By Olivia Rosane via Eco Watch
Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer and environmental activist whose campaign against a toxic waste dump earned her the nickname the “Erin Brockovich of Slovakia,” was elected the country’s first female president on Saturday, NPR reported.
Caputova won the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize for her 14-year-fight against the dump, which was ruled illegal in 2013. She said the battle taught her how institutions functioned and could be manipulated, how to withstand personal attacks and that society could be improved, The New York Times reported.
“I am an optimist,” she said, according to The New York Times. “Someone who believes and hopes that change is possible.”
Congratulations to Goldman Environmental Prize winner #ZuzanaCaputova on her election as president of Slovakia! We cannot imagine a stronger advocate for the Slovak people and environment. @ZuzanaCaputova https://t.co/g2hqCTg8HO
— Goldman Prize (@goldmanprize) March 31, 2019
Positive change was the focus of Caputova’s campaign. She ran on promises to promote more civility in public discourse and to challenge corruption. Her win is seen as a counterweight to populist, ethnic nationalist movements that have won elections recently in central Europe.
“I am happy not just for the result but mainly that it is possible not to succumb to populism, to tell the truth, to raise interest without aggressive vocabulary,” she said during her acceptance speech, according to Reuters.
She won 58.3 percent of the votes to beat European Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, who had the support of the country’s ruling Smer party. Sefcovic received 41.7 percent of the votes with 98.1 percent of districts reported.
Her win comes amidst growing frustration with corruption in Slovakia. Caputova said she was motivated to run after journalist Jan Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova were murdered by a hit man because of Kuciak’s investigations of government corruption, The New York Times reported. The murders led to the largest protests Slovakia has seen since the Velvet Revolution when Czechoslovakia, which later split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, freed itself from communist rule. The protests forced Smer leader Robert Fico to resign as prime minister last year, Reuters reported.
Caputova participated in the protests and lit a candle at a memorial for Kuciak and Kusnirova after winning the election.
Caputova helped promote civil society in Slovakia even before her election. At the time, the mobilization she helped organized against the dump took the mantle for the largest in the country since the Velvet Revolution, according to her Goldman Prize profile.
Caputova’s home town of Pezinok, a place with an important wine-making history, had also suffered from the presence of a toxic waste dump since the 1960s. It was built 500 feet away from a residential area without safety measures to keep toxins from leaching into the soil. Residents paid the price in elevated rates of cancer, respiratory ailments and allergies, but, when the old dump reached capacity, a developer made plans to build a second without giving the community a say. That is when Caputova stepped in, as her Goldman Prize profile explained:
Armed with her legal expertise, she engaged artists, local businesses, wine producers, students, church leaders, and other members of the community in a grassroots campaign to shut down the dumpsite. Caputova and other activists came together and organized peaceful protests, concerts, and photographic exhibits and gathered 8,000 signatures in a petition to the European Parliament. In addition to mobilizing civil society, she mounted a relentless legal challenge to the new landfill through the Slovakian and EU judiciaries.
The first demonstration brought together thousands of local residents, which helped bring municipal leaders on board with the campaign despite their early skepticism. They heard the citizens’ message loud and clear: “Dumps Don’t Belong in Towns.”
Caputova won that fight in 2013 when the Slovakian Supreme Court declared the new dump illegal. Now, she has won another fight against entrenched interests.
“I don’t remember a situation when skilled politicians have been confronted by anyone who would speak as openly, directly and normally as Zuzana Caputova,” Editor in Chief of the Slovak Daily Dennik N Matus Kostolny wrote, according to The New York Times. He called her an “error in the system, a change that we haven’t seen for 30 years.”
She is likely to face opposition from establishment politicians, however.
“Expect Fico to launch a campaign against her right away, before June’s inauguration,” one analyst told BBC News.
The President in Slovakia has limited power but can appoint prime ministers and deny appointments to judges and senior prosecutors, Reuters explained. Caputova wants to use the position to speak up for transparency in the government, NPR reported.