A few months ago, a lengthy analysis by CBC News warned us that the real danger for Europe was not Brexit, but the Visegrad Group. The group brings together the Central European Countries of Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, with the latter two ruled by illiberal populist governments. Czechia and Slovakia are not far behind. But the tide may be reversed, as Slovakia is set to elect a staunchly progressive lawyer, Zuzana Čaputová, as the country’s first female president.
Election results in the Visegrad Four countries in the past few years may not paint a very rosy image of Central European politics. Populists enjoying majorities in Poland and Hungary may be old news, but Czechia and Slovakia have brewed unholy coalitions of their own. Last year, the Czechs re-elected pro-Russian populist President Milos Zeman for a second and final term. Trump may have nothing on Zeman, who spends his time in office taunting journalists and living off an alcohol-based diet. The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis may be less of a showman, but he is under investigation for misusing European subsidies and faces accusations that he kidnapped his own son.
Slovakia has been ruled since 2016 by a coalition of left-wing populists, right-wing nationalists, and liberals representing the Hungarian minority. Long-serving Prime Minister Robert Fico, who would employ tactics similar to Viktor Orban’s, resigned last year in favour of loyal deputy Peter Pellegrini. Fico resigned in order to appease mass protests triggered by the murder of a journalist, but he remains the leader of the left-wing Smer-SD. This model is strikingly similar to the ones employed by Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Romania’s Liviu Dragnea. All three are highly influential ruling party leaders, but none serve as head of state or head of government. Fico is now aiming to become a constitutional judge.
The populist tide, however, seems to be in trouble, as the winds of change are blowing. Last week, Slovakia held the first round of the presidential elections, a prelude to the more important parliamentary elections set for next year. They were comfortably won by Zuzana Čaputová, a lawyer and activist with no previous political experience.
Čaputová ran on a staunchly progressive platform, promising environmental reforms and improved strategies against corruption and organised crime (a very common theme in Central European politics), as well as promoting LGBT and elderly rights. She is set to face Maroš Šefčovič, the candidate backed by Smer-SD. Šefčovič is currently serving as Vice President of the European Commission, and he is one of Slovakia’s most experienced diplomats. That wasn’t enough for Smer’s candidate, whose first-round result, standing at 18.7%, paled in comparison with Čaputová’s 40.6%.
But Čaputová did not appear out of nowhere. Just 13 months ago, a Slovak investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, was murdered in his home along with his fiance. His wrongdoing? Daring to investigate shady dealings that linked government officials to the mafia. The perpetrators? We don’t really know for sure yet.
But at the time of his death, Kuciak was focusing his investigation on the Italian mafia syndicate ‘Ndrangheta. This prompted Slovak authorities to arrest and later extradite an Italian businessman suspected of being linked to the group. But, so far, prosecutors have only been able to arrest the assassins and suspected middlemen; investigations on who ordered the killing are still ongoing, but a breakthrough may soon be reached.
What is more extraordinary is the small size and political power of Čaputová’s backers. Her party, Progressive Slovakia, was only founded in November 2017. The party has no representation in parliament or in the regional assemblies, and most members have no political experience. The party’s platform, which reflects Čaputová’s campaign, stands out in a country dominated by a Catholic conservative discourse: on top of the pro-environment, pro-LGBT stance, the party also demands better treatment of the Romanis, a minority that’s widely discriminated in Slovakia.
Openly fascist Marian Kotleba, who promises a “solution for the Gypsy parasites” (sic), won the fourth place in the presidential elections, receiving 10% of the votes. Even the ruling Smer, nominally a social democratic party, is socially conservative. In fact, Fico portrayed Čaputová’s pro-LGBT stance as “supporting homosexual madness”.
The results of the first round were extraordinary, but Čaputová has one more test to pass and the challenge may be bigger than expected. Since she openly assumes the image of a progressive anti-corruption icon, old dog Šefčovič will probably be backed by a wide coalition ranging from defenders of the corrupt establishment to far-right extremists determined to fight such an obvious representation of the “decadent West.”
Her lack of experience, in contrast with Šefčovič’s prestige as a career diplomat and influential European politician, puts Čaputová in a very disadvantageous position. Recent polls, however, estimate that Čaputová will win the second round by a landslide.
If this holds true in two weeks’ time, it may be a very good indicator that Slovaks are ready to abandon the establishment and the path towards illiberalism, no matter the risk. Such a turnaround will give progressives and liberals a tremendous boost ahead of parliamentary elections next year. It’s not just a halt to the rise of far-right neo-Nazis such as Kotleba, but also a strong message against Smer and the corrupt establishment. Jan Kuciac may very well be vindicated.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.