BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – An upstart liberal candidate is facing a career diplomat and establishment figure in a presidential runoff Saturday that could give Slovakia its first female head of state.
Zuzana Caputova, an environmental activist, is up against European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in the vote for the largely ceremonial post in the nation of 5.4 million.
The winner will become the country’s fifth head of state since Slovakia gained independence in 1993 after Czechoslovakia split in two. Incumbent Andrej Kiska did not stand for a second term and is backing Caputova.
WHY THE RUNOFF?
None of the 13 candidates won a majority in the March 16 first round, so the two top vote-getters advanced to the runoff. Caputova took 40.6 percent of the first vote, with Sefcovic a distant second with 18.7 percent. Their success prevented any far right or populist candidate advancing, but in a warning for the future, pro-Russian candidate Stefan Harabin and neo-Nazi party chairman Marian Kotleba finished third and fourth, respectively, together taking 25 percent of the vote.
Caputova, a 45-year-old lawyer, is a rising star of Slovak politics. She became known for leading a successful fight against a toxic waste dump in her home town of Pezinok, near the capital, Bratislava, for which she received an international environmental prize in 2016. A divorced mother of two who is in favor of gay rights and opposes a ban on abortion in this conservative Roman Catholic country, she attracts those who are appalled by corruption and mainstream politics.
She was also part of a campaign in 2017 that led to the annulment of pardons granted by former authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.
She recently became deputy chairman of “Progressive Slovakia,” a non-parliamentary liberal party that supported the massive street protests after the slaying of investigative reporter Jan Kuciak, who was looking into possible government corruption. She resigned from her party post after the first round.
A career diplomat, the 52-year-old was a member of the Communist Party before the anti-Communist 1989 Velvet Revolution. He studied diplomacy at the State Institute for International Relations in Moscow. After serving at various diplomatic and senior Foreign Ministry posts, Sefcovic became Slovakia’s representative in the EU in 2004, and five years later joined the European Commission. He has been a vice-president of the commission since 2010, currently responsibly for energy.
Sefcovic accepted an offer to stand from former prime minister Robert Fico’s left-wing Smer-Social Democracy party, a dominant political group in Slovakia in recent years whose reputation has been tarnished by corruption scandals. He said he was ready to use his diplomatic experience to serve his country as the president.
In an attempt to win conservative voters, Sefcovic has said he is in favor of traditional family values and is a regular churchgoer. He is married and has three children.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
The president has the power to pick the prime minister, appoint Constitutional Court judges and veto laws. Parliament can override the veto with a simple majority, however. The government, led by the prime minister, possesses most executive powers.