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Zuzana Čaputová: Why did Slovakia’s Hungarian community choose her?

Last month, Slovakia elected its first female president, Zuzana Čaputová after a long and tiring presidential campaign, which saw her defeat the vice-president of the European Commission Maros Sefcovic (Smer-SD).

The Hungarian minority’s surprising support for Čaputová

Čaputová, a lawyer from the small town of Pezinok in the Bratislava district, had previously led a successful campaign against the opening of a new landfill in her hometown, and helped put pressure on former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico to cancel the amnesties granted by controversial PM Vladimir Meciar. Although not well-known before the election, she worked month after month on convincing Slovaks to give her their vote on a platform based on the fight against corruption, extremism and polarization and ultimately aimed at uniting the country against the trends that threatened to tear it apart.

One of the most surprising outcomes of the election was the strong support of Slovakia’s Hungarian minority for Čaputová. As evidenced below, the southern regions with the highest concentration of Hungarians overwhelmingly voted for the liberal lawyer, something that came as a shock and a surprise for the long-term representative of Hungarians in Slovakia: Bela Bugar, chairman of the Most-Hid party, also ran for the presidency but only received a small fraction of the votes in the first round.

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Concentration of the Hungarian minority (yellow), according to the 2011 census.
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Distribution of votes for the top 4 candidates in the first round (source: Dennikn.sk)

Polarization and fear of rising extremism

The reasons why a majority of ethnic Hungarians voted for Čaputová are manifold. But one of the most notable factors, underlined by Bugar himself, is the fear of extremism that drove many Hungarians to back Čaputová, the candidate with the most unifying rhetoric and platform. “The minority voter is most afraid of extremism, this is why our (mostly Hungarian) voters voted for Zuzana Čaputová”, he conceded, before endorsing her ahead of the election run-off.

While Slovak society is increasingly polarised, the appeal of extremist views is growing, as evidenced by the arrival of Marian Kotleba’s neo-fascist LSNS (People’s Party, Our Slovakia) in Parliament (which strongly contributed to damaging Slovakia’s reputation abroad) and his strong score in last month’s recent presidential election, arriving at the fourth place with more than 10% of the votes. By the end of the month, Slovakia’s highest judicial court is due to issue a long-awaited ruling on whether the party should be dismantled due to its extremist views.

Members of People’s Party Our Slovakia advocate racist policies, are proponents of demolishing Roma villages, are viscerally anti-EU, anti-euro and anti-NATO, and defend strong conservative family and social values against LGBT rights. LSNS members, who were once members of a different party Slovenska Pospolitost, traditionally greet each other with “Greetings, and have a nice white day!”. A widespread belief among Slovakia’s Hungarian minority is that, once LSNS stops focusing on the Roma population (regularly billed as “parasites”), Kotleba’s party won’t hesitate to target other minorities, first and foremost ethnic Hungarians.

While both the opposition and ruling coalition parties present a united front against LSNS and refuse to make agreements with Kotleba’s party, this only increases the polarization and appeal of extremism in the minds of many, who voted for Kotleba to break the current political establishment but feel their voice is still being belittled, drowned and denied by Slovakia’s long-standing, well-established and allegedly corrupt mainstream parties.

In a country of 5.4 million people, having roughly 220.000 people vote (Kotleba’s score in the first round of the presidential election) for such an extremist is dangerous, which explains why Čaputová ran on a platform to unite the population and reduce the polarization. It also explains why the Hungarian minority, on the front-line of the threat represented by the rise of extremist and xenophobic views, voted for Čaputová.

Why Čaputová rather than Bugar?

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Bela Bugar (left) and Zuzana Čaputová (right)

Bela Bugar has been in politics for a long time and has always been the most high-profile spokesman of the Hungarian minority and interests. His presidential campaign focused on improving relations between Slovaks and ethnic Hungarians, attempting to present himself as the president of a whole, united country, rather than the voice of the minority. As his disappointing results show, this strategy didn’t pay off with Hungarians and didn’t appeal to Slovaks either, who often criticized his campaign billboards written in Hungarian.

The seeds of his presidential failure appear to have been planted long ago. Although a strong and consistent supporter of cross-national relations, his standing and credibility took a hit when he agreed to join a coalition with the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), which has always been an outspoken and aggressive critic of the Hungarian minority. Many Hungarians also felt he betrayed their trust when he didn’t resign from the coalition and refused to hold snap elections in the tumultuous aftermath of the murder of Jan Kuciak His death, which shook Slovakia to its core, magnified the corruption within the Slovak government and Bela Bugar, who was previously viewed favourably for his stance against corruption and his normal, unassuming life, was unable to distance himself from it. Both incidents, as well as other previous actions (like during the troubles with the Gorila document), convinced many ethnic Hungarians that he was no different than other politicians.

An anti-corruption activist and political newcomer, Čaputová’s track-record appears clean in contrast. Her past actions and rhetoric are reminiscent of Slovakia’s beloved president and most-trusted politician Andrej Kiska, a role-model for the liberal and progressive constituents who recently confirmed he would be launching a new party after stepping down as president. Kiska, who also ran as an independent five years ago, proved to be a staunch anti-corruption, anti-extremist, and pro-democratic president, whom many credit with increasing the prestige and power of the presidential office (he repeatedly clashed with former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was forced to resign due to corruption allegations in the wake of Kuciak’s murder).

Zuzana Čaputová said that she will try to live up to Kiska’s presidency, and maybe even take it further. For the next five years, the eyes of Slovak voters and ethnic Hungarians will be set on her. Who knows, maybe she will indeed turn out to be instrumental in uniting Slovakia and making it a model for neighboring Central European countries to follow.

Written by Márk Szabó

An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Like what you read? Check out Márk’s latest articles right here!

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