Bratislava, Slovakia – In March 2019, Zuzana Čaputová, became the first female President of Slovakia, with a campaign built on a liberal and progressive platform, based on an environmental, pro-European, pro-LGBT, pro-choice and above all anti-corruption discourse.
Caputova was able to embody the hopes of a political revival for a country that had been plagued by corruption for decades. A year before her election, Jan Kuciak, a reporter specialising in corruption cases, was found murdered with his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, at their home, while he was investigating possible links between the then-ruling Smer-SD party of former Prime Minister Robert Fico and Italian businessmen close to mafia circles. The murder shook the country to its core and led to mass demonstrations of an unprecedented scale throughout Slovakia.
Zuzana Caputova, the President of change?
While Zuzana Caputova’s campaign was deeply marked and influenced by this particular event, the former anti-corruption lawyer also did not shy away from taking a stand on a number of other divisive issues, including coming out in support of the rights and freedoms of the LGBT community. She expressed her support for civil unions and adoption by same-sex couples, strengthening the community’s hope for a real change.
According to Slovak law, same-sex marriage has been constitutionally banned since 2014. Caputova’s outspoken support for Slovakia’s LGBT community was evident during a debate, in which she declared being in favour of adoption by gay couples, arguing that a child would live “better with two same-sex lovers” than in an orphanage. Such as statement could easily be seen as a groundbreaking milestone for LGBT rights in Slovakia. Although far from being the main issue and talking point of her campaign, her statements and use of more inclusive language did have a significant impact that should not be underestimated, despite the limited prerogatives of the president in Slovakia.
But since the election, no real progress has been made, and policy-makers appear to have set aside the possibility of any major change on the issue, which has failed to take center stage in the public debate. Even ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections, the mention of LGBT rights was not meant to spark a real debate on the issue, but rather served as a convenient way to attack liberal candidates.
We should also note that, apart from Zuzana Caputova and her (former) party, very few political figures in Slovakia hold and publicly express such strong positions on LGBT issues. This was exemplified by the defeat of the Progressive Slovakia (PS) party who, despite its victory a few months earlier in the European Parliament elections, did not even reach the threshold needed to send MP’s to Slovakia’s lower house of Parliament. Any wind of change appears to have quickly died down.
A short-lived victory
Slovakia’s new government was then formed around a coalition of centre-right and conservative-right movements, with Igor Matovic, leader of the OLaNO party assuming the role of Prime Minister. During the campaign, the new ruling party’s rhetoric and programme mostly revolved around the fight against corruption and in opposition to the Fico/Smer-SD system, like Caputova did during the 2019 presidential election. Harnessing the power of populist methods and a highly efficient media strategy – particularly on social media – Matovic had a series of PR successes mocking his opponents and the Slovak political establishment, positioning himself as a major political figure in the post-Fico era.
The new, four-party government coalition that emerged from the February 2020 elections is remarkable and unique due to its extreme heterogeneity. Including from an ideological standpoint, we need only look at the differences between Sme Rodina and Za Ludi: the first, a conservative right-wing party; the second, the more centrist movement founded by former President Andrej Kiska. Both parties can barely find common ground on economic, European and international issues, but also on domestic social topics like LGBT rights. Add to this complex picture the ultra-liberal and libertarian SaS and the political versatility of OLaNO, only then can the complexity of Slovakia’s current “ruling class” be fully understood.
Looking more precisely at the issue of LGBT rights in this new motley government, an important aspect to factor in is the nomination of Sme Rodina’s conservative vice-president Milan Krajinak as Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family. Prime Minister Igor Matovic himself declared back in 2019 that his OLaNO movement would not work with a government seeking to legalize adoption for same-sex couples. Bearing this in mind, there’s little reason to expect any substantial change for LGBT rights with the current government.
Caputova/Matovic: Same but different?
