Bratislava, Slovakia – Slovakia is one step closer to electing its first female president.
Zuzana Čaputová, a 45-year-old environmental lawyer who never held public office, won the first round of the Slovak presidential elections by a landslide, with 40.5% of the votes (870.000 ballots). She’ll face Smer-nominee and current EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, who trails far behind at 18.7%, in the second round of the election in two weeks. Turnout stands around 49%, the highest participation rate for a first round since 1999 and five points higher than during the last presidential elections.
Zuzana Čaputová, an anti-corruption campaigner nicknamed Slovakia’s Erin Brokovich for her fight against an illegal landfill, is in good position to become the first woman president, with recent polls forecasting a 65-35 win in the second round against Šefčovič. While the latter was once seen as the race’s frontrunner, Čaputová’s more proactive campaign benefited from a strong boost after former lead opposition candidate Robert Mistrik withdrew from the race to endorse her.
“I see a strong call for change in this election”, Čaputová, a pro-European liberal candidate of the Progressive Slovakia party, said after the results were announced. “We stand at a crossroads between the loss and renewal of public trust, also in terms of Slovakia’s foreign policy orientations”.
But it would be unwise for her to cry victory too early. Analysts expect Šefčovič, whose lukewarm first-round campaign obviously didn’t appeal outside of Smer loyalists, to try to mobilize the people who didn’t vote in the first round and go fishing for the votes of anti-system candidates Štefan Harabin (14.4%) and Marian Kotleba (10.4%), respectively in third and fourth position.
Their conservative and nationalist voter base might see Šefčovič as the only recourse to block Čaputová, whose openly progressive views on issues like abortion and LGBT rights don’t resonate well among many parts of the population. “Šefčovič, painting himself as a Christian, experienced candidate with contacts broad, has already launched the campaign for the second round with combative statements towards Čaputová”, sociologist Sona Gyarfasova pointed out.
The results of the first round have indeed sent a strong message for change and greater decency in a country still mourning the brutal murder, last year, of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak. It’s also worth to note that Slovaks also strongly supported two openly pro-EU candidates over those lambasting the country’s Western orientation.
But while it’s correct to describe Čaputová’s first-round success as “a rare victory for liberal forces” in a Central European region marked by growing illiberalism and authoritarianism, the outcome also illustrates Slovakia’s long-standing divisions. Although Čaputová came out largely on top in almost the entire country, regional differences remain: while the Bratislava region overwhelmingly voted for the liberal candidate (60%) and reported the highest turnout, the country’s east doesn’t appear as convinced by her bid for president: the race was much tighter in the Presov region, where only 30% of voters cast their ballots in her favor (compared to 20% for Šefčovič and 18% for Harabin), while Kosice reported the lowest turnout.
It would also seem somewhat presumptuous to describe this as a complete victory of liberal forces over extremist, far-right tendencies: although none of them managed to reach the second round, Štefan Harabin – a pro-Russian, anti-West former Justice Minister involved in countless affairs of corruption and cronyism – and Marian Kotleba – the controversial leader of the neo-Nazi party Our Slovakia – managed to attract nearly 25% of the votes (530.000 ballots) combined. Their stronger scores were reported in the Banska Bystrica region (where Kotleba was governor until 2017), as well as around Zilina and in Slovakia’s eastern regions.
In Slovakia, the president doesn’t wield much day-to-day power in politics, but is key is forming governments or appointing top constitutional judges.
Both candidates will head to the second round of the election, on March 30, with the next president due to officially take office on June 15 this year.