Zuzana Čaputová.

Zuzana Čaputová.

Election The “Good”, the “Bad” and the “Ugly”.  Anti-establishment populism and the Slovak presidential election

On March 30, Zuzana Čaputová defeated Maroš Šefčovič in the second round of the Slovak presidential election. It looks like an important victory for those who want a “European” and socially liberal Slovakia - regardless of the fact that the country is a parliamentary republic with limited powers for the president. But the presidential race has also revealed more troubling aspects of Slovak politics, and exposed deep divisions within the Slovak society.

Published on balticworlds.com on April 1, 2019

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Slovakia has a new face. On March 30, Zuzana Čaputová defeated Maroš Šefčovič in the second round of the Slovak presidential election, securing 58.41% of the vote. Šefčovič, a European Commissioner, and the candidate who enjoyed the support of the most powerful establishment party SMER-SD, lost to a hitherto unknown environmental activist, who was initially backed by a marginal, extra-parliamentary party. Čaputová rode the wave of public demand for moral change in Slovak politics, triggered by the 2018 murder of the journalist Jan Kuciak, who investigated into shady connections of the ruling class.  In recent years, Slovak democracy was put to a test, as the radical right-wing parties made electoral breakthroughs on the regional and national levels, and xenophobic populism was clearly on the rise in Slovakia. Traditional establishment parties, although officially pro-European, failed to resolve the persisting issues of corruption, inequality and social marginalization, which fed the public demand for anti-establishment politics.  As an “outsider”, Čaputová has been seen by many as the beacon of hope, and the general feeling at the moment is that she will make her country stand out in the region as a “positive deviant”.  It looks like an important victory for those who want a “European” and socially liberal Slovakia – regardless of the fact that the country is a parliamentary republic with limited powers for the president. But the presidential race has also revealed more troubling aspects of Slovak politics, and exposed deep divisions within the Slovak society. Combined, nearly 25% of the voters gave their support to openly xenophobic populists, which demonstrates that the demand for anti-establishment change also has its dark side. This will be worth remembering as the Slovak parliamentary election of 2020 approaches.

A war of succession

The big question of the Slovak presidential election was who would succeed President Andrej Kiska and what would happen to his political legacy. Kiska, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, himself entered politics “from the outside” five years earlier, defeating the leader of the most powerful establishment party SMER-SD and twice prime minister Robert Fico in the second round of elections. For many, Kiska became a moral beacon of Slovak politics. His balanced approach to the issue of migration during the 2015 set him apart from other politicians. While some were quick to ride the populist wave of anti-migrant sentiment, he warned against the dangers of xenophobia in Central Europe. In the neighboring Poland and Hungary, the presidents were closely associated with the Euroskeptical ruling parties, while in the Czech Republic president Zeman had been an embarrassment to many through his drinking habits and his pro-Kremlin gestures. The figure of Kiska made Slovakia look like an outlier in the region, contributing to the image of a “pro-European island” surrounded by the increasingly Euroskeptical Visegrád Four states. The anti-establishment conspiracy narrative of Slovak politics actively linked Kiska to the “Bratislava coffee house”, a derogatory term for the liberal, educated and urbanized voters. The term was borrowed from the neighboring Czechs; it invokes the opposition of the urban “coffee house” and the “village pub” – where the true, authentic people are supposedly found. The “pub” believes the “coffee house” to be in conspiracy with the much-hated foreign funded NGOs, migrants, the LGBT, George Soros and other enemies at the gate of “fortress Slovakia”. In return, the “coffee house” despises the “pub” for being “retrograde” and narrow-minded.

