kuciak’s case began long before his death. The lawyer previously waged a 14-year legal battle with a company represented by accused businessman Marian Kocner that planned to build an illegal landfill in her home town, Reuters reported.
Caputova won the case — and the Hollywood-inspired nickname “Slovakia’s Erin Brockovich,” after the environmental campaigner played by Julia Roberts in the film of the same name.
During the election campaign Caputova, a divorced mother-of-two, turned her back on issues that have worked so effectively for populist parties in neighboring Hungary and Poland, such as migrants and family values.
In Slovakia, a country where same-sex marriage is illegal, Caputova called for greater LGBT rights.
Voters apparently liked what they heard, and Caputova gained just over 58% of the vote in a second-round run-off against 52-year-old European commissioner Maro Sefcovic, according to state-owned Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS).
Pro-European Union campaigner Sefcovic conceded defeat Saturday to Caputova, a member of the liberal non-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party, which has no seats in parliament.
Some extreme candidates for the presidency — which is a largely ceremonial role although the president does appoint the prime minister — were eliminated after the first round of voting on March 16.
Now as all eyes turn to the upcoming European Parliamentary Elections in late May, Slovakia — which has traditionally had one of the lowest turnouts in the election — may have shown that populist parties might not triumph, as so many analysts have predicted.