In March of 2019, relative unknown Zuzana Caputova won the Slovakian Presidential election, becoming the first woman and – at 45 – the youngest person ever to hold that office. With a background as an environmental lawyer and human rights activist, Caputova is largely viewed in Slovakia as a unifier, taking strong and reasonable approaches to even apparently intractable problems. Her success has inspired a degree of hope for the future from her former peers and colleagues in Slovakia’s legal community.
Caputova, who was born into a working-class family in Bratislava on June 21, 1973, grew up in the nearby town of Pezinok, where she still resides today. Caputova has described her childhood as taking place in an “open-minded house,” which influenced her later development and work as an environmental activist.
After graduating from the Comenius University Faculty of Law in Bratislava in 1996 (with a specialization in both national and international law), Caputova worked for a while in the local Pezinok government, eventually becoming Deputy Mayor. In 2001, she moved into the NGO sector and started working with the Open Society Foundation on public administration and child protection issues. From 2001 to 2017 she worked with Via Iuris – a civic organization promoting the rule of law and supporting civil rights and society, representing individuals in environmental and human rights cases.
“She used to be a very strong and a very dedicated environmental lawyer,” says Radovan Pala, Partner and Co-Head of Taylor Wessing’s office in Bratislava, who serves as an official advisor to President Caputova. “The legal community knew of Zuzana for a long time, in the NGO world.”
It was at Via Iuris that Caputova first came to prominence, gaining particular recognition for her fight against the construction of a waste dump and an incinerator in close proximity to Pezinok. “She became recognizable person when she took on that fight in city of Pezinok,” recalls Katarina Mihalikova, Partner at Bratislava’s Majernik & Mihalikova law firm, who reports that “Caputova and her colleagues at Via Iuris managed to prove that the proposed project would be very damaging to the environment and the city, as well as to the quality of life of Pezinok’s inhabitants.”
Caputova wanted more influence than her position in the NGO sector provided her, Pala says, adding that, “I think that, as elections drew close, she decided that the time had come to move up.” She joined the Progressive Slovakia party in 2018 and began her campaign for president in 2019. Pala was there from the beginning, in fact, and he recalls with pride being “part of the three-member petition committee that helped her gather the necessary fifteen thousand signatures so that she could run in the first place.”
An important event in the run-up to that election was the February 2018 assassinations of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kusnirova. The murders generated a huge outcry in Slovakia, with enormous rallies organized in a demand to see the killers (and those who hired them, as it was widely believed that the act had been committed under orders) brought to justice. Caputova engaged with the murder case and started galvanizing support. “She had much to say, and people listened,” Pala says. “People understood that the corruption and oligarchical structures do not stop at anything and that this was hurting their way of life as well. It attacked our values – the most basic ones.”
“The murder piqued a civic movement of unprecedented proportions,” Mihalikova agrees, recalling that “the last time people started to rally out of fear and feeling threatened like that was in 1989.”
Caputova, who was a frequent participant in protests against the government after the murders, cast her campaign as a struggle for core values, eventually choosing “Let’s face the evil together” as her campaign slogan. It worked, and she won the first round of voting on March 16, 2019, with 40.57% of the vote, and the second round, on March 30, 2019, with 58.41% of the vote. On June 15, 2019, she was sworn in as President.
We Won, We Won! … Now What?
Caputova’s win, as surprising as it was to many, came in an election which saw the lowest voter turnout in Slovakia’s history. This was not lost on the opposition. “With the low voter turnout, her political opponents tried to argue that her presidency was not legitimate – which was, quite frankly, ludicrous,” says Veronika Pazmanyova, Partner at Glatzova & Co. in Bratislava. “She enjoys the strong support of the people now, as she did after she won. She won the hearts of the citizens by standing behind her values, even if controversial.” Pazmanyova cites President Caputova’s pro-gay rights stance as an example of this political courage. “Slovakia is a deeply catholic country,” says Pazmanyova, “and being pro-LGBTQ is not a common sight when one looks at our politicians. Still, President Caputova is standing her ground and arguing equality and freedom for all in Slovakia from a human rights standpoint, and her message is getting across.”