Some considered the 2014 victory of Andrej Kiska and the coffee house to be an accident, which owed much to the fact that the voters had been weary of establishment politics and preferred a “new face” over the much-despised leaders of the corrupt establishment. The big question was whether this time the Slovak “black box” of demand for radical change would play in favor of the “Bratislava coffee house” (i.e. the socially liberal and pro-European voters) or the “dark side” of anti-establishment politics represented by right-wing xenophobic populists. From the coffee housers’ perspective, the presidential race therefore looked like a battle between the “Good” (i.e. the forces they saw as moral change), the “Bad” (traditional establishment candidates), and the “Ugly” (anti-establishment xenophobic populists)

“The Good”

The winner Zuzana Čaputová was regularly attacked for being “Kiska in a skirt” – suggesting that she would carry on with the “coffee house” politics of her predecessor. Čaputová’s background spoke rather in favor of that assumption. She spent years in the nonprofit sector, fighting successfully to protect the environment in Slovakia. In 2016 she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroot activists around the world. Many in the liberal-progressive circles also attached high symbolic value to the fact that the candidate was female. Electing a woman as a president would help promote the image of gender equality in a region where gender stereotypes can still be stronger than in the West. As the former Czech foreign minister and presidential candidate, Prince Karel Schwarzenberg put it, if the Slovaks elected Čaputová, this would mean “a change not only for Slovakia but for all of Central Europe”. Incidentally, the current parliament speaker and leader of the ethno-populist Slovak National Party tried to downplay Čaputová as “a girl whom nobody knew”.

But in many cases, it must have been exactly the attraction of being the “girl whom nobody knows” that boosted electoral support. The charm of coming from outside of the political establishment becomes irresistible, once the voters begin to feel that the establishment is rotten beyond redemption.  The exaltation over Čaputová’s campaign yielded massive Facebook flash mobs and even one illustrated story for children that started with “a girl Zuzana” who lived “in her grandmother’s garden of flowers” and thought of herself as “a brave hero fighting on the side of the good”.

Narratives like that worked to create the general sense that voting for Čaputová was not a routine political choice, but part of the existential struggle between the Good and the Evil in Slovak politics. Čaputová’s supporters urged others to put aside ideological differences in order to secure victory for the “good” anti-establishment candidate.

In the “coffee house” camp (also known as the “pro-democratic forces”) Čaputová’s closest rival was the scientist Robert Mistrík, who, like Čaputová, received President Kiska’s public blessing and was backed by SPOLU (“Together”), a new, hitherto extra-parliamentary, center-right pro-European party. As the gap between them closed in the polls, Mistrík withdrew his candidacy in a gentlemanly gesture, uniting the “coffee house” decisively behind Čaputová. Against this background, František Mikloško the Christian democratic candidate and former dissident, who fought for civic and religious freedom under the pre-1989 Communist regime, remained marginalized. Despite this symbolic capital, Mikloško managed to secure less than 6% of the votes in the first round.

Overall, Zuzana Čaputová seems to have managed to unite behind her those who felt deeply disenchanted with the traditional political establishment but did not want to turn to the “dark side” of Slovak anti-establishment politics where neofascists and pro-Kremlin populists were looming ever more ominously. Generally speaking, the framing of her (or any other) candidacy as some kind of an existential choice for the Good (what some dub “apocalyptic politics”) is not a sign of a healthy political system. But perhaps it was also not entirely unjustified, considering the fact that Čaputová had to mobilize voters not just against the more conventional “Bad” but also against the menacing “Ugly”.

The “Bad”

The tragic irony is that the “bad” themselves were actually not so bad. Maroš Šefčovič has been one of Slovakia’s faces in Brussels for a decade, serving as Commissioner for Energy and Vice-President of the European Commission.  Formally independent in the presidential race, he was a long-time nominee of SMER-Social Democracy, which for many in Slovakia had been precisely the embodiment of the “corrupt establishment”.   Even so, Šefčovič’s background made it easier to market him as a “liberal” and “pro-European”, as well as an internationally experienced candidate, who knew how to secure nation’s vital interests in the EU. The Slovaks have long lived with the trauma of having been nearly left out of the European enlargement process in the late 1990’s due to an authoritarian rollback under Vladimír Mečiar.  Partly as a consequence of that, large parts of the society tended to attach higher value to Slovakia’s membership in the EU, and as a consequence, Slovakia was traditionally seen as more “Euro-enthusiast” than the neighboring Czech Republic. Over the years, SMER-SD managed to combine absorbing large shares of the more socially conservative and paternalistic electorate (that would otherwise tend to lean towards Mečiaresque candidates) with a strong pro-European foreign policy outlook.

