A Lawyer’s Cry to ‘Fight Evil’ Puts Her On Course for the Presidency

(Bloomberg) -- A year ago Zuzana Caputova was a lawyer whose biggest claim to fame was stopping a well-connected businessman from building a landfill in Slovakia’s wine country. Now she’s the favorite to become president.

Caputova, 45, has ridden a wave of anti-government anger triggered by a journalist’s murder to propel her from obscurity to poll leader. Support for her pro-European Union, rule-of-law message marks a departure from the political mood in neighbors Poland and Hungary, whose nationalist governments have clashed with the bloc over the erosion of democracy.

The NGO lawyer’s slogan -- ‘Let’s fight evil together’ -- has resounded with voters who’ve taken to the streets in the biggest protests since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Vowing to overhaul a justice system she says is skewed to benefit politicians and their cronies, she differs from other leaders in a region grappling with populism by vowing to fight nationalism.

A Lawyer’s Cry to ‘Fight Evil’ Puts Her On Course for the Presidency

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

Opposing Populism

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

As a vice-chairwoman of the Progressive Slovakia party, Caputova supports gay partnerships and adoption, a rare stance in predominantly Catholic Slovakia. She also backs deeper integration with the EU in the economy and defense.

She led public resistance against an illegal landfill in the western Slovak town of Pezinok, the heart of the country’s wine-producing region. Once deemed a long-shot for president, which is largely ceremonial but plays a key role in granting government-forming mandates and appointing judges, she mesmerized audiences in television debates, leaping past former frontrunner Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission.

“She has an appeal across different groups of voters,” said Martin Slosiarik, director of the FOCUS pollster. “Some are emotionally attracted by the fact that she’s a woman. For rational voters, it’s her message that works: restoring justice. She’s able to unite people in opposition against politics as usual.”

A Lawyer’s Cry to ‘Fight Evil’ Puts Her On Course for the Presidency

Murdered Journalist

While Slovaks generally embrace the EU, many voters have shunned Sefcovic because he’s the candidate of the ruling Smer party, whose leader and three-term prime minister was ousted last year by anti-graft demonstrators. The protests were triggered by the killing of a reporter investigating corrupt ties between officials and business.

Her other main challenger is Stefan Harabin, an anti-NATO former Supreme Court judge and justice minister who’s dominated Slovakia’s legal sphere since the 1990s. Incumbent Andrej Kiska has decided to step down after one term.

Caputova leads the field before Saturday’s ballot with 45 percent support, according to a Feb. 26-28 FOCUS survey. Sefcovic had half that amount and Harabin 12 percent. Caputova would get 64 percent in a runoff, which will take place if no candidate wins more than 50 percent, with Sefcovic second, the poll showed.

“It will be a contest between an anti-establishment, anti-European stance and mainstream candidates who want to preserve the Western, liberal orientation,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, director of the Institute for Public Affairs, a think-tank in Bratislava. “Caputova is destined to win.”

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