“I voted for her in the Presidential elections,” says Hugh Owen, Director of Go2Law. “While it sounds naive, I voted for her because I was desperate to see someone in a significant position of power who was not part of the political establishment. I could see from her history of campaigning that she was prepared to fight for her beliefs and for justice and that she would have a fresh and invigorating approach to her office.”
“I think the main reason people respond so well to her, even when she’s not saying the most popular things, isn’t only due to her being an eloquent speaker,” Pala says, “but also because she does not dodge questions. She always gives her answers straight, in a direct way.” That doesn’t mean she’s not careful. Pala points to Caputova’s comment on the topic of same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption that “this is a more preferable option than staying in an orphanage with no parents,” as reflecting her ability to reframe issues effectively.
This balanced approach – strong views coupled with an honest way of communicating – is what, Pala says, underpins President Caputova’s reputation as a unifier. According to him, “she takes a lot of care not to be a partisan president and to be there for all Slovakians, not just her supporters.” Indeed, he suggests, President Caputova’s focus over the past year has been, ultimately, a continuation of what she has fought for all her life.
“The President focuses most on protecting the human rights of those most in need,” Pala explains. “By fighting for law and justice and against corruption, promoting the environment, and proposing a higher rate of care for the elderly and the retired people of Slovakia, she has come across as somebody everybody can trust.”
And trust is an important asset in Slovakian politics. Pala notes that the previous government was linked to “shady figures with questionable ties to criminal aspects.” As a result, he says, “for this very reason, President Caputova’s public empowerment of those prosecutors and judges willing to take up, argue, and try cases that deal with corruption and criminals is an excellent example of the good she can continue to do for Slovakia.”
Pala is convinced the effects will be significant, and he suggests that the very fabric of society is changing in a way that will lead to the exclusion, or at least suppression, of criminal factors. “The consequences of her struggle to send this message can be seen already,” he says. “The trial of those accused of the murder of Kuciak and Kusnirova is likely to end soon with a conviction, hopefully putting this terrible chapter to rest.”
Of course, Caputova is not a one-issue President. Aside from battling corruption, Pala says, she has made an effort to “strengthen the ties Slovakia has in the international arena,” and essentially restarted the work of the Constitutional Court, which had been inactive, with only four of its 13 seats filled. “President Caputova pushed for the election of new judges and, basically, convinced the Parliament to nominate a sufficient number of candidates to enable her to elect six judges to the bench to make the Court functional again,” Pala says.
Slovakia’s Parliament is expected to enact more legislative reform in the future as well, Pala reports, and he insists that President Caputova will “show a strong voice in these as well.”
“She cannot be involved on the executive level in reform in a hands-on way,” Mihalikova says, “but just by virtue of her talking about the issue and by the force of her authority, she can make waves.” Mihalikova notes that 11 judges were arrested for corruption in March, describing this as “a clear representation that the judicial system is craving reform,” and adding that “it’s good that President Caputova is tackling this. If the system is corrupt people can’t do anything, their very way of life is under attack.”
Finally, President Caputova, staying true to her roots, remains a strong voice for environmental issues. “She did quite a lot on raising awareness of the importance of protecting the environment,” Pala says. According to him, President Caputova has made an effort not only to honor the Paris Agreement but also to go “above and beyond,” noting that “based on her initiative, Slovakia has currently pledged to approach a carbon-free economy.”
The Canny Caputova
Caputova’s message has not always resonated with Slovakia’s conservative Parliament – but she has managed to engage productively anyway. “The previous Prime Minister, Peter Pellegrini, is part of the Political Party, SMER, which is tied to several corruption scandals President Caputova vocally opposed,” says Pazmanyova. “You’d expect some friction there, or animosity, to swim to the surface and hinder cooperation between her and the former Prime Minister – but in fact it was rather smooth.” Pazmanyova says that Caputova and Pellegrini had “a constructive communication, laced with respect despite the differences they clearly had.”
