In a setback for populists, Slovakia is set to pick Caputova as president

Zuzana Caputova | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
An election in the heart of the European Union’s increasing populist eastern wing is poised to deliver a different kind of anti-establishment triumph.

Sandwiched between Poland and Hungary -- perennial thorns in the side of Brussels officials -- Slovakia is set to pick as president an NGO lawyer who backs EU integration, vows to fight nationalism and wants to rebuild a system skewed to favor politicians and their cronies.

Zuzana Caputova’s rise has been rapid. A year ago, her biggest claim to fame was stopping a well-connected businessman from building a landfill in Slovakia’s wine country. Now, polls indicate the 45-year-old will comfortably win Saturday’s ballot and will also prevail in a likely runoff two weeks later. She’s trouncing the pro-Russian populist candidate.

Her victory would be a marked departure from the governments in Warsaw and Budapest, which the EU accuses of trampling over democracy and the rule of law.

“Uniquely for the region, a liberal is leading polls by a wide margin,” said Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels. “But support has less to do with her ideological leanings and more to do with the fact that she represents a clear break from what voters perceive as corrupt and ineffective political elites.”

Caputova has ridden a wave of anti-government anger triggered by last year’s murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancee. A local businessman was charged this week with ordering the killing. Inspired by her slogan -- ‘Let’s fight evil together’ -- voters have taken to the streets in the biggest protests since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“There is not much choice, Caputova stands out among the candidates,” said Jakub Miklas, a 33-year-old entrepreneur, as he was heading to a polling station in Bratislava. “I know what she has done in the landfill case. She will be a good president.”

As vice-chairwoman of the Progressive Slovakia party, Caputova supports gay partnerships and adoption, a rare stance in the predominantly Catholic nation. Once deemed a long-shot for president, which is largely ceremonial but plays a key role in forming governments and appointing judges, she mesmerized audiences in television debates.

That helped her overtake former frontrunner Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission, who’s now in second place. While Slovaks generally embrace the EU, Sefcovic has suffered as the candidate of the ruling Smer party, whose three-term prime minister was ousted last year by anti-graft demonstrators.

Despite robust economic growth, record-low unemployment and rising living standards, some voters are turning away from traditional political forces toward figures mounting xenophobic campaigns.

Stefan Harabin, an anti-NATO Supreme Court judge, is Caputova’s main populist challenger. He says he’d take a more active foreign-policy role, working to annul sanctions against Russian and repel migrants.

But Harabin is a long way behind in the hunt to succeed incumbent Andrej Kiska, who’s stepping down after one term. He has just 12 percent support, compared with 45 percent for Caputova and about half that for Sefcovic, according to a Feb. 26-28 FOCUS survey. Caputova would get 64 percent in a runoff.

Polls opened Saturday at 7 a.m. in Bratislava and run until 10 p.m. There are no exit polls.

Caputova says Slovakia is at a crossroads.

“We’re facing a crisis of confidence in politics and democratic values are being doubted,” the mother-of-two said in the town of Zilina, a nationalist bastion where she was cheered by a packed crowd. “If we don’t stop this trend, extremists will gain more ground.”

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