Outsider Caputova leads race for Slovak presidency


Bratislava (AFP)

Zuzana Caputova, the outsider facing the ruling party candidate in the presidential run-off Saturday, appears to be on course to become the EU member's first female head of state.

The 45-year-old lawyer, environmentalist and community activist was largely unknown before she launched her presidential run.

She skyrocketed in the polls on an anti-corruption ticket, winning round one of the election thanks in part to voter disillusionment with the governing coalition.

Her electoral run came a year after the murder of a journalist investigating high-level corruption plunged the eurozone country of 5.4 million people into crisis.

"People are calling for change," she told AFP.

Caputova was among the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets after Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova were gunned down at their home in February 2018.

Kuciak was about to publish a report on alleged ties between Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia and associated irregularities in EU farm subsidy payments.

The then prime minister Robert Fico was forced to resign but he remains the leader of the ruling Smer-SD party and is a close ally of current premier Peter Pellegrini.

Caputova, who gave up membership of the non-parliamentary party Progressive Slovakia just before the run-off, has vowed to fight for justice for all.

"In the eyes of voters, she is a response to our current problems," analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP.

Lawyer Caputova has a gift for rhetoric and her run has been endorsed by outgoing liberal President Andrej Kiska as well as Jozef Kuciak, the slain journalist's brother.

She is pro-choice and promotes greater rights for same-sex couples, arguing that a child "would be better off with two loving beings of the same sex" than having to grow up in an orphanage.

Caputova concedes that her lack of knowledge in the field of defence and security is a disadvantage.

"I will have to rely on my advisors when it comes to those topics," she said, adding: "Also, punctuality is not my strong suit."

That kind of frankness seems to have appealed to voters.

Following her first-round victory, two recent opinion polls gave Caputova at least 60 percent of the vote in the coming election -- and a survey of schoolchildren gave her 74 percent support.

- Landfill lawyer -

Born in the capital Bratislava on June 21, 1973, Caputova spent her early years in the nearby town of Pezinok.

After studying law at Bratislava's Comenius University, she joined Via Iuris, a leading Slovak legal advocacy organisation.

There, she spearheaded a successful campaign to block a dump site proposed for her native Pezinok that would have been the size of 12 football fields.

For 14 years the town's residents fought against the planned landfill, with Caputova organising what was dubbed the largest mobilisation of citizens since the 1989 Velvet Revolution -- the peaceful uprising that toppled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

In 2013, the Slovak Supreme Court ruled in favour of the residents and annulled the authorisation to build the landfill.

The case also prompted the Court of Justice of the European Union to lay down rules requiring public access to urban planning decisions concerning projects that affect the environment.

"This story from small-town Slovakia has actually had an important international impact," Caputova later said.

Caputova won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's top award for grassroots environmental activism, for her efforts.

A member of the non-profit organisation Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, Caputova lists drawing, basketball, hiking and swimming among her hobbies.

The English-speaker regrets having forgotten her Russian, which she would like to brush up on.

She is divorced and has two teenage daughters. Her current partner is a musician and photographer.