1. It’s not about populism but about rejecting the elite
Many voters are fed up with the current government’s corruption and scandals. That came to a head a year ago, when journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were murdered for investigating links between politicians, businessmen and the Italian mafia. A wave of demonstrations across the country followed, forcing Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that environmental lawyer Zuzana Caputova won an overwhelming 40.6 percent of the vote, as you can see in the figure below — despite the fact that she was largely unknown a few months ago. Journalists have stressed that she represents a backlash against populism. But that misses the point. In electing her, voters are not just rejecting populist right-wing appeals but also the political elite.
Caputova is deputy chair of Progressive Slovakia, formed in 2017 with a center-left platform of social justice and liberal values. Her call for justice and decency appealed strongly to modern, liberal, West-leaning Slovaks.
2. It’s difficult being the candidate of the governing party even if you don’t want to be
By contrast, Maros Sefcovic — currently an E.U. commissioner, supported by the ruling establishment — garnered only 18.7 percent of the vote. His goal was to mobilize Smer’s supporters, who make up roughly a fifth of voters, while also branching out to appeal to other citizens. While he formally ran as an independent, voters were well aware of his ties to Smer and Fico. It didn’t help that just before the March 16 election, prosecutors charged a prominent businessman — widely known to be well-connected with Fico’s nominally left-leaning Smer party — with ordering Kuciak’s murder. Nor did it help that former prime minister Fico’s attempts to get chosen as a constitutional court judge dominated the news in the weeks before the vote.
Sefcovic emphasized his diplomatic career and time as a European commissioner, stressing that he had the international contacts and experience to be an effective president from day one — an implicit contrast with Caputova’s political novelty and inexperience. While he unapologetically backs links with the European Union, he also emphasized his commitment to “Christian” values, courting the support of Catholic priests in this majority Catholic country. Caputova’s socially liberal views, particularly on allowing gay families to adopt children, were frequently discussed in the campaign.
Few Slovaks felt, or feel, any strong bond to particular parties. In fact, they’re deeply disillusioned with established politicians. As a result, the campaign mattered.
Caputova performed well in debates, calmly representing her positions and refusing to be baited when provoked. In contrast, Sefcovic often appeared to be on the defensive, cutting a frustrated figure.
A significant slice of the Smer vote appeared to be moving toward a third candidate, Stefan Harabin, a controversial former justice minister. He used social media and his election battle-bus to drum up support across the country, portrayed Sefcovic and Caputova as “Siamese twins” and questioned the European commissioner’s commitment to Slovakia. But he alienated potential supporters with his vulgar language and his claims that migrants would “Islamicize” Slovakia.
4. Unite and rule, divide and defeat
Slovak politicians are usually not keen to sacrifice personal ambition for the greater good. However, coordination brings rewards. Caputova was propelled into first place when another nonpolitical candidate, Robert Mistrik, stepped aside to throw his weight behind her.
Meanwhile, nationalists split their votes between Harabin and far-right neofascist Marian Kotleba. Kotleba’s anti-Roma and anti-E.U. nationalist appeal delivered him a tenth of the vote, roughly the same proportion that supports his party in opinion polls. Without Kotleba competing for the same voters, Harabin might have claimed second place. He was quick to blame Kotleba for facilitating the destruction of the family and Islamicization of Slovakia by dividing their supporters’ votes. But Kotleba stayed in the race to keep his party visible given May’s European elections and Slovakia’s general election next year. For his part, Harabin took advantage of his raised profile and has hinted that before the March 2020 parliamentary elections, he might forge a new party.
5. The second round is a different game from the first
The next round of voting will be held March 30 and battle lines are clear. Caputova will continue to emphasize her outsider appeal and push her anti-corruption commitment. Sefcovic will highlight his experience and seek to appeal to voters from across the spectrum. While Caputova must mobilize those who voted for her in the first round, Sefcovic needs to reach voters who didn’t support him in the first round.
In his news conference on election night, Sefcovic emphasized the battle has begun again. He stressed the need for a strong state to tackle social problems and traditional social values — precisely the stance Fico took when he ran for president in 2014. But Fico did not win that election. A platform of social-welfare economics combined with traditional social values can be trumped by the appeal of a strong personality, newness and anti-corruption commitment.
If Caputova keeps the focus on Sefcovic’s links to the current government and the murky events surrounding the Kuciak murder, while stressing her new and fresh appeal, she will probably triumph. But in either case, Slovakia’s next president will be a pro-European.
Editor’s note: This post was updated to clarify the E.U. elections will be held in May 2019.
Tim Haughton is associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham.
Marek Rybar is associate professor of politics at Masaryk University.