Becoming My President

My president. A phrase I heard used only once in three weeks for the current president (who divides not only the American people and society but, in many ways, the international spectrum as a whole), during my travels in the United States last month as a participant in the International Visitor Leadership Programme. This despite having met with a great number of both government officials and common working people. Some admire Trump’s bold leadership and straightforward rhetoric while others loathe his reckless decision-making and hateful comments. Regardless, this apparent wariness to identify with Trump made me think about to what extent I can identify with our own elected representatives, when I personally voted for them. Should I call the current president MY president in any case or should I call Zuzana Čaputová MY president because I voted for her and I truly want her to succeed? Sometimes we vote for the better of two bad options. In this election, however, that was not the case. I voted for who I perceived to be the most eligible candidate, based on her professionalism and character.

Having interned for her back in 2009, I always admired Ms. Čaputová’s calm, thoughtful and professional approach both to other people and to her work. She is the kind of person who does not need to ask for, or fight for, respect: it comes to her naturally and is well-deserved. As a lawyer, her professional career has mostly been built upon the defence of environmental and civic rights. Though she is well-respected and has been awarded for her work in this area, until recently her name was not widely known among the general public. Not long ago, she entered politics in a newly-formed political party, Progressive Slovakia, but still lacked visibility and reach. This year, however, she ran for President of Slovakia and won.

Putting her personal qualities and sympathetic story aside, the question at heart is how a female candidate without political experience or considerable background in public or foreign affairs could win this election, facing a male opponent with consistent experience in European politics as a recognized commissioner with the support of the strongest political party in his country. This result was especially surprising in Slovakia, a conservative country which has struggled with reform in many issues such as migration or same sex rights. Being largely unknown to the general public, Zuzana Čaputová’s supporters grew from a small percentage of Slovak voters to almost 60% in the second round against a strong candidate whose most serious disadvantage appeared to be his unwitty and sometimes clumsy denial of political affiliations and support from the leading political party, which has been involved in numerous corruption cases over the past years.

Undoubtedly there are other explanations for her victory besides her honest communication and non-affiliation with any of the “old-wave” political parties. A tragic event that took place in Slovakia last year would also play a major role in the success of the current new-wave politicians in all recent elections, including the communal, presidential, and European Parliamentary. Following the murders of the young investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, unprecedented protests took place all over the country. These protests, initiated and organized by two high school students, wore an apolitical signature and called for radical change at the highest level of the political apparatus. The biggest demonstrations since 1989, this movement started a wave of change in Slovakia both at the political level and in the civic community, mobilizing the whole country regardless of age, religion, profession or political affiliation, and in spite of the fact that Slovaks are not particularly well-known for active engagement in public affairs. Tens of thousands gathered in cities and towns across the country with their families, friends and colleagues despite adverse weather. In this optimistic milieu, it seemed clear that Slovaks were ready and willing to contribute to a better future, and not just to stand passively by as elected officials forgot who elected them and for whom they should be carrying out public service. Though the protests resulted in the stepping down of the Prime Minister Robert Fico and his closest ally, the Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák, the way in which this change took place and the arrogant reactions of some politicians to the demonstrations and the widespread discontent they represented, further agitated civil society. With the massive participation of citizens, it became clear that there was a need for real change in the political leadership of the country.

In addition to the impact of this evolving political environment, another factor that contributed to the victory of Zuzana Čaputová was the successful unification around a single, opposition/new-wave candidate shown during her campaign. Prior to the first round, the opposition parties had introduced two candidates without notable ties to the political establishment, and while at the beginning the climate was much more favourable to the male opposition candidate, Mr. Mistrík, time would prove the strength and capability of Zuzana Čaputová. Despite pressure on Zuzana Čaputová as a female candidate, Mr. Mistrík was wise enough to step down, due to her increased popularity and evident ability to lead debates at a highly professional level.

Another key factor to her success was a sincere, natural, non-conflicting, and trustworthy way of communicating. At the start of the campaign season, and with her first media appearances, people could put a human being to the billboards and pictures appearing on the streets and social networks. Ms. Čaputová also performed well at debates with candidates with political and public office experience, providing qualified replies to a wide variety of questions. Her strongest assets, therefore, lie in her professionality, her simple and sincere language, and in her honest call for justice.

Support for the national ice hockey time notwithstanding, Slovakia is a rather divided country in many respects. Tensions exist between the country’s liberals and conservatives, pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics, nationalists and multiculturalists, to name just a few examples. In addition to the previously-mentioned factors for Zuzana Čaputová´s success, her victory was also in part due to her ability to mobilize a varied swath of the Slovak electorate, ranging from young voters to the Hungarian minority, Christians to liberals, and women and men alike. Post-election statistical maps show that she won in all regions and in almost all districts of Slovakia, therefore justifying her presidency in a general sense.

It is increasingly common for unknown candidates without strong political support to be elected to high public office. However, what differentiates Zuzana Čaputová from these often-called “populist” winners, known for taking on various political functions with a general lack of experience, is her personal integrity, her non-conflictual manner, and her professional background. Certainly, the Slovak Presidential Elections also brought some populist candidates to the foreground. These other candidates, however, were marked by previous involvements in politics and a general inability to join together and to rally around a single candidate. The lack of new trustworthy faces, the fragmentation among other potential favourites, her ability to clearly and honestly communicate and her professional campaigning helped Zuzana Čaputová achieve an undeniable victory.

Slovakia is a young country that has yet to experience many fallbacks and failures: that is why I feel that such a positive political upset should be appreciated even more. I believe that Zuzana Čaputová will not only be the next President of Slovakia but will become my president as well, a good and respectable one.

The author is Monika Filipova, an intern at CEP.