Saturday

20th Apr 2019

Opinion

Caputova triumph not yet a victory for Slovak liberalism

  • For a traditional and religious country, electing a woman, a divorced mother living in an informal relationship, and a human rights lawyer holding liberal views on LGBT rights and abortion legislation constitutes a novelty and a shift in attitudes (Photo: Wikimedia)

As populist parties sweep into power across Europe, Slovakia takes a liberal turn by electing a leftist anti-corruption activist from outside the political establishment for president last month.

For a traditional and religious country, electing a woman, a divorced mother living in an informal relationship, and a human rights lawyer holding liberal views on LGBT rights and abortion legislation constitutes a novelty and a shift in attitudes.

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Zuzana Caputova's victory not only represents a turning point for Slovakia, but also a ray of hope for the region where nationalist, anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiments have grown over the past years.

While liberals rejoice, some urge caution over the growing support for the far-right in Slovakia, as well as over voting alignment between the ruling SMER-DS and the far-right on social and ethical issues.

Victory for liberalism?

Although some would label Caputova's triumph as a "victory for liberalism", it is unclear whether the voters in Slovakia opted for a liberal candidate because they align with liberal values, or because their respect for the rule of law took priority over their personal conservativism when casting a vote.

We should not forget about the first round of presidential elections, which revealed the uglier side of Slovak politics.

The two anti-system candidates – the conspirationist former justice minister Stefan Harabin and neo-fascist Marian Kotleba – together attracted nearly a quarter of the votes.

According to the AKO agency opinion poll, public support for Kotleba's anti-European, far-right People's Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) rose from 9.5 percent in February to 11.5 percent in April.

In the run up to the elections, the ruling SMER-DS and the far-right LSNS held talks, joined forces and aligned their votes on social and ethical issues, such as to cap retirement age at 64, or to halt ratification of a European treaty designed to combat violence against women.

In addition to SMER-DS, the Centre-right Slovak National party and the populist We Are Family also held talks with the far-right.

Considering political pragmatism and lack of consistency displayed by Robert Fico in the past, observers do not exclude that SMER-DS would align with any of the political parties represented in the parliament in order to push its agenda in the future.

Prime minister Peter Pellegrini, however, rejected any suggestion of a future coalition government with the far-right LSNS.

Gender equality in Slovakia

Observers also caution against jumping to conclusions over how progressive Slovak society is in terms of gender equality and women's representation in national governments.

According to the 2017 Gender Equality Index of the European Institute for Gender Equality, Slovakia placed third to last among EU members in gender equality, performing on par with Romania and slightly better than Hungary and Greece.

In fact, in the run up to the elections, many doubted that a woman stood a chance of becoming a president in Slovakia.

Rather than voting for a woman, observers note, the public voted for the candidate who was credible, independent from the establishment, and who was perceived as capable of bringing about positive change.

As such, Caputova's success should be viewed partly as a result of public disillusionment with the governing coalition a year after the killings of an investigative journalist and his fiancee, and partly as an outcome of her campaign, which displayed her authenticity, honesty, empathy, reluctance to undermine other candidates or to use aggressive vocabulary, and a strong record as an activist against injustice.

It was her image of authenticity and political decency that united the divided electorate in Slovakia.

In this regard, Caputova rise and appeal is comparable to that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US Congress.

Beginning of the road to change

The office of the president is largely a ceremonial role in Slovakia, with the real powers of the state being vested in the hands of the prime minister.

Caputova nevertheless committed to ensuring justice for all Slovaks by reinforcing the independence of the public prosecutor's office and in the naming of judges, which will fall under her responsibility.

Despite the limitations she will face, the symbolic value of her election should not be underestimated.

Caputova victory already boosted her Progressive Slovakia (PS) party's prospects in EU elections and contributed to the consolidation the liberal camp at home.

Because her victory came at a low turnout of 40 percent, to push her agenda the president-elect will need to work together with, and secure the backing of, the parliament dominated by SMER-DS, led by Fico.

All eyes now turn to the national parliamentary elections, which are due in a year, and which will constitute the real test for the progressive left in Slovakia.

Although the political sands in Slovakia are shifting and it is too early to make any predictions, one could imagine two political blocs consolidating ahead of the 2020 elections: a liberal-democratic one, led by the outgoing president Andrej Kisa and, symbolically, by the president-elect Caputova; and a nationalist bloc with authoritarian-coloured tendencies formed by parties such as SMER-DS, the Slovak National party and the We Are Family, which is connected to Marine Le Pen's and Matteo Salvini's ENF group.

Rather than paving the way for a more liberal region, the situation in Slovakia can also take the Austrian turn, where a liberal president finds himself in a difficult position having to balance a right-wing coalition government.

Katarina Kertysova is a Slovak researcher and non-resident research fellow at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies in the Netherlands

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