Will Liberal Light of Čaputová Shine Through Populist Darkness?

Slavomír Frešo // CC 4.0

Even though the victory of Zuzana Čaputová in the presidential elections in Slovakia is undeniably a positive development for the Central European region, it should not be perceived as a new macro trend. Looking at the overall political development in the country, Čaputová might actually become one of a very few democratic stars in the prevailingly dark sky of the Slovak politics.

Media all over the Western world are celebrating the victory of a Slovak lawyer and political activist, Zuzana Čaputová, in the presidential election. Politico went even as far as calling her victory a “cause for celebration for pro-EU and democratic forces throughout Central and Eastern Europe.”

However, maybe the European liberals should wait a bit before popping bottles of champagne, since the victory of Čaputová might be one of a few exceptions in a steadily conservative and populist politics of Slovakia.

Weak Mandate

Čaputová was elected with 1,056,582 votes, which is definitively impressive in a country with over 4 million eligible voters. However, at the same time, with the lowest turnout in history (42%), Čaputová was elected to be the Slovak president with the weakest democratic mandate.

What makes this election remarkable is that contrary to previous four direct presidential election, in this case the turnout was lower in the second round (42%) than in the first one (48%). According to a prominent Slovak news portal, Denik N, the explanation is that many people chose to support neither of the candidates and instead stayed home.

Partially this is also a result of a disinformation campaign led against Čaputová, which got really dirty during the second round of the elections. A valuable ally in this negative campaign turned out to be the Slovak Catholic Church, which depicted Čaputová as a threat to the traditional model of a family and Christian values, and warned against supporting her.

Needless to say, the Church in Slovakia has strong ties to the ruling SMER party, whose candidate, Maroš Šeflovič, was Čaputová’s opponent.

The strongest tool used by her political opponents to attack her, however, became the social media. Their impact on this election is yet to be assessed. Čaputová was accused of being supported by Jews, Illuminates, and George Soros.

According to some Facebook fanpages, her intention was to force each Slovak family to take care of one refugee.

She is also allegedly an active participant of homosexual orgies.

As it turned out, this negative campaign did not convince the potential voters to change their mind, and had only convinced the already convinced ones that Čaputová is an unacceptable candidate, which led to an even deeper polarization of the already divided Slovak society.

One of thegreatest challenges newly elected president will have to face is winning over the hearts and minds of those who doubt (or even fear) her.

On the other hand, she was elected by people across all regions, of all genders, ages, and levels of education. Surprisingly, her being a liberal candidate got her more votes in the villages than received conservative Šeflovič.

Taking all of these undeniably positive signs into an account, Čaputová could really have a chance to become the president of all Slovak citizens.

Fighting Opposition

Liberal Čaputová becoming the first female president in the country is definitively good news for the Slovak democrats.

Her victory, however, despite having improved the overall image of the country, does not constitue the end of support for conservative populists, who have been ruling the country for almost a decade. Especially, since the democratic opposition is fighting each other now more than ever.

Almost a year has passed since the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee. Many hoped that exactly this will be the impulse which will bring back moral values and dignity into the Slovak politics.

The democratic opposition backed by the demonstrations of hundred of thousands people all over the country was given an opportunity to bring about a change, to demand new elections, and form a new strong democratic Western-oriented government.

Čaputová was smart enough to sense and these moods in the society and seize the opportunity, which has brought her presidency.

The desire for a change is resonating among Slovaks. However, none of the current political parties seems to be smart or capable enough to turn it into a bigger political gain.

Current president Andrej Kiska had decided to take a step down into the “real” parliamentary politics instead of running for the president again in order to help his country. He was trying to unite the two small liberally oriented parties (Progresivne Slovensko and Spolu) under one brand, which he wanted to become the face of.

Nevertheless, the negotiations did not go well and instead of creating one pan-democratic liberal party, Kiska ran out of patience, walked away from the negotiation table, and created his own party, thus leaving Slovakia with three rather similar parties fighting together over a pool of liberal pro-European voters

Still, when looking at the situation from a broader perspective, until recently, Slovakia used to be a country with absolutely no liberal, democratic, pro-European party whatsoever for quite a number of years. Having suddenly at the disposal three of them (even if with a limited potential for cooperation) is definitively a manifestation of a political demand for such type of a party among the voters.

The regional elections in November 2018 also showed that liberals and independent candidates fared surprisingly well. The next general election will be held in 2021, which gives the liberals in the country enough time to put their act together.

Extremists in the EP

The leader of the far-right LSNS party, Marian Kotleba, has more than one reason to be happy. According to the latest poll from the Focus Agency conducted on February 2019, the LSNS are the second strongest party after the governmental SMER.

The far-right party managed to break another tabu. Politicians from well-steablished Slovak parties have actually agreed to listen to the LSNS proposals about changing the constitution, which has been unthinkable for a very long time.

Kotleba himself ran for president, yet unsuccessfully, as some may say. But in hindsight, Kotleba’s performance was actually better than good. He received 223,000 votes (10.5%), which is by app. 20,000 votes more than his entire party received in the 2016 parliamentary election. And the current turnout was actually lower by 500,000 votes cast. This result combined with the votes cast in favor of another radical candidate, Štefan Harabins, amounts in total to over 500,000 votes.

This paints a rather grim picture of the outcome of the forthcoming European Parliament election. The EP elections are traditionally not very interesting for the Slovaks. In 2014, Slovakia had the lowest turnout in the whole Europe (13%), which translated into app. 560,000 votes in the entire country, which meant that receiving merely 34,000 votes was enough to get elected for an MEP.  

LSNS does not have any MEPs in the parliament yet. But in light of Marian Kotleba’s ability to mobilize his voters, it is very likely that this situation will change soon enough.

Adela Kleckova
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom