Slovakia’s New Change Agent

Slovakia bucks the global trend towards nationalism.

Openness, tolerance, and respect for free-market rules are in increasingly short supply in Central Europe. Governments in Hungary and Poland are challenging what were once assumed to be mainstream European values on everything from migrant rights to freedom of speech, while attacking the independence of central banks, the judiciary, and other state bodies.

Slovakia, until this year, was no exception, as the quasi-populist Smer party has held power through various coalitions since 2011. Corruption and crony capitalism are rampant; the World Bank Doing Business survey from 2018 placed Slovakia 42 out of 190 economies, down from 29 in 2014.

But the unexpected victory in April presidential elections of Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner, with 58% of the vote, suggests metropolitan Slovaks want to turn a corner. Backed by the tiny Progressive Party, Caputova campaigned on an unashamedly liberal platform, supporting LGTB and minority rights, environmental issues, and Slovakia’s EU and Eurozone membership. She vowed to use the admittedly limited powers of her office to improve the tone of politics in Slovakia.

“She is an attractive anti-establishment figure who benefited from the backlash against the political class and its allies in the business world,” says Gabriel Partos, central Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. But, he cautions, “this was very much a personal triumph, and we shouldn’t see it—at least at this stage—as part of a broader pattern in Central European politics.”

While her official powers are limited, Caputova—who formally assumes office in Bratislava Castle in June—will be well-placed to play a moral restraining role, akin to that assumed by Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis, who faces a discredited left-of-center coalition. Iohannis faces re-election this November, with the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and its powerful leader, Liviu Dragnea, strongly opposed to his pro-EU values. If he can emulate Caputova’s success, a new trend in the region may indeed be gaining momentum