Zuzana Caputova, Anti-corruption candidate Zuzana Caputova, the country’s first female head of state,was born 21 June 1973 to a working-class family in the town of Pezinok in what was then western Czechoslovakia. The divorced mother of two daughters rose to prominence and was nicknamed the “Erin Brokovich” of Slovakia after leading a successful case against a toxic landfill that was planned in her hometown in 2016. Her 14-year-long case against the wealthy land developer involved organizing protests, filing lawsuits and writing petitions to the European Union. The campaign earned her a prestigious Goldman Environmental prize in 2016. She recently became vice-chair of Progressive Slovakia, a party so new that it has not yet run in the parliamentary elections.
Caputova built her campaign on a vow to fight corruption, by stripping the police and prosecutors of their political powers. Last year’s murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova has put the issue of political corruption at the forefront of public discussion. And Caputova said Kuciak’s murder was the reason she decided to run for president. Her approach to politics, judging by the responses of Slovakians TIME spoke to. “She seemed like someone Slovakia needed – kind, honest and never criticized her opponents,” said Antonia Halko, a 28-year-old wholesale manager from the town of Bardejov in Slovakia who voted for Caputova.
“I saw her talk in person at an event on January 30th and I knew immediately I was going to vote for her. She was very authentic, humane and I simply trusted what she was saying – which is a pretty rare feature in the Slovak politics,” said Juraj Scott, a charity-worker from Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava.
Zuzana Caputova Full Biography and Profile
We all have the experience of iniquity and arrogance of power. Many experience it in offices, in courts, in hospitals. We see her in high politics. We got used to it. Like it was normal. But that is not the case and needs to be changed.
I have dedicated my whole professional life to justice and to the weaker. As a student, I started projects to help socially disadvantaged, later abused and abused children. As an attorney, I was on the side of those who had no connections or money to enforce their rights. As a civilian activist, I defended the public interest from the interests of political parties or business groups. As president, I want to devote my life energy and the full weight of the presidency to none of us having to experience the power of lawlessness and power.
I realize that I have received a lot of gifts in my life. I was born into a family that supported me. I had the opportunity to study at university. Today I have two beautiful and clever daughters with whom I have a close relationship, I have a family background and work that fills me. I realize that most people were not so lucky in life. It is the service to others that gives my life meaning and value .
I’m an attorney and I know very well what it means to resist the mighty. I experienced it in Pezinok where I live with my family and where I have been running a campaign against the landfill for more than ten years . The case was a million-dollar business. In the background, there were interests already in the direction of the mighty Direction, but also Marian Kocner. We have been worried, feeling threatened, hopeless, trying to intimidate.
It cost a lot of energy, but it did. In 2013, the Supreme Court canceled the landfill permit. All of our community wanted to resist the enormous burden that the power warrior was trying to push us into the city illegally. We got together and after 14 years we won.
In a recent campaign to abolish Meciar’s amnesties, no one ever believed that this could happen. Amnesty was a scar on the face of justice and the constitutional order of our state, but the unsuccessful attempts were so much that many lost hope. In Via Iuris, we launched a petition and in a matter of weeks we managed to collect more than 76,000 signatures, which helped to create public pressure that Robert Fico had to back down.
2016 Goldman Prize Recipient Europe
Zuzana Caputova spearheaded a successful campaign that shut down a waste dump that would have poisoned the land, air, and water in her community, setting a precedent for public participation in post-communist Slovakia.
A cheap and convenient dumping ground
In Pezinok, a charming vineyard town in western Slovakia, viticulture plays an important part in the local economy, where a castle and museums attract tourists interested in learning about the region’s historic royal wines.
In recent years, however, the country has also become known as a place to dispose of garbage from neighboring countries in Western Europe. In the 1960s, Pezinok became home to a waste dump, built without any permits or safeguards to keep the toxic chemicals from leaching into the soil—just 500 feet away from a residential area.
As the dump started to reach capacity, a wealthy developer with close ties to regional authorities pushed through plans to build another dumping ground. Despite a 2002 ordinance that banned landfills within city limits, plans for the second dumpsite went through without any public input from the surrounding community.
Meanwhile, residents in Pezinok were left to pay the price from the antiquated landfill. Cancer, respiratory diseases, and allergy rates in the area began to soar, with one particular type of leukemia being reported eight times more than the national average.
‘Dumps Don’t Belong in Towns’
Born and raised in Pezinok, Zuzana Caputova is an attorney at public interest law organization VIA IURIS, a career path she chose as a way to help people in her community.
For Caputova, the waste dump’s toxic legacy cast a deep shadow both at work and at home. The stench from the nearby landfill wafted into her home, where she kept the windows shut to keep her two young daughters safe. Cancer took an unwelcome foothold when both her uncle and a close colleague’s wife received diagnoses in the same week.
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.”
Rallying civil society in post-communist Slovakia
The campaign came to a head in 2013, when the Slovakian Supreme Court ruled that the newly proposed landfill was illegal. The court withdrew permission for the new dumpsite to begin operating, and ordered the decrepit dumpsite to shut down. The verdict echoed a decision from the EU Court of Justice, which affirmed the public’s right to participate in decisions that impact the environment not only in Pezinok but throughout the EU as well.
Caputova, as a member of the VIA IURIS team, is now fighting back new construction laws in Slovakia that would make it easier for developers to bring illegally built projects up to code while weakening public access to environmental information and decision-making. Along with her VIA IURIS colleagues, she is also providing legal assistance for other communities in Slovakia that are fighting against industrial pollution.
The victory in Pezinok—the largest mobilization of Slovak citizens since the 1989 Velvet Revolution—sets an important precedent for civic engagement in Slovakia, and is inspiring citizens in the country to stand up for their rights to a clean and safe environment.
- Zuzana Caputova biography and profile (Zuzana Caputova)