Slovakia elections underway

Zuzana Caputova, an anti-corruption lawyer who entered politics only a year ago, comfortably won the first round of Slovakia’s presidential election, the first  such election since the country was rocked by the murder of an investigative journalist.

Background 

Slovakia is a landlocked country in Central Europe. It is bordered by Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east, Hungary to the south, Austria to the west, and the Czech Republic to the northwest. Slovakia's territory spans about 49,000 square kilometres and is mostly mountainous. The population is over 5.4 million and consists mostly of Slovaks. The capital and largest city is Bratislava, and the second largest city is Košice.

Slovakia is a parliamentary democratic republic with a multi-party system. The last parliamentary elections were held on 5 March 2016 and two rounds of presidential elections took place on 15 and 29 March 2014.

The Slovak head of state and the formal head of the executive is the president (currently Andrej Kiska), though with very limited powers. The president is elected by direct, popular vote under the two-round system for a five-year term. Most executive power lies with the head of government, the prime minister (currently Peter Pellegrini), who is usually the leader of the winning party, but he/she needs to form a majority coalition in the parliament. The prime minister is appointed by the president. The remainder of the cabinet is appointed by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister.

Analysis 

Ms Caputova’s emergence as a political force is a sign of how dramatically the sands of Slovak politics have shifted since the deaths of Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova 13 months ago. Police quickly linked the killings to Kuciak’s work investigating corruption. This triggered the biggest protests in Slovakia since the collapse of communism and ultimately forced the resignation of veteran prime minister, Robert Fico.

Final results showed that Ms Caputova — a liberal, pro-European candidate, whose campaign tapped into a vein of deep public shock and anger at the killing of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée last year — had won 40.6 per cent of the votes cast.

Maros Sefcovic — Slovakia’s current EU commissioner who is backed by Smer, Slovakia’s biggest party — came second with 18.7 per cent. He will now face Ms Caputova, who would be Slovakia’s first woman president, in a run-off in two weeks’ time.

“I see these elections . . . in the context of a strong call for change after the tragic events of last spring,” Ms Caputova said as she cast her vote in her hometown of Pezinok. “Perhaps we are also at a crossroads in terms of rebuilding public trust.”

While Ms Caputova’s performance represents a rare victory for liberal forces in central Europe, which has been the scene of a series of victories by populist and nationalist parties in recent years, hardline candidates also garnered a sizeable share of the vote.

Stefan Harabin — a former ally of 1990s strongman Vladimir Meciar who frequently rails against foreigners and Brussels, and is a critic of EU sanctions on Russia — won 14.4 per cent. Marion Kotleba, an extreme right leader who romanticises the fascist Slovak state of 1939-1945 led by Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, won 10.4 per cent.

Ms Caputova’s first big success as a lawyer came when she won a 14-year battle against the expansion of a toxic waste site in Pezinok in 2013. Then in 2017, she was part of a campaign to have controversial pardons issued by Mr Meciar overturned.

However, the 45-year-old, who has never held public office, began her campaign last year as a relatively unknown figure, and was languishing in fifth places in the polls. However, good performances in pre-election debates and an endorsement from a rival candidate catapulted her to the front of the field of 13 presidential hopefuls.

Her surge to the head of the pack triggered a strong backlash from her opponents, who have accused her of lacking experience and being too liberal for Slovakia.

Assessment 

Our assessment is that the rise of an anti-corruption lawyer to pole position in the election is largely due to a peaceful, wide reaching revolution which was triggered after the death of prominent journalists in the country. We believe that the rejection of nationalist candidates by the public is a counter to the rising instances of far-right, ultra-nationalist parties gaining ground in Europe.