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Hailed by liberals, Slovakia’s first female president is under a lot of pressure to turn the tide of populism

Slovakia's president-elect Zuzana Caputova speaks to a journalist in the front of the presidential palace in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images)

Within a day of her election, Zuzana Caputova was being hailed as savior of liberalism.

Caputova, who will be the first female president of Slovakia, was a political newcomer but not new to pushing for policy change. Described in headlines as a “liberal lawyer,” she became known for her fight to shut down a toxic waste dump that was putting poison in her hometown, earning her the moniker “the Erin Brockovich of Slovakia.” She campaigned as a pro-Western liberal and has said she would use her platform as president to bring greater transparency to Slovakia.

That’s not insignificant: Caputova won by beating Maros Sefcovic, a veteran diplomat backed by the ruling party, Smer. That party spent much of 2017 dismissing anti-corruption protests, but the murders of Jan Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative journalist, and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, in February of last year and the subsequent mass protests finally got the prime minister, Robert Fico, to resign (after dismissing the protests as backed by Hungarian-born billionaire and worldwide boogeyman George Soros).

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In her first act after being elected president, Caputova lit a candle at an unofficial memorial for Kuciak and Kusnirova.

In her acceptance speech, during which she spoke in Slovak and in the languages of her country’s main minorities — Hungarian, Czech, Roma and Ruthenian — Caputova said, “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.”

Liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova won Slovakia's presidential election March 30. She vowed to support the European Union and ending corruption. (Video: Reuters)

But just how significant is Caputova’s win for liberalism and transparency in Europe?

“First and foremost it is an important reminder than anti-establishment sentiment does not have to be channeled by populists and that liberal democrat challengers can upset the establishment too,” Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, wrote in an email to The Washington Post.

“By being a political outsider, with a track record of defending the ‘little people,’ she was able to tap into the discontent about the rule of law and the state of the judiciary — without having to act as an anti-establishment populist and embrace the kind of platforms that we normally associate with populist disruptors (nationalism, anti-immigration rhetoric, etc.),” echoed Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Rohac added that Caputova’s victory would likely energize the country’s pro-western, pro-European Union, “reformist forces.”

But it isn’t just that liberals rejoiced at Caputova’s victory — it’s also significant that populist forces saw her as enough of a threat to insult her.

During the election, a photo of Caputova’s face was doctored to make her nose look bigger and more stereotypically Semitic. Fico took a jab at her last week when he called liberals “people without values.” And in Hungary, hours after her election, pro-government media had already called her “Soros-like.”

“It’s a progressive candidate who has won and ahead of the [European Parliament] elections they can use it to bolster their argument that the choice is between the progressive left that hastens Europe’s demise and the nationalist right that protects the old way of life,” Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House, wrote in an email. Csaky said that some pro-government media have pointed out that she reached out to the Hungarian community.

Mudde wrote that “obviously her election is a threat to [Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán and others, as it could lead to anti-corruption protest in Hungary and because it goes against his narrative that he and his populist radical right politics are the (only) politics of the region — incidentally, a narrative mindlessly parroted by much western media.”

All of that said, the power of Slovakia’s president is limited compared to that of its prime minister. And Caputova’s victory, while meaningful to liberals and populists alike, will be short-lived if it’s seen as more than it is.

Caputova’s “victory could also signal the arrival of a new crop of politicians in the country. But a lot will depend on how she handles the inevitable disenchantment as expectations always tend to be too high at the beginning, something that she herself has also alluded to,” Csaky wrote. “If she and progressive voices manage to temper expectations, her victory will not contribute to a growing polarization but instead lead to lasting positive change in Slovak politics. But of course, these are big ifs.”

“We should not put too much hope in, or pressure on, Zuzana Caputova,” Mudde agreed.

In fact, if Caputova is to bring about change, it may be by inspiring others like her — political newcomers who see liberalism, transparency and positive change as natural partners.

“In itself, Caputova’s presidency will likely be a continuation of Andrej Kiska’s legacy of pro-Western, unifying outlook, rather an abrupt change and source of frictions with other branches of government,” Rohac wrote.

“More importantly, her success might herald the future success of political groups that backed her — and with it the emergence of a new reformist, broadly liberal coalition to replace Robert Fico’s catch-all populism.”