After the results of the 2019 Slovakian presidential race were released on March 30, 2019, Zuzana Caputova, then president-elect and a pro-European liberal, told a crowd of supporters: “I am happy not just for the result but mainly that it is possible not to succumb to populism.” The anticorruption activist and leader of the Progressive Slovakia (PS) party was sworn in on June 15, 2019, as the country’s first female president.
Caputova’s sweeping victory in the March election marks a symbolic, and yet seemingly unlikely, triumph for liberalism in Central and Eastern Europe, a region currently consumed by right-wing populism. With Viktor Orban building an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party dismantling the rule of law in Poland, the future of democracy seems bleak and the populist tide unstoppable.
Amidst the populist upsurge across European democracies, Caputova’s election offers hope that a populist takeover is not inevitable and that democratic backsliding can be reversed. But what can democratically minded citizens and leaders learn from Caputova’s victory?
Lesson 1: Civil resistance works
It would be a mistake to attribute the liberal triumph to Caputova alone. Her election should be seen more as the achievement of a national resistance against democratic erosion—it was the mass street protests following the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak that propelled Caputova to power.“The murders immediately sent shockwaves across Slovakia and triggered mass demonstrations—the largest the country has seen since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.”
On February 21, 2018, Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were killed in their home outside of the Slovak capital Bratislava. Prior to their assassination, Kuciak attempted to expose high-level corruption within the ruling Direction-Social Democracy or Smer Party, which involved allegations of tax evasion and embezzlement of EU funds. The murders immediately sent shockwaves across Slovakia and triggered mass demonstrations—the largest the country has seen since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Protesters, many of them young Slovaks, gathered under the banner “Movement for a Decent Slovakia” and forced then-prime minister Robert Fico to resign.
Kuciak’s murder prompted Caputova to run for office. To her credit, Caputova skillfully tapped into the wave of public anger against the corrupt political establishment, framing her presidential bid as a battle against corruption. This strategy helped her win a victory against all odds. A complete political newcomer, Caputova was seen as an unlikely challenger to Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission and Smer’s endorsed candidate. Though few voters even recognized her name six weeks before the first public debates, she won the run-off against Sefcovic with a near 20 percent lead, gaining 58 percent of the votes.
Key to her victory was capitalizing on the 2018 protests. Studying political movements, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth found that peaceful civil campaigns, such as protests, boycotts, and strikes, are surprisingly successful: with a 53 percent success rate—campaign success being defined as the state’s willingness to make political concessions to the opposition movement. These campaigns are quite effective at challenging entrenched political power, challenging the conventional wisdom that violent resistance campaigns, such as terrorist attacks and military insurgencies, are more effective at achieving political goals.1Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” International Security 33, no. 1 (2008): 7–44. In Slovakia, the resignation of Robert Fico during the 2018 protests indicates the success of the public resistance campaign and further demonstrates that popular movements can be an effective way to resist democratic erosion and empower democratically minded leaders.“For liberal candidates and activists, the time has come to ride the tide of democratic resistance.”
Slovakia is not a unique case. In Romania, after two years of mass anticorruption protests, the country’s most powerful politician, Liviu Dragnea of the Social Democratic Party, was sentenced to jail for a corruption conviction. In fact, populist leaders in Central and Eastern Europe have faced significant backlash recently: in June, more than 250,000 Czechs marched against their prime minister, Andrej Babis, a populist billionaire accused of corruption; even the Hungarian populist strongman Orban is unable to stop the mass protests against his autocratic policies that began last winter. Whether the protests can bring about real political change remains to be seen, but these civil movements have united opposition forces against populist leaders and their increasingly authoritarian governments. For liberal candidates and activists, the time has come to ride the tide of democratic resistance.
Lesson 2: Unite, not divide
While opinion polls leading up to the 2019 Slovakian presidential election showed populist candidates taking the lead, the eventual victor turned out to be a Western-oriented liberal. Among a group of nationalist populists, Caputova’s inclusive political vision made her stand out.
One of Caputova’s strongest competitors was controversial justice minister Stefan Harabin, who won third place in the first election round. A staunch ethnonationalist, Harabin energized his base with bombastic populist rhetoric, claiming that Muslims were “killing and raping European women” and that his liberal opponent Caputova was “destroying Slovak culture.” In one of their debates, Harabin called Caputova a “lover of migration” and “brainwashed by gender ideology.”
Even more worrying is the rise of populist and neofascist Marian Kotleba, who railed against “Gypsy criminals” and campaigned to stand up for the “decent Slovakian people.” His far-right party, Our Slovakia, won 14 out of the 150 seats in 2016 parliamentary election, and Kotleba himself won 10 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2019 presidential race.
According to Jan-Werner Müller’s definition, Kotleba and Harabin are typical populist politicians. In his book What Is Populism?, Müller describes the ideological core of populism as the rejection of pluralism—populists see politics as a Manichean struggle between good and evil and always claim that they alone represent the true people.2Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016More Info → Their exclusive definition of “the people” and demonization of political opponents threaten the central ideals of a pluralist democracy.“As a divorcée and a progressive campaigning in a Catholic country, she was careful not to alienate conservative voters.”
