The resounding victory of the Slovak environmental activist and public interest lawyer Zuzana Čaputova in the Slovak presidential elections shows that it is possible to beat the rising tide of xenophobic policies in post-soviet countries.
It almost looks like a story too nice to be true. For some time already, the quartet of post-soviet Visegrad countries has enjoyed the dubious reputation of the new sick men of Europe. The European public has observed with an increasing awe the stream of surreal news coming from the V4 countries: Burning of Harry Potter books or disciplining the judges in Poland; an overtly anti-Semitic campaign against one of the worlds best known philanthropist or decimation of free media in Hungary; the president waving a model of a machine gun with a sign “For Journalists” written on it or a Prime Minister kidnapping his son to Crimea in the Czech Republic; or – the worst of all – the murder of an investigative journalist ordered by people with ties to the ruling party in Slovakia.
The Visegrad countries got themselves a bad reputation for ruling strongmen, refusing to accept a due share of responsibility during the so-called refugee crisis and openly criticising the Western multicultural liberal “open society” paradigm. As Victor Orban recently put it bluntly: “Thirty years ago we thought that Europe was our future. Today we believe that we are Europe’s future.”
It has looked like this infection of xenophobia is endemic to the region. It has affected almost all major political factions in the European Parliament: of course there is notorious Victor Orban at the EPP, the Polish PiS sits with the euro-sceptical conservatives, Robert Fico and his Smer/SD bringing its own share of illiberal nationalism to PES and Andrej Babiš with his “we will not accept a single refugee, not a single Syrian orphan” being happily harboured at Verhofstadt’s liberals of ALDE. But the too cosy excuse of regional peculiarity will not hold any longer.
In this context, the victory of Zuzana Čaputová in the Slovak presidential election looks almost like a miracle. The elegant young lady with background in environmental activism (having won the coveted international Goldman Prize for her leadership in fighting a landfill near her hometown of Pezinok) has consciously refused to fan hate towards anybody, be it minorities or refugees. Quite to the contrary she had reiterated her support of same-sex marriage. And when she had won the first round of the election by a great margin, she thanked all major Slovak minorities in their respective languages: Hungarian, Ruthinian and Romany.
With 40 percent of the votes, after the first round of presidential elections, she had a commanding lead over her closest rival, European Commissioner Maros Šefčovič. And it came as no surprise she cruised through the second round, too. Šefčovič then opted for the worst option, trying to court the supporters of conservative and openly right-wing voters, styling himself as the only ‘Christian candidate’ – to no success.
Of course, it is too soon to say if Zuzana Čaputová will repeat the success of her campaign when serving in office. While the party of which she used to be a vice-chair is called ‘Progressive Slovakia’, it is more “centrist” like Emmanuel Macron than “progressive” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It also remains to be seen whether she will keep the authenticity that propelled her to the office when the everyday routine starts to bite.
Of course, it is too soon to say if Zuzana Čaputová will repeat the success of her campaign when serving in office.
But that is not the point. The major conclusion is already there for everybody to see: if Slovakia, the youngest of the Central European post-soviet nations, could have elected as their president this unapologetic activist and liberal, it discredits once and forever the argument that the presumably backwoods public in these countries would not allow for truly progressive European politics to thrive in the region. The Slovaks have shattered those excuses for good.
However, Čaputová’s victory poses an essential strategic dilemma for the left in the region too. The traditional social democratic parties have been largely discredited or they are busy working on being discredited at full speed. In Slovakia, Robert Fico cannot deny his ties to the countries’ dubious oligarchs and even mafia structures. His successors will have a hard time trying to shrug off this legacy. In the Czech Republic, the once dominant social democratic party serves today as a mere smoke-screen for the detrimental policies of the Czech super-oligarch and prime-minister Andrej Babiš, turning vast chunks of the state into parts of his business empire. In Poland and Hungary democratic left destroyed itself already some time ago with its zealous support of malign neoliberal policies.
There are traditional cultural aspects involved as well. The legacy of the communist era still looms over anything left of centre, a mere relict of an era nobody progressive really wants back. Today, the Left in V4 countries, for reasons old and new, looks totally hapless: either corrupted, or hopelessly outdated, or both. The traditional Left Parties in none of those countries look like anything, young progressive people want to be associated with.
But generations change and so do the times. Today’s youth in Eastern Europe is not so ideologically biased against the very concept of Left as such anymore. Recently, the positive response of the youth in V4 countries to the high school strikes for climate movement shows there may be a growing pool of promising progressive activism once again. And as the people do feel the negative impacts of neoliberal policies, their appetite for alternatives is growing.
But it is obvious that the critical segments of Left Parties in V4 countries have fooled themselves to stand for culturally conservative policies in a short-sided belief that this is the only way to win back public support. Both Smer/SD and ČSSD in Slovakia and the Czech Republic started to promote illiberal policies typical of Victor Orban. Zuzana Čaputová’s victory proves this was not only unnecessary, but even counterproductive. If anything, it has enabled the far-right to grow and shrunk the space for the true left to thrive. It has detached the traditional Left Parties from the progressive activist base that is essential to win the political and cultural conflict in the long run in the whole of Europe.
Is Zuzana Čaputová the unlikely miracle, a future Slovak Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Jacinda Ardern? Most likely not. But does her authenticity and her emphasis on the aspirations of every society to become a better place for all its people show the way for the progressive European Left to follow? Absolutely, yes!
This article is published in partnership with Deník Referendum, Prague. It doesn’t necessarily reflect FEPS’s opinions.