However, cordiality is not, alone, enough. “Before the parliamentary elections that took place on February 29, 2020, the then-ruling SMER practiced some underhanded tactics in order to try and stay in power,” Pazmanyova recalls, pointing to attempts to extend the period of time immediately before the elections during which no political advertisements or campaigning was allowed. “This period of time, the pre-election silence, is usually 14 days long, and SMER wanted to extend it to 50 days,” she recalls, insisting that SMER’s goal was to silence its opposition.
“SMER made the case that the media is not independent and that it should, therefore, be excluded from the equation,” Pazmanyova says, describing this as “flimsy at best,” but noting that the party’s proposal nonetheless made it through Parliament and reached the President’s desk.
This is where President Caputova showed a lot of prowess,” Pazmanyova smiles, explaining that Caputova first vetoed the law, but when Parliament voted on it again, overriding the veto, Caputova then signed the law as required – but immediately filed a request with the Constitutional Court to review its legality. The Constitutional Court then suspended the amendment pending a full review. “This allowed for the elections to go ahead as planned without the extended moratorium,” Pazmanyova says.
Additionally, Pazmanyova reports that “only four days before the elections, Parliament passed an act revising the pension scheme in order to get a 13th pension payment to all retired people in Slovakia.” Retirees make up a significant portion of the electorate in Slovakia, and Pazmanyova believes the move was made in an effort to buy votes. “Many saw this as political corruption,” she says, “so close to the election.” According to her, the normal legislative procedure was purposefully truncated to preclude parliamentary debate and exclude input from experts and other relevant stakeholders. Pazmanyova reports that Caputova postponed her decision to sign or veto the law until after the election – then, after signing the law, again turned to the Constitutional Court for help, asking it to ensure the shortened procedure in which the new act was passed was proper. Pazmanyova describes this as “a political master move on the President’s end: she did not deprive retired people of the payment, but has effectively nullified its impact on the elections.”
Coping with COVID-19
Slovakia, like other European countries, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Still, the quick response of the government has helped keep the number of cases low; as of May 21, 2020, there had been 1502 confirmed cases, and only 28 deaths.
“The President reacted swiftly and showed how important it is to earn the public trust and lead from the front lines,” says Pala. “Besides sending out messages of support to all those battling the disease head-on, like doctors, nurses, and police offices, and to those most affected, like the elderly, she also contributed greatly to widespread adoption of personal protection.” Pala says that Caputova has worn a facemask from the very beginning of the crisis during her work and public appearances, which he credits with helping to raise awareness of the pandemic’s seriousness and provide guidance as to how Slovakians should behave. “Her role in the handling of the COVID-19 crisis is universally acclaimed,” Pala reports.
Mihalikova agrees, noting that “according to very recent polls, [the President] is the most trusted politician in the country.” She says that this fact shows that President Caputova has “upheld her role very well,” and has handled the crisis with “calming and embracing addresses” that “gave the people just what they needed.”
Following the recent parliamentary elections, President Caputova is “likely to have a much easier relationship with current lawmakers,” Mihalikova says, and she adds that “the President has met with all the parliamentary party leaders and it seems they have a good starting point, in terms of communication.” However, Mihalikova notes, with the elections taking place so close to the start of the COVID-19 crisis, “the government was assembled hastily, and they’ll face a lot of pressure in the near future.”
Still, her fellow lawyers, at least, seem to have shed their traditional skepticism, and they remain confident that Caputova can succeed in unifying the country behind her progressive agenda. “Even deeply conservative, religious people, those that would vote for somebody else – even they do not attack her directly,” Pala asserts. “She has universal appeal.”
Hugh Owen is hopeful as well. “It is a time where change is necessary. She has a very strong background as an environmental campaigner, and seems to pursue a liberal agenda, both of which in my view are very positive influences in a time where reactionary forces and populism are also strong, and where climate change is still waiting not-so-patiently in the background.”
“It’s an amazing feeling, to be proud of your politicians, especially your President,” Pazmanyova says with a smile. “When her name is mentioned by some of our international clients or colleagues, I genuinely beam,” she laughs. “President Caputova is an advocate for human rights, a true teacher of tolerance and openness – and she communicates this very well.”
“On election day, I was with some friends and colleagues and we all felt very strongly about her winning,” Pazmanyova concludes. “A woman, a lawyer – very, very empowering. It was like I won myself.”