The result of Slovakia’s presidential election, held at the end of March, has provoked a positive response from beyond the borders of the country itself. The obvious reason is that the candidate who won speaks an entirely different language to the governments currently in power in the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), who have turned V4 into an anti-Western, semi-feudal region. The mere appearance of Zuzana Caputová, a newcomer to politics with a background as an environmental activist, is a spectacular change from the bisons, titans and veterans, who dominate Slovak politics.
The media contributed to Caputová’s success: the relationship between the press and the SMER-led government, which has been deteriorating for some time, was fatally damaged a year ago when a young investigative journalist and his fiancée were murdered. According to popular assumption – which, at present, seems to be well-founded – the underworld mafia networks behind the murder hold suspiciously good relations with the government. The demonstrations at the time of the murder were the biggest in the history of Slovakia, bigger than similar movements during the fall of communism.
Since 2006, the middle class which has gradually emerged in Slovakia has become fed up with the phenomenon called state capture: when the grey economy and major local business circles buy up the political class and seize control of the state. Realising that not just SMER-led leftish forces but also the traditional parties of the middle class are being held captive by the same business circles a large number of Slovak voters began looking, in despair, for an alternative. For this reason, the importance of parties outside mainstream politics has been increasing: rapidly-established formations exploded onto the scene and exceeded the five-per cent parliamentary threshold, making life difficult for opinion pollsters.
Through these steady ‘riots in the polling booths’, the traditional Christian Democratic, Civil-Liberal and ethnic Hungarian parties – which completed the country’s EU integration process between 1998 and 2006 – have seen themselves pushed out of parliament. Meanwhile neo-fascists and Western-oriented eurosceptics have gained seats, as have parties embodying anti-politics. One party entered parliament despite having no definable identity, with members calling themselves “simple people and independent personalities”.
These formations have brought a breath of fresh air into the Slovak political space: it can be said that the political atmosphere in Slovakia now gives room not just for political entrepreneurs, but for civil activists as well. On the other hand, such an amorphous opposition has not yet succeeded to convince people that it has the ability to govern.
This may change somewhat with Caputová’s victory. It seems that some kind of coordination between the colourful opposition factions might be possible. The presidential electoral system pushes participants in the direction of cooperation, as only two candidates take part in the second round, and the opposition parties all lined up behind Zuzana Caputová (whose own small, liberal party is not currently represented in parliament.
The victory of Caputová is not significant in itself because of the success of the opposition: the power of the anti-government movement had already been demonstrated in the municipal elections held in autumn 2018, when the leadership of Slovakia’s biggest cities was won by opponents of the government. Instead, it was those first signs that the opposition might be able to work together that offers the most hope. However, more needs to be done. Without further cooperation the Slovak electorate will not be persuaded that the opposition is anything other than fragmented.
Besides deepening cooperation, it remains to be seen if the opposition can expand its support base. In many (usually underdeveloped) rural districts there is enormous support for anti-Western forces, which is the clear political manifestation of poor living standards and a lack of perspective. The presidential election campaign was highly emotional, and lacked real political content, making it far too abstract for those in poorer regions. Indeed, since the opposition campaign simplified its narrative to divide the Slovak world into good and bad (where Caputová fights against evil), poorer sectors of the population felt not just excluded but that they were portrayed as being part of the problem.
Despite the real hope of change that Caputová’s victory offers, there remains a serious risk that if this kind of emotional warfare continues then the gap between the urban middle class and the less-developed parts of Slovakian society will only increase. Far from uniting the country, it may prise it further apart.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.