Slovakia’s New President Reflects the Country’s New Politics

Photo by Prachatai via creative commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The recent presidential elections in Slovakia resulted in the first female president for the country, but according to Marek Rybář and Peter Spáč, that’s not the only reason they’re historic.

On 30 March, environmental activist and attorney Zuzana Čaputová became the first female president of Slovakia after defeating Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice President of the European Commission for Energy Union, in the runoff of the Slovak presidential elections. Čaputová won 58.4 percent of the vote, compared to Šefčovič’s 41.6 percent. She will be sworn in on 15 June, replacing the outgoing president Andrej Kiska.

Her victory is a historic victory for women, but it also exposes cracks in the Slovak political system that could change the country in the coming years.

Context

President Andrej Kiska announced in May 2018 that he would not seek re-election. His decision, though not entirely unexpected, left most parties without a clear choice of whom to nominate for the contest. Typically, the fragmentation of the political system—eight parties were elected to the National Council in the 2016 parliamentary elections—would provide each party with strong incentives to field its contender, in hopes of increasing party profile and visibility.

This year, however, the situation was different. The political mood in the country had changed since the February 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, which sparked a wave of popular protest. These demonstrations, the largest since the fall of communism in 1989, eventually led to the resignation of prime minister Robert Fico of the Smer party and a reconstruction of the three-party government between Smer, the Slovak National Party (SNS), and Slovak-Hungarian Bridge party.

With widespread dissatisfaction with government, and especially with Smer, the parties set out to field their candidates. Smer turned to Maroš Šefčovič, the European commissioner, who was not even formally a Smer party member. SNS decided not to present a candidate, leaving Béla Bugár, chairman of the Bridge party, as the only ostensibly partisan contender representing a mainstream parliamentary party in the contest.

The largest parliamentary opposition party, Freedom and Solidarity nominated Robert Mistrík, a respected scientist-turned-businessman with no political credentials. The extreme-right Slovak Peoples’ Party and radical-right We are Family each nominated one of its leading parliamentarians. Other candidates either ran as independents or were nominated by extra-parliamentary entities. Zuzana Čaputová represented the new extra-parliamentary Progressive Slovakia party.

Campaign

Čaputová’s popular support rose rapidly after her first appearances in televised debates between presidential contenders earlier this year. Voters seemed to appreciate her emphasis on social justice, the need to fight corruption, honesty, and decency: she refused to resort to negative campaigning and did not shy away from putting forward her opinions, even when they were not popular with some of her potential supporters.

Šefčovič tried to emphasise his experience in European politics and diplomatic skills, but he struggled to transform himself from a European bureaucrat to a champion of traditional Slovak values.

After Čaputová won the first round of voting with the highest margin of all presidential elections in Slovakia, her primary aim was to keep the high level of her support. Šefčovič had to follow a different strategy. As the underdog, he needed to mobilise and win over the supporters of the unsuccessful candidates, but didn’t find much support from his former competitors. Of the other candidates, two provided no recommendation to their supporters, one supported Čaputová, and another asked his voters not to support Šefčovic.

Šefčovič tried to appeal to radical voters by foregrounding his conservative profile, family values, and anti-LGBT agenda before pivoting to less conspicuous (and less persuasive) issues such as Čaputová’s alleged breach of rules during her previous legal work, incompatibility of her liberal values with a more conservative character of the country, and the business operations of her family members. This strategy of demotivating supporters of Čaputová turned out to be ineffective and Šefčovič was unable to distance himself from the Smer party, an association that made him “toxic” in the eyes of many voters.

Results and Implications

The results of the run-off showed a clear victory of 58.4-41.6 for Čaputová. Although both candidates managed to increase their vote shares from the first round, Čaputová won with a margin of 300,000 votes. She succeeded in seven of the eight Slovak regions and achieved her best result in the capital, Bratislava. She scored better in bigger towns and cities and gained more votes from women, younger voters, people with higher education, and supporters of the parliamentary opposition. Her rival was more successful among older voters, less educated citizens, and supporters of Smer.

After regional and local elections in 2017 and 2018, respectively, the presidential election was the third competition with a substantial defeat of Smer. It seems that the decision of the party leader to step down as PM after mass protests in 2018 had no effect, and the party continues in its decline. Hence, we might expect more changes in the party system in the coming months. First, president Kiska launched a new political party with the potential to become a significant player. Second, the joint support of Harabin and Kotleba from the presidential election (nearly 25 percent) shows that populist and far-right appeals might increase in strength.

Although the Slovak presidency is mostly a ceremonial role, the influence of the president typically increases in the process of forming a government and during government crises: The president has the right to appoint the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and other high public officials, including the Justices of the Constitutional Court, the Prosecutor General, and the leadership of the Central Bank. The president also has essential powers in foreign policy.

Altogether, Slovak party politics is on a course of massive change. Hostility and rejection of a decade of Smer rule seem to produce a liberal as well as an anti-system reaction. The next parliamentary elections may produce a fragmented parliament with a host of new parties of various persuasions, making coalition formation a daunting task. Čaputová, a liberal and pro-European president, may become a key player in shaping the next government.

 

Marek Rybář and Peter Spáč are associate professors of political science at Masaryk University Brno, the Czech Republic.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.