A liberal front-runner in Slovakia

It hasn’t really been a good news week, ranging from the continued deadlock over Brexit to yesterday’s appalling massacre in Christchurch. My rather downbeat comparison of Czechia and Tibet probably didn’t help the mood.

So it’s nice to be able to present a good news story from Slovakia, the other successor state to the old Czechoslovakia, which votes tonight in the first round of its presidential election. Five years ago, Slovaks elected a pro-European centrist to the (mostly ceremonial) job. He is retiring, and two other mainstream pro-Europeans are contending to take his place.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to choose between them. The government is supporting Maroš Šefčovič, a centre-left independent who is currently vice-president of the European Commission (effectively, deputy prime minister of the European Union). He’s a distinguished candidate, but the fear is that if he wins he would be too much in the pocket of Robert Fico, the leader of the governing Smer-SD party.

Fico was the loser of the 2014 presidential poll, but he stayed on as prime minister. Smer-SD lost its majority at the 2016 parliamentary election, but remained in office in coalition with two small centrist parties, plus the Slovak National Party, which can best be described as mainstream far right.

Fico had a stormy relationship with the centrist president, Andrej Kiska, and was eventually forced to resign a year ago following public protests over the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak. (A businessman with links to the government has since been charged with the crime.) He was succeeded by his deputy, Peter Pellegrini; the same coalition remained in place, and Fico is generally regarded as still pulling the strings.

Šefčovič’s main opponent tonight is Zuzana Čaputová, a lawyer and activist backed by the liberal and centre-right opposition parties. She started behind in the polls, but is now regarded as the front-runner. It’s even been suggested she could exceed the 50% needed to avoid a runoff, although that seems very unlikely.

There are eleven other candidates, but the only one given much chance of making the runoff is right-wing independent Štefan Harabin, whose supporters have tried to smear Čaputová as a Jew and a lesbian (she is neither). But the polls say that in that event he would be beaten decisively by either Šefčovič or Čaputová.

European liberals have taken a battering in recent times, but a victory for Čaputová – described in one report as “the Slovak Macron” – would be a positive sign for Slovakia, used to being seen as Czechia’s more backward sibling.

It would also indicate that Fico’s party, which despite being nominally on the left has aligned itself with the Putinist anti-immigrant forces in central Europe, is facing trouble at the coming parliamentary election, due by March of next year.

PS: I’ve now read a very good piece on the election by Dalibor Rohac in the American Interest. Strongly recommended. (Hat tip: Nigel Ashford)

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