Notably, despite his background, Šefčovič’s dominant visual theme in the campaign was not built around the idea of Europe. “A President for Slovakia” said the bill boards, with the Slovak national flag stretching across the background.  This suggest that, while a general pro-European consensus may be holding out among the political elites, “Europe” today is less of a popular idea which can easily win votes in Slovakia. (During the 2015 European migration crisis SMER-SD also contributed to criticizing the Union by playing along with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and other Visegrád Four leaders who formed a regional opposition bloc to migration quotas and the “forced” multiculturalism).

A “social democratic” party in terms of its official ideology, SMER-SD never hesitated to tap into the nationalist and social conservative electoral resource, or to form coalitions with the national populist Slovak National Party. Sensing the erosion of support for the establishment, Šefčovič made a tactical attempt to charm the conservative voters. He publicly emphasized his Christian faith and loyalty to the traditional family of “one man and one woman” at a specially organized meeting with representatives of Slovak churches days before the first round.  For that he was mercilessly satirized by Slovak political cartoonists, who portrayed him as wearing the archbishop’s clothes with hammer-and-sickles all over the miter and the robes, (a hint at the zealot’s one-time membership in the officially atheist Communist Party of Czechoslovakia).

Being, in theory, a marketable candidate, Commissioner Šefčovič suffered from the stigma of association with SMER-SD and its leader, former Prime Minister Robert Fico. He was therefore caught between the two types of the frustrated voter: the pro-European liberal and the paternalistic and often conspiracy-prone nationalist – both of which distrusted the “establishment”. The political earthquake that shook Slovakia after the murder of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak in February 2018 triggered a chain of political protests, removed Prime Minister Fico from power, and brought to life a new civic movement, named “For a Decent Slovakia”, calling for a moral rebirth of Slovak politics. Very notably, however, the “decent people” has also been a central theme in the populist discourse of Slovak neofascists, who have also been attacking the “rotten mainstream” from the other end, in the name of the “people”.

The “Ugly”

Prior to the campaign, the typical Slovak “coffee house” voter would suffer from two nightmares. The first was a choice between the “Bad” and the “Ugly” in the second round – if Šefčovič were to make it to a standoff with one of the anti-establishment populists. But the second, and truly horrifying scenario would be having to choose between two kinds of “ugly”.

The Slovak political scene saw the rise of populism and right-wing radicalism in recent years. The ruling establishment has had a share of responsibility for that, as it was unable to effectively address the problems of corruption and poverty, into which populists tap eagerly. The first warning came in 2013 as Marian Kotleba, leader of People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS), won the governor election in Banská Bystrica, a region that had long suffered from of the problem of socially marginalized Roma communities.   Kotleba’s earlier political project was dissolved in 2006 by the Slovak Supreme Court as extremist and unconstitutional. Members of ĽSNS continue to venerate the wartime Slovak State, a client of Nazi Germany, formed in 1939 after the annexation of the Czech lands to the Third Reich, and directly responsible for the deportations of Slovak Jews. In 2016, Kotleba made a further breakthrough as ĽSNS captured 14 out of 150 seats in the Slovak Parliament.  The rise of ĽSNS was checked in the 2018 local polls, where it performed poorly, as the voters realized that the ghost of fascism was starting to slowly materialize in Slovakia.  Nevertheless, running in the 2019 presidential election, Kotleba managed to secure over 10% of the national vote (222, 935 votes) in the first round.  And in some of the smaller municipalities he actually won – sometimes with as much as over 40% of the vote. Slovakia looked with astonishment at Ostrý Grúň where Kotleba won with over 26%. This village in Central Slovakia was the sight of a massacre in 1945, when German anti-insurgence units retaliated by burning the village down and killing 64 of its inhabitants – including women and children. Naturally, this does not mean that every person who voted for Kotleba also necessarily supports the “clero-fascist” wartime Slovak State, hates the LGBT, or wants to leave the EU and NATO (points on Kotleba’s party program). It can also be explained as a matter of “protest vote”. Dissatisfaction with “mainstream” politics runs so deep that some voters are prepared to break the moral taboo in order to send a desperate signal.

