Last week, Zuzana Čaputová was officially sworn in as Slovakia’s fifth president. Here’s why it matters – but not as much as you might have thought.
The dangers of giving way to the ‘Čaputová-mania’
Elected as the first female president in the history of the country, dealing a stunning blow to the ruling Smer party while keeping the far-right extremists at bay, the rise of Zuzana Čaputová, a 45-year-old environmental lawyer and anti-corruption activist who never held public office before, seems to herald a new age in Slovakia. After hearing the news of her election, “I thought there is still a chance to change Slovakia for the better”, 24-year-old Alexandra told Kafkadesk. “There has never been so much emotion surrounding a presidential election in Slovakia”, adds her friend Annamária, a Slovak designer who now lives in Prague.
For many, her victory represented the triumph of honesty over disinformation, tolerance, openness and solidarity over hate and division. For Aneta Világi, an assistant professor of political science at Bratislava’s Comenius University, her impact has as much to do with her progressive agenda as with her style: “Both her political promises and a new style of political communication (calm, not offensive, to the point, actually answering the questions instead of equivocating) could be perceived as a new wave in Slovak politics”. Katarína Klingová, senior research fellow at Bratislava-based think tank Globsec, echoed this view: “Čaputová won because she was genuine and tried to unify voters and present herself as a candidate of all Slovaks who want to live in a just and decent Slovakia, despite a huge smear campaign claiming she was financed by Soros and other foreign companies attempting to meddle in domestic politics and eventually stage a coup d’état”.
Hailed as an unprecedented milestone in Slovak politics, Čaputová’s victory prompted a wave of euphoria among progressive circles, with the political newcomer quickly becoming the darling idol of foreign media outlets eager to anticipate nothing less than the imminent coming of a new era in post-communist Europe. “A rare triumph of progressive, tolerant politics over populism in a region of macho politicians pushing anti-migration platforms”, wrote The Guardian. “Liberal democracy still stands a chance in Central and Eastern Europe”, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. And while all of this may be true, and pro-European, progressive voters do have many reasons to celebrate, caution should be exercised: the significance of her election should not be understated, but blowing it out of proportion is a dangerous and risky game.
Čaputová’s victory isn’t a triumph of liberalism over extremism
Did Čaputová’s election really signal the complete triumph of progressive values over far-right populism and extremism, as many commentators were quick to claim?
With over 40% of the votes in the first round versus less than 20% for opponent Sefcovic, Čaputová’s lead was, indeed, massive, and remained significant in the second round’s 58-42% final result. But this tends to gloss over the fact that Kotleba, leader of a far-right, neo-fascist party, and Harabin, a virulent xenophobic populist formerly associated with Slovakia’s 1990’s authoritarian ruler Vladimir Meciar, gathered 25% of the votes combined. The strong results of these two anti-system candidates “shows the vulnerability of Slovak society to fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories”, according to Katarína Klingová, as well as the continued appeal of the extreme-right.
Slovakia did not turn overnight into a stronghold of liberalism. Her victory did not change anything – one might argue that the election even amplified them – to the long-standing demographic, regional and socio-economic divisions of the country. Needless to say, everyone isn’t thrilled: “She is a snob who has no idea what ordinary people’s life looks life”, 45-year-old Dagmar from the Banská Bystrica region told Kafkadesk. “She won’t protect these people from the system”, she added, echoing the thoughts of many Slovaks for whom her victory changes, well, nothing.
Surely her election, based on an arguably unprecedented liberal platform, signals a shift in attitudes in Slovakia, a predominantly socially conservative country: “I don’t remember the last time anyone with this kind of agenda has won” said journalist and political analyst Marián Leško, who was recently appointed as one of Čaputová’s advisors. “I would rather say that Čaputová won the election despite the fact that she shares liberal attitudes”, tempered Aneta Világi.
Putting Čaputová’s rise and victory into perspective
Her victory is more fragile than it seems. Čaputová’s vote count in absolute terms only increased by about 20% between the two rounds, compared to a nearly twofold hike for opponent Sefcovic despite (or because of) his aggressive ideological slide to the right. This lack of enthusiasm and her failure to (re)mobilize voters was also expressed in the historic-low turnout of 42% in the second round, arguably stemming from two factors: some of her voters were convinced she was going to win anyway, while Kotleba and Harabin supporters refused to cast their ballot for either of the finalists, whom they almost equally abhorred, and preferred to stay at home. Citing the abstention figures, 58-year-old Anna from the eastern city of Presov commented: “Slovaks are so disgusted by politics that they completely ignored the election”.
“After a year of unsuccessful campaign of their candidate [Robert Mistrik], liberals, with the help of the U.S. embassy and foreign-owned media, created a Barbie for the post of president”, she added. Although echoing some of the numerous conspiracy theories that circulated throughout the campaign, her statement spotlights another aspect that puts her victory into perspective: for many, Čaputová was a candidate by default, who was there at the right time and the right place and whose status as an outsider clearly played in her favor. According to Globsec’s Katarína Klingová, “if [outgoing president] Andrej Kiska would have run, it is questionable whether Čaputová would have won. A lot of people were hoping that he would run for a second term”.
Finally, Čaputová rose an anti-government wave that had started some years ago. For Katarína Klingová, her election “was a continuation of the change of power which had occurred during the 2017 regional elections and 2018 local elections, in which opposition parties or independent candidates in a large extent beat the representatives of the ruling coalition parties”. Despite not having enjoyed such a privileged international media coverage as her own election, this trend had been long in the making.
Did Slovaks vote for Čaputová? Or against Fico and corruption?
And it only accelerated after Kuciak’s murder, which turned the election, more than anything else, into a referendum on corruption and Fico’s ruling Smer party, directly implicated in the journalist’s investigative work on the links between the political elite and the mafia.
Despite having spent the past decade in Brussels and being described as a ‘European Enlightenment man’ by his EU colleagues, Sefcovic was unequivocally seen as “Fico’s man” and the only real “candidate of the system”, thus tainted by all the corruption and cronyism baggage associated with Slovakia’s long-time ruler. On the other hand, the credentials of Caputova, a political newcomer, environmental, anti-corruption lawyer labelled as Slovakia’s “Erin Brokovich”, were impeccable. In that regard, she was “the only possible choice”, said 44-year-old Ivan Polakovic.
Čaputová’s election finds its roots in Kuciak’s murder, one of the most tragic and game-changing events in Slovakia’s recent history, and the wave of popular anger it triggered. Her supporters are well aware of her victory’s somber debt. For Marian, a 28-year-old web designer, “Čaputová won due to a combination of a positive character and well-built campaign, along with several negative factors, such as Kuciak’s murder and never-ending corruption scandals between politicians and the mafia”.
Slovak voters didn’t deliver “a blow against populism, or a victory for progressive politics, but have instead taken a stand against political cronyism and corruption. This apparent habit by international media outlets of labeling and lumping anything that hints at nationalism and conservatism in Europe as part of the latest populist craze has oversimplified politics in post-Communist Europe”.
Zuzana Čaputová represents a new brand of liberal populism
Which begs the question: did Čaputová’s victory really buck the trend of populism sweeping Central and Eastern Europe, as so many commentators and media outlets were quick to rejoice?
Although populism is often equated with ‘far-right’, ‘extremist’, ‘xenophobic’, ‘nationalist’ and so on, that’s fundamentally incorrect, and only refers to an ‘Orban-style’ populism, so to speak. Interestingly, she herself echoed these views in a Bloomberg interview: “For me, populism implies the use of disinformation, the exploitation of emotions, of fear”. But as some recall, Zuzana Čaputová actually “fits the original definition of a populist – someone who takes on the representation of ordinary people who feel disregarded by the political elite”. In that sense, Caputova, who also labelled “the growth of populism” as “a great threat to all of us”, might have been the most highly skilled populist in the pack.
Explaining how Kuciak’s murder persuaded her to enter politics, she said that “people are feeling frustrated and disappointed and are yearning for change. Some candidates have chosen to exploit this fear. But for me, using the emotions of hatred and fear is destructive”. Like other ‘anti-system’ candidates, she tapped into and ultimately benefited from this popular anger and yearning for change. Unlike them, however, she didn’t rely on fear and hatred but rather sent – through her rhetoric, style and political agenda – a message of hope and unity, turning this whirlpool of frustration and despondency into something positive instead of amplifying it for her own gain.
Tellingly, she also admitted that “there would be some degree of agreement between me and [Kotleba’s supporters] in terms of the causes and diagnosis of problems in our society”, arguing that she needs to convince them that there are no “fast and radical solutions” but that they should rather be “calm and pragmatic”. Čaputová’s origins story might look similar to the ones most dramatically opposed to her politically. The main difference is how they respond to it.
As some Slovak sociologists pointed out, her campaign slogan, “Stand up to evil”, seems to be coming straight out of the populist playbook. But again, that’s where she differentiated herself: this evil doesn’t have a singular and determined face. Throughout her campaign, Caputova didn’t attack head-on people, but their actions. Rather than embodied in a single person or party, the evil she took aim at pertains to the deep and structural malfunctions of Slovakia’s democratic system and the long-standing divisions of Slovakia’s society.
Čaputová’s categorization as a “populist” remains the subject of continuing debate. According to Katarína Klingová, “her victory represents not only the defeat of populists in Slovakia, but also the defeat of political elites”. Neither one nor the other, what is she then? For Aneta Világi, however, “Čaputová and Progressive Slovakia are not populists, so far, as their main criticism focuses on policies and promote solutions to solve some of the problems within the system of parliamentary democracy based on the main role of political parties”.
Did Čaputová really beat the populists? Or was she just the best of them? Instead of capitalizing on (more or less) fantasized and made-up fears of the population – like Muslim migrants, an imperialistic EU or U.S.-backed coups d’état – Čaputová addressed the issues that truly mattered: corruption, cronyism, social injustice, and so on. In that way, she outsmarted and outplayed Kotleba, Harabin and Sefcovic. In the footsteps of the likes of President Emmanuel Macron of France, to whom she often compares herself and who has himself frequently been labelled a populist, Zuzana Čaputová might represent a new brand of populism: a liberal, pro-European one, a populism that promotes hope rather than fear, unity rather than division, but a populism nonetheless.
Will Zuzana Čaputová be able to make a difference?
In Slovakia, the role of the president is largely ceremonial and symbolic. In that regard, “the unhealthy expectations following her victory might actually be a problem”, for Aneta Világi, from Comenius University. “She can speak up some issues, give a voice to marginalized problems but has a very limited power to solve them”. Directly after her election, some analysts were already expecting the ruling Smer party to launch a strong campaign against her and Parliament to pass legislation to make her liberal program impossible to implement.
She isn’t completely powerless, of course, and is instrumental in key issues like appointing judges to the Constitutional Court. But more importantly, Zuzana Čaputová will be able to use her repute and standing for greater use. “I hope she’ll become a strong and trustworthy politician who will not only be able to represent Slovakia, but also critically comment on the political situation”, said Marian. This ‘PR leverage’ should not be understated, especially in the case of someone who enjoys such high visibility (including beyond Slovakia’s borders).
“I know people have high hopes and it’s very likely that support for me will drop sooner or later. I won’t be able to meet all the expectations”, Čaputová admitted. On the other hand, her limited powers might shield her from disappointing her supporters too abruptly, and might also explain why so many voters were willing to take a gamble on her. “Interestingly, it’s mainly her opponents, not her supporters, who are persuaded that Caputova will make a difference – for the worse, of course, according to them”, Annamária told Kafkadesk.
But everyone agrees on one thing: Zuzana Čaputová‘s victory did open a new chapter in Slovak politics. Her future legacy, however, largely hangs in the balance of who will come out on top in next year’s parliamentary elections, the last stop of a three-year-long electoral cycle that has already, and unequivocally, changed the face of Slovakia.