Competing with right-wing populists, Caputova rejected their Manichean mindset and instead emphasized inclusivity. As a divorcée and a progressive campaigning in a Catholic country, she was careful not to alienate conservative voters. When right-wing populists portrayed homosexuality as a “threat” to Christian values and the traditional family, Caputova replied calmly: “I rely on traditional Christian values, such as compassion and love for our neighbours and for people who belong to a minority. I would consider it positive if this country united.” While proudly defending her liberal values and supporting LGBTQ+ rights, she managed to bridge the divide between progressives and conservative Catholics.
In order to defeat populism, Cas Mudde recommends liberals to develop an inclusive political vision and offer programs that benefit all citizens. The latter approach proved successful in the recent Danish parliamentary elections. Focusing their campaign on strengthening the country’s prized welfare system, the center-left Social Democrats claimed victory in the elections and won 25.9 percent of the vote. Support for the populist Danish People’s Party (DPP), in contrast, plummeted to 8.7 percent, less than half of what they gained in the 2015 election.3An important point to highlight is that, due to the rise of the DPP, Denmark’s mainstream right and left-wing parties have adopted part of the former’s policies, including stricter immigration regulation and restrictions on Muslim religious expression. In Slovakia, Caputova united the country against the forces of democratic erosion by using inclusive language and championing anticorruption—a cause with widespread public support.4A 2018 public opinion poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) shows that corruption is seen as the most serious social issue by the Slovakian public, with 94 percent of the respondents saying that corruption is a “very serious” or “rather serious” problem. “Youth, Democracy, and Politics: Slovakia” (NDI, April 17, 2018).
Lesson 3: Debate the populists, but ignore their lies
Liberals have long been conflicted about whether they should engage populist demagogues in serious political debate. Müller argues that they should: populists represent real public opinion; simply ignoring them reinforces their supporters’ sense that they are abandoned by mainstream politicians.5Müller, What Is Populism? Yet civilized debate is difficult, as populists rely heavily on “alternative facts” and false information. Caputova’s strategy, however, is to debate them while ignoring their lies.“In a room of bickering male candidates—quite a few of them far-right populists—Caputova appeared to be the only adult.”
Indeed, Caputova made herself a household name by debating radical populists. Until the first round of debates, Caputova had virtually no name recognition, but her popularity steadily rose as the televised debates began. In a room of bickering male candidates—quite a few of them far-right populists—Caputova appeared to be the only adult. Refusing to engage in personal insults, she focused instead on outlining her plans for judicial reform and environmental protection. When attacked by right-wingers for her pro-LGBTQ+ stance, she calmly affirmed her support for these sexual minorities. She also made a clear distinction between populist leaders and their supporters, expressing sympathy for the latter: “Often people vote for this party through personal frustration and dissatisfaction, and they want fast and radical solutions…It will be my task to convince them that the solution to these problems should be calm and pragmatic.”
As a single mother and a progressive candidate, Caputova was a natural target for her right-wing populist rivals. During the election campaign, they alleged Caputova was backed by the American investor George Soros, a figure hated by the far-right. Andrej Danko, leader of the right-wing Slovak National Party (SNS), called her an “unknown girl who has been created by PR companies.” Anti-Semitic posts suggested that she was a puppet of Jewish bankers or that she was Jewish herself. Others attacked her status as a divorced woman and spread rumors about her current partner.
Though shocked about the amount of hatred and falsehoods in the attacks, Caputova was determined not to lash out. In an interview with the Washington Post, Caputova revealed she largely ignored the attacks and only asked her staff to post the correct facts on the campaign’s Facebook page. This more hands-off approach might be a better strategy than arguing with the populists over the facts—research shows that intensive fact-correction efforts might be counterproductive, as repeating the rumor could strengthen the populist message.6Oscar Barrera Rodriguez et al., “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics” (CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP12220, August 2017).
In an age of disinformation, it is worrying that leaders who advocate democracy have yet to come up with a sufficient response. Fortunately, smears from Caputova’s opponents did little to undermine her popularity—despite increasing personal attacks from the far-right, Caputova still managed to rise from obscurity and pull ahead in the polls. Perhaps her outsider status gave her rivals few opportunities to attack her political record. Nevertheless, her experience offers a valuable lesson for democratic leaders: rather than obsessing over populists’ lies, try taking a more hands-off approach instead.
Campaigning under the slogan “Stand Up to Evil,” Caputova wants to follow through with her pledge as she enters office, promising to bolster the judiciary and tackle government corruption—an entrenched issue that has plagued Slovakia for decades. As the Slovakian president, she will have the power to veto candidates for general prosecutor, giving Caputova the ability to reform the office and realize her political goals.
Although Slovakia is a small country in the democratic world and the president a largely symbolic position in the Slovakian political system, the election of Zuzana Caputova might be a turning point in the upcoming tide against populism. Despite the seemingly universal trend toward democratic erosion, for political observers, now is not the time to write off liberal ideals. It is time to learn from successes and failures and help advocates of democracy reclaim the political ground not-long-ago lost to populism.