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The rise of populism in Central Europe is no secret. Autocratic, nationalist parties hold power in Hungary (Fidesz) and Poland (PiS), leading to the opposition – from socialists to the liberal pro-European centre-right – to align. Whilst the ruling ANO party in the Czech Republic claims to be centrist and to some extent that may be true, it also espouses populism and claims to be ‘anti-establishment’.
However, a surge in the populist right isn’t always the full story. Several opposition parties in Poland are running as Koalicja Europejska (European Coalition) in this year’s EU parliament election, and they may well end up with more seats than PiS. In January last year, Jiří Drahoš, a moderate liberal pro-European, won 48.6% of the vote in the second round of the Czech presidential election, only narrowly losing to the ANO supported the incumbent.
These trends are seen among Western European countries as well. An obvious example is the 2017 French Presidential election, with the run-off being between a liberal pro-European and a far-right nationalist. In the Dutch provincial elections just last month, the hard-right populist Forum for Democracy edged just ahead of the centre-right liberal VVD (although Dutch politics is very fractured and those two parties received less than 30% of the vote combined!). It also rings true outside of Europe – a centrist coalition in Israel have a shot at ousting Netanyahu whilst next year’s US Presidential election is bound to be a similar story.So that brings us on to Slovakia. The country’s politics is mostly overshadowed in the UK by that of other Visegrad members, but the circumstances are much the same. On the parliamentary level, the ruling Smer-SD are actually generally centre-left, but with nationalist, conservative and populist elements to their policy. Meanwhile, several hard-right and far-right parties have representation in the Národná Rada (National Council).
Like many countries, serious presidential candidates in Slovakia often run as independents, sometimes they may be endorsed by one or multiple major parties who don’t always run candidates of their own. This year’s election, with the first round on the 16th March, was no exception.
Smer-SD endorsed independent candidate Maroš Šefčovič, the current EU commissioner from Slovakia. There were three other serious contenders – two of them were Štefan Harabin and Marian Kotleba. The former is a far-right former judge whilst the latter is objectively a fascist. The fourth serious contender was Zuzana Čaputová one of just 2 (of 13) women candidates, she stood for Progressive Slovakia a party formed after the most recent parliamentary election (2016) and at the time of writing, with no representatives.Čaputová, a lawyer, became known after her campaign against a toxic landfill site in her hometown and is a strong environmentalist. She stood in support of LGBT rights including the introduction of civil partnerships and same-sex adoption. She also spoke out against anti-immigration sentiment in the wake of the migrant crisis and in support of the nation’s minorities (such as Hungarians and Roma).
Šefčovič spoke out against civil partnerships and same-sex adoption and also pressed for ‘speedy deportation policy’ on migrants. He labelled Čaputová’s platform as ‘opposition to traditional Christian values’.
Hence of the four main candidates, there was one progressive with the other three at different points on the right-wing ‘spectrum’. In the first round, Čaputová came out on top. She received 40.6% of the votes on a 48.7% turnout – which whilst not enough to win outright, was well ahead of Šefčovič (18.66%), Harabin (14.35%) and Kotleba (10.39%). She came first in 71 of Slovakia’s 79 districts, compared to 7 for Šefčovič and 1 for Harabin. However, with the votes of Harabin and Kotleba likely to go to Šefčovič in the second round (and those for minor candidates going in various directions), victory was far from certain for Čaputová.
The second round occurred on 30th March. The campaign largely focused on the candidates’ positions on social issues like LGBT rights and migration. In the end, Čaputová was the clear winner, with 58.4% of the votes to 41.6% for Šefčovič, on a 41.8% turnout.
Slovakia, Presidential election (2nd round)
Winner by district:
Čaputová (PS-ALDE) 50
Šefčovič (Smer-S&D) 29
Source: TV Markíza pic.twitter.com/7LbZRV67TV
— Europe Elects (@EuropeElects) 30 March 2019
As such, Zuzana Čaputová is now president-elect of Slovakia, whilst being younger than all presidents before her and the first woman to win election to the role. The role of President is largely a ceremonial one, but Šefčovič described the second round as a referendum on Čaputová’s ‘new ultraliberal agenda’. I, for one, welcome this referendum’s result.