Zuzana Čaputová: a Lone Fighter Against Malfunctioning Politics

Zuzana Čaputová is the first woman to hold the position of head of state in the Slovak Republic, and one of the few females to have decided to take an active part in the politics of this fairly young Central European country.

Zuzana Čaputová is the first woman to hold the position of head of state in the Slovak Republic, and one of the few females to have decided to take an active part in the politics of this fairly young Central European country. Her phenomenon is made up of many factors that must be taken into account when assessing the decision she made when announcing in June 2023 not to run for another term.

Čaputová had been a lawyer associated with the so-called third sector for a long period of her professional career and there was little indication that she would decide to enter national politics. Apart from being a co-founder and vice-president of Progresívne Slovensko (PS), she had no other experience as a politician. Only after the shocking murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová did she declare her candidacy for the presidential elections.

In addition to her own grouping, the parties Freedom and Solidarity (Sloboda a Solidarita, SaS), Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (Obyčajní Ľudia a nezávislé osobnosti, OĽaNO) and the Democrats (Demokrati), which has operated under the name SPOLU (SPOLU – občianska demokracia) since 2023, appealed to the electorate to vote for her. It was a rather peculiar support group, ranging from liberal Eurosceptics to conservative populists. As early as in 2019, it could be assumed that such diverse parties with ambitious leaders would not maintain a united front for long.

Čaputova’s campaign was centred around slogans of reconciliation, respect for political opponents and liberal, democratic and pro-European values. The candidate called for social unity and a common fight for European standards. One of her main demands was to strengthen the independence of the police and the prosecutor’s office, which is considered by Slovaks extremely susceptible to political pressure. In the final days of the election campaign, the issue of ratifying the Istanbul Convention, focused on combating violence against women, became an important topic. Although Čaputová presented herself as its supporter and emphasized the importance of protecting women and children from domestic violence, the Slovak parliament rejected the document.

Due to her non-confrontational election campaign and clear message, Čaputová gained wide support from both the liberal and conservative parts of the Slovak electorate.

She did not conceal her views (e.g. consenting to the adoption of children by homosexual couples), but declared that political changes concerned with cultural issues required broad consensus. Thus, she signalled her readiness for dialogue and willingness to seek solutions that could be accepted by the majority of Slovak citizens. She refused to participate in the chauvinistic discourse of the established political leaders, driven by ambition and narcissism.

A President without a Political Base in Parliament

In 2019, she became the youngest politician and the first woman to be elected head of state in Slovakia. And already in February 2020, the OL’aNO grouping (winning 25 per cent of the vote) was victorious in the parliamentary elections. Politicians associated with the head of state and opposition liberals from the left-centre alliance Progressive Slovakia and the Together (PS/Spolu) party failed to win seats. This meant that the President was left without a political base in parliament.

Seen as a symbol of democratic values, she sought to guarantee continuity of power and efficient state management. She opposed many of Prime Minister Matovič’s moves and put the brakes on his populist government’s drive, and after a vote of no confidence in the Heger government, in May 2023, she decided to form a so-called technical government to run the state until the early elections announced for 30 September 2023. In exercising her prerogatives, however, she attracted a wave of criticism, mainly from the SMER-Social Democracy of former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was leading in opinion polls (18%).

In the international sphere, she focused on the promotion of democracy and democratic values, and made appeals on issues such as the fate of Afghan women, as well as giving interviews to improve the image of Slovakia and Slovaks in the world.

From the beginning of her term in office, her presidency seemed inseparable from the Čaputová phenomenon and a kind of “fashion for Čaputová”. Unfortunately, over time she became more popular and appreciated abroad than in her own country.

After 24 February 2022, the challenge for Slovakia, and thus for the presidency of Zuzana Čaputová, was the Ukrainian issue and the related influx of refugees. The President appealed for help and solidarity with the neighboring nation, encouraged empathy for the refugees, in fact mainly female, and called for arms to be handed over to the combat units of the Ukrainian army. She also spoke out loudly about Russian disinformation in Slovakia and the need to fight it.

Another watershed moment for the President was the events in Bratislava in October 2022, when people associated with the LGBT+ community were attacked. Čaputová immediately expressed condolences for the families of those murdered and took part in the demonstration in Bratislava.

Intimidation of politicians, journalists and those commenting on current politics in Slovakia is nothing new. Nevertheless, the election of a woman to the position of head of state might have brought hope for a softening of the language of invective and slander used by Slovak politicians in recent years. Unfortunately, neither political culture nor good manners protected Čaputová from the unparliamentary epithets used by her political opponents. With each passing year of her presidency, the language of public debate degraded and the personal attacks became harsher.

An Exhausted President After her First Term

The President’s decision not to stand in the next election was as much surprising as it was predictable. Despite her high support in the polls, Zuzana Čaputová announced her decision on 20 June 2023, eight months before the date of the next election. Along with the decision, the President presented her justification and reasons for wanting to withdraw from current politics: she felt exhausted and would not be able to perform her duties for another term at the level her function required. After Čaputova’s statement, many people expressed their disappointment and sadness, and even accused her of cowardice and irresponsibility.

The period before 2019 had seen corrupt government structures, widespread populism and nepotism, clientelism and mafia-like rules in running the country and in the behavior of many politicians.

Čaputová’s presidency had been expected to provide a new opening, with herself taking on the role of a symbol of a pro-Western Slovakia cooperating with the EU and NATO and upholding constitutional values.

Unfortunately, one woman cannot fix the government and its malfunctioning mechanisms.

The reasons that led Čaputová to declare not to run for a second term as head of state in June 2023 are primarily:

  • the lack of a political base in the Slovak parliament ready to support the head of state in her decisions;
  • the passivity of the democratic community in the face of attacks on the head of state and the lack of political support for her actions in the public sphere;
  • the need to fight with the representatives of the government and the opposition instead of cooperating in situations as extreme as the pandemic or the escalation of the war in Ukraine;
  • the failure to provide adequate working and living conditions for the head of state that would protect her from aggressive attacks, ensuring the security and tranquillity necessary for the exercise of her functions;
  • inadequate communication by the presidential administration, as well as the President herself, concerning the scale of the threat against her while in office;
  • poor expert support for the activities of the President and her administration;
  • excessive turnover of people in advisory roles and working on the President’s staff during her time in office.

Čaputova’s resignation was predictable. Admitting fatigue, wanting to deal with other problems or focusing on her personal life should be seen as an expression of the maturity and responsibility of those holding the highest office instead of provoking bitter disappointment. Whatever the course of the election campaign in Slovakia, the presidency of Zuzana Čaputová represents a significant moment in the country’s recent history.

Iwona Jakimowicz-Pisarska

Iwona Jakimowicz-Pisarska, PhD, is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations at the Faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Naval Academy in Gdynia, Poland. She specializes in European politics, especially regarding the countries of Central and Southern Europe, migration and national minorities.

Last edited March 2024

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