In Slovakia, voters elect Zuzana Čaputová the first female president in Central Europe

A novice to national politics, environmental and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová defeated the Vice-President of the European Commission for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič, in a runoff of the Slovak presidential elections. Her victory reflected growing dissatisfaction with the current government, especially with the Smer-Social democracy (Smer), the senior coalition member. The overall results signal a possible realignment on the political scene ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2020.

Three events in 2018 strongly impacted the political atmosphere in Slovakia and directly influenced the presidential election and its outcome: Firstly, the country was shocked by the murder of an investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. Kuciak’s work focused on the possible corruption involving elected politicians, high public officials, and the criminal underworld. The country experienced a wave of anti-government mass protests, the largest demonstrations since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Secondly, amidst the protests, Prime Minister Robert Fico of Smer resigned, paving the way for a reconstruction of the three-party government under the Smer-nominated prime minister Peter Pellegrini. Thirdly, president Kiska officially announced in May 2018 that he would not seek re-election. Though Kiska hinted on his continued involvement in Slovak politics, at the time he refused to provide any details, citing the need to complete his mandate as the president above day-to-day party politics.

With Kiska’s announced departure, the presidential contest had no clear favorite. Early opinion polls suggested a host of potential candidates polled just about 10% support, with Miroslav Lajčák, a Smer-nominated Foreign Minister being a front-runner, should he decide to run. Robert Mistrík, a nominee of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), aspiring to become the preferred candidate of the democratic opposition, polled neck to neck with the leader of the extreme-right Peoples’ Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) Marian Kotleba, a controversial Supreme Court Justice Štefan Harabin, the leader of the governing Slovak-Hungarian Most-Híd party Béla Bugár and Veronika Remišová,  the leading parliamentarian of the opposition Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) grouping. Zuzana Čaputová, nominated by extra-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia, seemed to stand no chance.

However, Lajčák repeatedly refused to enter the presidential race, citing his desire to continue his career in diplomatic service. Smer leader Robert Fico ruled out his presidential ambitions and instead announced his bid in January for one of the nine vacancies at the Constitutional Court. Nevertheless, the issue became an important issue of the campaign: the outgoing president Kiska declared he would not appoint Fico to the top court; the prospective presidential candidates also had to take a stance concerning the matter.

To maximize chances of a pro-democratic candidate to reach the runoff, OĽaNO and the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) did not field any candidate. Also, they attempted to facilitate an agreement among Mistrík, Čaputová and František Mikloško (formerly of the KDH) that whoever of the three had the strongest popular support should get the endorsement of all the others before the first round of the election. Eventually, Mistrík and Čaputová agreed, while Mikloško decided to stay in the race. 

Smer eventually nominated Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice President of the European Commission, who led the Smer party list in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Šefčovič, nominally a non-party independent, received substantial financial support from, and public endorsement of, Smer party and its leaders. Even though he has had a relatively liberal and pro-European social democratic record, his campaign had to rely on the more socially conservative support base of Smer. During the party rallies, Fico likened him to an 18-century Slovak folk hero; Šefčovič himself declined to take a clear stance on issues critical of Smer and its leader, and eventually even profiled himself as a champion of traditional Christian values.

The critical phase of the campaign – and Čaputová’s rapid increase of popularity – came with the first televised debates among presidential contenders. She presented herself as a thoughtful, calm and firm voice of social justice, criticizing defects in the rule of law, yet refraining from negative campaign and ad hominem attacks. Her performance seemed to resonate well with the public expectations and the general mood in the country. Robert Mistrík eventually honored their agreement, withdrew from the race, and unequivocally supported her before the first round. As a consequence, Čaputová’s approval ratings quickly reached 40-50%.

Her main opponents concentrated on getting to the second round: Maroš Šefčovič presented himself as an experienced politician, respected at the European scene, ready to lead the country and defend its national interests. Štefan Harabin appealed to disillusioned voters with his outright dismissal of the established political elites: He promised to exercise the presidential powers to the fullest extent, taking an active role in foreign policy to protect the country against what he called the dangers of Islamization and the loss of national sovereignty in the EU. Marian Kotleba of the extreme-right ĽSNS echoed his rhetoric, pointing out that Harabin himself contributed to the erosion of Slovak sovereignty by being a Justice Minister of the government that agreed with the EU Lisbon Treaty.

Čaputova won the first round held on March 16, gaining 40.6%, followed by Šefčovič, who received 18.7%. Harabin and Kotleba gained 14.4% and 10.4%, respectively, followed by Mikloško (5.7%) and the other minor candidates. With two weeks to the runoff, Šefčovič attempted to close the gap by aggressively addressing the supporters of Harabin and Kotleba: The day after the first round he portrayed himself as the champion of traditional Christian conservative values, criticizing Čaputová for her openness to LBGT agenda. He even claimed that he, as the member of the European Commission, actively opposed the Commission-sponsored proposal that would enable the relocation of asylum seekers across the EU countries. Later on, he returned to his previous agenda, stressing his experience and credentials in international politics. Čaputová, on the other hand, stood on her original message. As the favorite, she concentrated on mobilizing her support base from the first round, underlining the result of the contest were open. Her support reached 58.4%; her opponent gained 41.6%. Compared to 48.7% in the first round, turnout dropped to 41.8%, reflecting the fact that many supporters of Harabin and Kotleba did not take part in the runoff. Those who did mostly voted for Šefčovič. Čaputová managed to win over younger, and better-educated voters. Šefčovič’s support base contained mostly older, less educated voters who tend to support Smer.

Čaputová’s victory has significant consequences for the overall political development. Following the 2016 parliamentary elections, the presidential elections was a second nationwide contest that signaled a transformation of Slovak politics towards a tripolar configuration with a significant role played by the anti-establishment, anti-EU and extreme right parties. Even though two pro-European and democratic candidates succeeded, the proportional electoral system to the national parliament will probably ensure an increased parliamentary presence of antisystem, populist and radical parliamentarians. Presidential executive powers are limited. Nevertheless, President Čaputová will be appointing the next prime minister. Given an increasing fragmentation of the parliament and the likelihood that the next coalition government will consist of several parties, the influence of the president in the process will grow.  

A transformation of the Slovak party scene is likely to be further deepened by the announcement of outgoing president Kiska that he will set up a new political party after his departure from the presidential palace. A recent poll indicated some 9% of voters would “definitely” vote for his party and an additional 31% was “likely” to vote for it. Furthermore, a post-election poll also indicated the rise of Čaputová’s party, approaching double-digit numbers. It is still too early to come to definitive conclusions. Nevertheless, the 2019 presidential elections seem to be a prelude to a far-reaching transformation of the Slovak political scene.

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