A sudden wind for clean governance in Central Europe

Defying the region’s stereotype of perpetual corruption, Slovakia may elect a woman as president who has a record of standing up to powerful interests.

Presidential candidate Zuzana Čaputová attends a political debate ahead of a presidential election, in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Until a few months ago, few people in Slovakia had ever heard of a woman named Zuzana Čaputová. Yet this Saturday, the grassroots activist who only recently joined a political party is expected to win the first round of an election for president. If she captures the post in a final round later this month, she will have broken a stereotype about the former communist countries of Central Europe – that people still tolerate high levels of corruption.

Her rocket-like rise in popularity was not totally unexpected. For the past year, people in Slovakia (which was once half of Czechoslovakia) have risen up in favor of transparent and accountable government. In early 2018, after the killing of a journalist investigating corruption, mass protests erupted nationwide. The prime minister and other top officials were forced to resign. And many journalists stepped up their probes of corruption.

Then in January, the current president, Andrej Kiska, announced that Slovaks had proved they could defend the values of democracy. He said his country of 5.4 million people had been forced to “look in the mirror and look at our society.” Slovaks had “lost the right to look away” from corruption in their midst.

The new mood helped catapult Ms. Čaputová in opinion polls. As an environmental lawyer known for her honesty, she had stood up to powerful interests by stopping the expansion of a toxic landfill site in her hometown. In 2016, that success won her the Goldman Environmental Prize, which is known as the “green” Nobel Prize.

As an outsider to the political elite, she is seen as a fresh face who could clean up the judiciary, help end petty bribery, and demand better curbs on top-level corruption. Her campaign slogan reflects a common desire to root out endemic corruption: “Let us stand up to evil.”

Ms. Čaputová gives credit to the rapid shift in public thinking after the killing of the journalist Ján Kuciak. If she becomes president, she will be able to appoint top judges and veto laws passed by parliament, as well as serve as commander in chief. The post is not as powerful as prime minister. Yet if she is elected, her moral authority will carry added weight. The people will have given it to her.

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