Presidential elections in Slovakia: A return of liberalism to Central-Eastern Europe or an anti-establishment protest?

by Vladimir Kmec

Caputova billboard 2019

Election billboard of Zuzana Čaputová, 2019. Belisarius~skwiki via Wikimedia Commons. Original creator of billboard: Zuzana Čaputová campaign team.

In Slovakia’s presidential elections on 30 March, Zuzana Čaputová took by surprise many political veterans and the media when she won 58% in the second-round run-off vote. Until recently, she was little known even to the Slovak public. Her victory is celebrated not only as a rebirth of liberalism in Slovakia but also as a cause for hope for a return to liberal politics in Central-Eastern Europe. As an environmentalist and as an advocate of LGBT rights, abortion and progressive liberal values, Ms Čaputová is truly a liberal democrat. The success of a liberal candidate in a country with a majority Catholic population with strong conservative views is remarkable. With the rise of populist, anti-EU and even far-right political parties in many European countries, the election of a pro-EU head of state in an EU country sends a strong message across Europe.

Nevertheless, Ms Čaputová’s victory neither automatically means the decline of conservative attitudes nor a straightforward path towards progressive liberalism in Slovakia. The role of the Slovak president is largely ceremonial, though s/he does appoint judges to the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and can veto laws passed by parliament. Ms Čaputová possesses limited powers to pursue liberal politics in areas such as civil partnership for homosexual couples. She will also face a tough battle to reach Eurosceptic and anti-liberal voters who are susceptible to right-wing populism, and those who most likely did not vote in the second round due to their dissatisfaction with both pro-EU candidates. The turnout in the first round was 7% higher than in the final run-off vote.

Her victory is a blow to populist, chauvinist and nationalist tactics in political campaigns.

Ms Čaputová’s success can be interpreted as the dissatisfaction and frustration of Slovaks with the current political establishment of their country. The result of the elections is therefore also about the defeat of both governing and opposition parties. Maroš Šefčovič, Slovakia’s European Commissioner, an experienced high-level career diplomat and also a pro-European, lost mainly because of his association with Smer, the centre-left party that has held power for 11 out of the last 13 years. The reputation of Smer has been damaged by claims of clientelism and corruption scandals. The party and its coalition partners were the target of demonstrations after the murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018, which intensified the public’s demand for political change. The resignation of the prime minister, Robert Fico, did not bring calm to the streets and he remains the leader of the governing party as well as being a close ally of the present prime minister. The Slovak party system is highly fragmented. The low turnout in the second round – less than 42%  of voters – further demonstrates the country’s polarisation and dissatisfaction with politics.

Ms Čaputová’s ‘fresh face’ appealed to voters tired of corruption and the country’s established political class. She pledged to restore public trust in the state and to fight for an end to corruption and for an effective and independent justice system. As a person with no ties to the country’s political elite and several years of experience in civic engagement, she offered an alternative to the ruling political establishment. In her supporters’ eyes, she is the most unlikely candidate to became associated with corruption and the establishment. As such, Ms Čaputová joins the evolving Macronesque – reformist, anti-system and anti-establishment – forces across Europe.

The approach and strategy Ms Čaputová adopted in her campaign are perhaps the most significant keys to her success. Instead of using populist slogans, personal attacks and dirty tactics, she communicated with the public and her rivals in an honest, decent, moderate and trustworthy way. She offered constructive criticism of the current political scene and a reflective analysis of existing problems. She presented her arguments in a coherent way and looked for effective solutions. Her victory is a blow to populist, chauvinist and nationalist tactics in political campaigns. Her opponent, Mr Šefčovič, emphasised his Christian background and conservative values despite his ties to the Communist party in the past regime. To seek support from anti-liberal and right-wing voters, he resorted to populist campaigning methods and focused on unimportant issues, promising mainly greater social benefits for the elderly and young families.

Electing presidents as an expression of ensuring a counterbalance to the governing political elite is a common pattern in many European countries

Ms Čaputová did not build her campaign on empty slogans. As an environmental lawyer and activist, she succeeded in blocking a planned landfill in her hometown of Pezinok. The fight at the forefront of which she stood for more than 10 years culminated in 2013 when the Supreme Court of Slovakia ruled that the new landfill was illegal. Motivated by her desire to contribute to a positive change in her country, she helped to found a new, social-liberal progressive political party, Progressive Slovakia. But, it was the killing of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée in 2018 that inspired and encouraged her to run for the presidency.

With her grass-root and civic engagement, Ms Čaputová offered a sense of authenticity and a thorough understanding of everyday problems that people in her country face. She referred to important and relevant questions and acted competently, with optimism and confidence. With her experience in the  Pezinok case, she convinced her supporters that she truly cares about a better future for her country. She campaigned with honesty without hard-line nationalism and populism. Ms Čaputová continues the legacy of the former president, Andrej Kiska, who also lacked any political experience. His victory in the 2014 presidential elections  was itself regarded as a loss of people’s confidence in their government when he crushed the then prime minister, Robert Fico. Electing presidents as an expression of ensuring a counterbalance to the governing political elite is a common pattern in many European countries, for example Austria and Romania. As in Slovakia, the reasons are systemic, including low turnout and disappointment and voter fatigue with the political establishment.

The elections to the European Parliament this year and the Slovak parliamentary elections in 2020 will show whether the country actually stands for significant political change. With her ambition to create an atmosphere of respect, tolerance and honesty, Ms Čaputová is demonstrating an alternative political behaviour and campaigning strategy. Her victory is echoed not only in her own country but also across the whole Europe where anti-establishment voices are emerging. Ms Čaputová’s case demonstrates that an honest, moderate and trustworthy strategy can be effective in gaining electoral victory and in crushing established political elites and populist political actors.    

About the author

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Vladimir Kmec is an associated researcher at the European Centre, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge and a research
associate at the Von Hügel Institute, St Edmund's College, Cambridge. His research interests include United Nations and European Union peace missions, theories and practices of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, ethnic and religious conflicts, and religion and migration.

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