The End of Eastern Europe’s Great Liberal Hope

Slovakia’s progressive president was supposed to spur a regional revival of liberalism—now her party has even failed to qualify for parliament. What went wrong?

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova arrives for a welcome ceremony by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Schloss Bellevue in Berlin on Aug. 21, 2019.
Slovak President Zuzana Caputova arrives for a welcome ceremony by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Schloss Bellevue in Berlin on Aug. 21, 2019. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

A little less than a year ago, the environmental lawyer and feminist Zuzana Caputova of the Progressive Slovakia party burst out of obscurity to capture the Slovak presidency in a thumping victory. Many observers, in Slovakia and abroad, hoped that Caputova—the country’s first female president and the youngest-ever too at 45—together with her upstart party, were harbingers of a new political future for Central Europe.

Slovakia had previously been no exception to the region’s corrupt status quo. The country hasn’t gone the path of Hungary or Poland in embracing outright right-wing populism by indulging in ethnic chauvinism or assaults on judicial independence. But its governing Smer party, in power now for the better part of a decade and a half, has long practiced a version of strong-arm, crony-capitalist rule while cynically joining in the disparaging of migrants and Roma.

But while Caputova’s popularity has endured since the 2019 election, her Progressive Slovakia party has struggled. As one of over two dozen parties contesting the parliamentary election on Saturday, Progressive Slovakia failed even to breach the 7 percent hurdle for tickets carrying more than one party. (For the vote, Progressive Slovakia had teamed up with a like-minded party, Spolu.)

Slovakia’s opposition parties, many of them steeped in the anti-corruption drive, routed the establishment parties. The surprise victor was Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party (Olano), an unpredictable center-right party with a rabble-rouser of a leader, the publishing mogul Igor Matovic, which took nearly 25 percent of the vote. Smer, hurt badly by the corruption and clientelism rampant in its ranks, suffered a resounding defeat, taking only about 18 percent of the vote. The election scenario that had most worried liberals, namely that Slovakia would produce a government on the same page with Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Law and Justice government, is now highly unlikely. The far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia scored much more poorly than feared, with just 8 percent of the vote.

The Smer era is thus finally over—a relief indeed for many Slovaks. But this storming of the Bastille won’t usher in a new era of green-tinged civic democracy. Caputova will have to deal with an ungainly government coalition likely led by the enigmatic Matovic and his Olano party, which calls on a quirky conservative populism of its own stripe.

All of this, though, raises the question: What exactly stalled the momentum of Caputova’s progressive movement?

Progressive Slovakia’s fall cannot be laid at Caputova’s feet. Slovakia’s presidency is largely a ceremonial post, but Caputova has made the most of it. From Bratislava’s presidential palace, she has touted a “positive patriotism” that prizes government transparency, the protection of Slovakia’s natural landscape, liberal values, and diversity. Caputova has promoted evidence-based discussion about Slovakia’s most pressing issues—corruption, poverty, and weak institutions, among others—as an antidote to the fearmongering and conspiracy theorizing of the region’s demagogues. And she went head-to-head with Smer boss Robert Fico over a biased election law, which the constitutional court eventually struck down—a victory for Caputova.

Caputova’s election triumph seemed to confirm the ascendance of Slovak liberals that had started the previous year, when street protests put the mafia murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée on the national agenda. The 27-year-old Kuciak had been writing about graft in Slovakia and ties between the country’s shadowy business moguls and the Smer elite, as well as to Italian organized crime. On the evening of Feb. 21, 2018, a hitman allegedly hired by the oligarch Marian Kocner, whom Kuciak had been investigating, entered Kuciak’s home and shot the couple point blank.

The killings sparked sustained demonstrations of tens of thousands of people across the country, aimed not just at receiving justice for the murders but also the rampant corruption of Slovakia’s political class. Tapes and files in Kocner’s possession, presumably material he stockpiled to blackmail politicos and judges, became public, further inciting protest and stirring public rancor. The demonstrations prompted a wave of resignations across the state, including that of the Smer prime minister, Fico; his entire cabinet; and many high-ranking figures in the police and judiciary. The gunman, a former soldier, has been tried and sentenced for the assassinations, while Kocner is behind bars awaiting trial on charges of fraud and conspiracy to murder.

The protests fueled the rise of Progressive Slovakia, founded in 2018 by the NGOs and civic activists at the front of the anti-corruption movement. And a year later, its candidate, Matus Vallo, an architect and urban campaigner, won the mayorship of Bratislava. Caputova went on to mount a grassroots campaign focused on fighting corruption and fixing health care.

And in May 2019, Progressive Slovakia ran away with the European Parliament elections, besting even Smer. “I was very optimistic,” said Aneta Vilagi, a political scientist at Comenius University in Bratislava. “This was the first time in Slovakia that the total of the democratic parties outweighed that of the nationalists. The majority reflected pro-EU values.”

But the consensus did not hold. Progressive Slovakia’s numbers began to dwindle after the EU vote, not least because yet more new parties emerged from the protests, some of which claimed middle ground that made Progressive Slovakia seem further left by comparison. “Caputova rode a wave of energy from the street protests into office,” said Zuzana Kepplova, a columnist at the Slovak newspaper SME. “But she didn’t win because she was so liberal or because voters agreed with all of her positions.” Kepplova said Caputova’s equanimity, communication skills, and positive demeanor were crucial to her victory.

“Progressive Slovakia has suffered a considerable ‘anti-campaign’ as even the other democratic parties have bashed them for ‘extreme liberalism,’” Kepplova said. Olano, among others, took aim at Progressive Slovakia’s pro-EU position on migration, namely its advocacy for a quota system to relocate asylum-seekers among member states. (Caputova wisely chose to avoid embracing this position in her own presidential campaign.) Even though the country granted political asylum to only five refugees in 2018, the topic of migration remains a third rail of Slovak politics. On top of all of this, Progressive Slovakia’s current leader, Michal Truban, an anti-corruption activist and digital democracy advocate, isn’t nearly as charismatic as Caputova.

Caputova, for her part, succeeded in keeping the wild campaign on the tracks, even if her own party failed to build on its own momentum. Her calm voice of reason will be more critical than ever as the coalition building for the new government is certain to test Slovakia’s democratic credentials in new ways.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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