The political programmes of Zuzana Caputova and Igor Matovic share the desire to eradicate and root out endemic corruption in Slovakia, particularly in its political and judicial system. This was the main talking point of their victory in a country still shocked by Jan Kuciak’s murder, and both were able to position themselves as the anti-Smer or anti-Fico figure.
But in two completely different styles, evident when we look at how they used the media space. While Zuzana Caputova was highly appreciated and respected for her ability not to indulge in personal attacks against her opponents and to base her entire campaign on an inclusive and unifying rhetoric, Matovic, for his part, used a highly aggressive strategy, including on social media, to directly attack his political adversaries.
Their political agendas are also based on a number of potent differences. In just over a year that separated the two election campaigns, the LGBT issue appears to have almost completely vanished from public debate. In that regard, the 2020 parliamentary elections are a stark reminder that nothing can ever be taken for granted when we look at the progress made for the LGBT community.
The evolution of Slovakia’s LGBT rights, described as progressive in many European countries, is not seen as such by a majority of the population. The LGBT community seems, at best, able to attract the interest of a minority of voters, and the indifference of a large majority of Slovaks. Finally, some extreme far-right parties like the LSNS movement of Marian Kotleba – recently sentenced to prison – provide a platform for another minority to convey their hatred towards the LGBT community.
Taking a strong stance in favour of LGBT rights cannot win you an election in Slovakia today.
How is the LGBT issue evolving in Slovakia?
Five years ago, Slovakia was singled out by the EU for its repressive stance towards the LGBT community. The impact of Zuzana Caputova’s election, which initially seemed to present a new face of a country known for its social conservatism, now appears much more nuanced. Due to her limited institutional powers, there is little room for manoeuvre, and only a wide-ranging in-depth debate within society could lead to a deep reflection on the issue and maybe pave the way for change.
But this seems unlikely for the time being, considering the only party openly advocating the liberalization of LGBT rights (Progressive Slovakia) is not even represented at the political level. A more likely development is the politicization of the issue during the current legislature – be it at the initiative of a ruling or opposition party – which would not necessarily lead to an improvement of LGBT rights, quite the contrary.
Far from being a central topic of public debate as it is in neighbouring Poland, where the ruling party has targeted the LGBT community as a scapegoat in its cultural war, the situation of LGBT people in Slovakia remains very precarious, to say the least. According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Centre, only 44% of Slovaks consider homosexuality to be acceptable in society – placing Slovakia last among the Visegrad countries, including after Poland, and well below EU average. Slovak public opinion remains, at this stage, largely conservative on this issue.
Paradoxically, Slovak political elites usually follow European trends and decisions on this issue, and Slovakia’s desire to become more strongly involved in EU affairs could lead to exogenous – and unexpected – changes. In the past, Slovakia ratified EU legislation which would surely not have seen the light of day if it had originated from home: for example, a 2018 ruling of the European Court of Justice affirming the right of residence for same-sex couples, including in countries that do not recognize same-sex unions (as long as at least one of the two partners is an EU citizen) was an important milestone for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages, including in Slovakia which is bound to enforce the ruling.
If an improvement of LGBT rights promoted by the EU is perceived as a positive development in Brussels and many European capitals, it is once again useful to turn to Poland to test this idea. The bitter political fight between Warsaw and Brussels on LGBT rights is unlikely to go away anytime soon, as shown by the increasingly radical stance of PiS members and leadership, which puts LGBT people in Poland into an increasingly precarious situation. Going so far as to compare the “LGBT ideology” to a sort of “neo-Bolshevism”, Polish President Andrzej Duda showed during last summer’s campaign that the demonization of the LGBT community was far from over.
The EU seems unable to find a concrete solution to address these developments. And while Brussels must of course guarantee the protection of minorities and fight against all types of discrimination, including gender-based, its action is not unlimited, far from it.
Main photo credit: Official Facebook page of Zuzana Caputova
By Valentin Fabre and originally published by Euro Créative, an official partner of Kafkadesk.