Proliferation of anti-establishment politics in Slovakia has been a trend for some years. In the 2016 parliamentary election the rise of Kotleba- ĽSNS was accompanied by a breakthrough of SME-Rodina (“We are the family”). This newly established populist party, led by the self-confident nouveau riche Boris Kollár (sometimes dubbed the “Slovak Trump”), successfully rode the anti-migrant wave to win eleven (out of a hundred and fifty) seats in the Slovak parliament. However, the party’s presidential candidate Milan Krajniak – who stylizes himself the “Last Crusader” on Facebook – failed to capitalize on the conservative agenda winning less than 3% of the vote in the first round.

A much more impressive performance (14.35%) came from the “newcomer” populist Štefan Harabin, an anti-establishment candidate who, ironically, had been established in Slovak politics for decades.  A judge of the Supreme Court, Harabin built his communication strategy on a deliberately impertinent style, shocking the public with extravagant statements. During the TV debates he called his rivals Maroš Šefčovič and Zuzana Čaputová “Siamese twins”, which suggested they would covertly support each other. Harabin’s campaign included a number of moves that framed him as the only “genuine” anti-establishment candidate, speaking the truth which the “elites” were hiding. Some months before the election Harabin published his book entitled “With Heart and Conscience”, where he promised to speak openly about those things that others were trying “to hush up”. These included the “decay of the family through the Istanbul pact” (i.e. the Istanbul convention against domestic violence), the “terrible risks of the UN Global Compact for Migration”, and “the Octopus of non-governmental organizations” that causes the Slovak state “to decompose”.

Appealing to the morals ( “the conscience” and “the heart”) makes this type of populist candidates “dark twins” of Zuzana Čaputová – who also uses the frame of the “good” and the “evil” and delivers a promise of “decent” behavior amidst the thoroughly immoral and corrupt establishment politics. But what the phenomenon also reveals is the apparent political demand for “ugliness”.  The shocking, impertinent style of politics probably makes some voters feel these people are really fighting the establishment and, bravely and openly, “speak the truth”.

In this respect, anti-establishment candidates also have to compete.  Thus, pro-Harabin media, popularly nicknamed “harabinews” (“harabinoviny“), worked to present the extreme right-wing Marian Kotleba as being “too mainstream” (owing to his seat in the Slovak parliament).  (Interestingly, Slovak internet activists monitoring pro-Kremlin disinformation activities, pointed out a pattern: conspiracy theory websites that previously cheered on Kotleba tended to switch their support to Harabin during the campaign). But, in the end, it was remarkable how many people seemingly bought into Štefan Harabin’s anti-establishment image, considering that he was, at different points in time, Slovakia’s Minister of Justice (nominated by the party of the authoritarian Vladimír Mečiar), vice-prime minister, and head of the Supreme Court. Over the years, he also faced allegations of corruption, but was always successful at using the anti-libel laws to his advantage.

What next?

At the moment, Čaputová’s victory is a clear victory for the “coffee house” – but also for the broader group of voters who linked their hopes for political change to an “outsider”. It will enhance Slovakia’s image abroad, and not only because the president is female, as the international media were quick to highlight. Feminist hype aside, Čaputová has important symbolic capital as a grassroot environmental activist, as well as a notably calm and decent manner which is becoming the trademark of her political style.

On the other hand, Slovakia is a parliamentary republic. This means that the president plays an important symbolic role, but her actual powers are limited. However, the presidential race can also be seen as an important rehearsal for the “real thing” – which is the parliamentary election of 2020. Some of the candidates are expected to convert the political capital they accumulated into new political parties. Meanwhile, the demand for anti-establishment politics is not likely to disappear – including the demand for “ugliness”. Roughly a quarter of Slovak voters gave their support to xenophobic populists, which is a sign one cannot ignore. And if the latter were to coordinate their efforts more efficiently, they could become a serious challenge to Slovak democracy and jeopardize the vision of a pro-European and “decent” Slovakia, which the winner Zuzana Čaputová presently embodies.

Recent publication by the author:

Aliaksei Kazharski, The End of “Central Europe”? The rise of the radical right and the contestation of identities in Slovakia and the Visegrad Four. 2018, Geopolitics. https://doi.org/10.1080/14650045.2017.1389720

Aliaksei Kazharski, Frontiers of hatred? A study of right-wing populist strategies in Slovakia. 2019, European Politics and Society. https://doi.org/10.1080/23745118.2019.1569337

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