Slovakia’s President Suggests a Way Out of the World’s Populist Quagmire

Slovakia’s president suggests a way out of the world’s populist quagmire

This is a dark moment for those who care about the rule of law in the United States, even for those who worry about the future of democracy in the country. The president openly violates not just the law but also the principles of decency. He uses social media to brag and boast, reducing the authority and respect of his office with every tweet. Yet at the same time, it is hard to imagine what kind of language, what kind of political campaign, could possibly win over his most hardcore supporters.

In Slovakia, February 2018 was a similarly dark moment. The country had been led by a populist government linked to corruption and organized crime. Jan Kuciak, a young journalist who tried to investigate those links, had been brutally murdered, along with his fiancee; there were dark rumors of official involvement. Mass street protests had persuaded the prime minister to resign, but it was hard to imagine what kind of language, what kind of political campaign, could possibly win over his party’s hardest-core supporters.

The surprise answer came from nowhere — or rather, it came from Pezinok, a small city in southwest Slovakia where Zuzana Caputova, an environmental lawyer and social liberal, had spent many years battling a landfill that would have polluted the air and water of the region. Angered by the murders, Caputova entered the presidential campaign in March 2018 as the candidate for the tiny Progressive Slovakia party. A year later, she won.

How did she do it? Caputova was in New York a couple of weeks ago, and I had the chance to ask. She told me that she began her political career by trying to understand why people were voting for a ruling party that had used anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric as well as attacks on the media and “elites” to justify its hold on power. “People are afraid of the unknown, of changes," she said. "This fear is used by populists to come with very simple, very clear solutions.” But Caputova also noticed opinion polls showing that the politics of fear had another effect: “People are tired of conflict.” She resolved to “avoid heating up the discussions,” to offer not just her views but also the moral reasoning behind them. In televised debates, while the other candidates bickered, she came off as calm and measured.

Instead of feeding the enmity, she “tried to build bridges between people who have common values. ... I was very careful to try to find language that unites people and doesn’t divide them.” She also seemed different. Politics in Slovakia had long been a battle between egotistical men. Caputova sought to be the anti-ego alternative. She tried not to take politics personally, not to get angry and always remember, “it’s not about me.” She thinks that this distance, plus her lack of professional marketing — “young people are suspicious of it” — made her seem authentic.

Her timing was also right. In the aftermath of the Kuciak murder, the topic of “justice” — meaning corruption and politicized courts — was at the center of concern in Slovakia. Environmental issues, a legacy of Slovakia’s heavy-industry past, have also been in the forefront of people’s minds. As it happened, Caputova had been talking both about judicial reform and environmental regulation for a long time.

In conservative Slovakia, gay rights posed a particular challenge. The Slovak populist press had created controversy around the question of whether same-sex couples could adopt, and public opinion was decidedly against. When questioned, all of the other candidates either refused to state an opinion or else opposed the idea. “I tried to explain that it is best for a child to have both parents … but for children living in institutions, it is better to grow up with two loving parents, even of the same sex.” Not everyone agreed, but “I was meeting people wearing crosses around their necks who said, ‘We understand this, we understand what you are saying,’ and they accepted it at the end.”

Are there lessons here for reformers in other places polarized by angry politics? In the debate between those who argue “fight back and mobilize your supporters” and those who argue “use slogans that unite,” Caputova’s experience argues for the latter. Her particular form of self-discipline, her refusal to allow herself to be angry or provoked, could help other candidates, too. Politicians, nowadays, are the focus of streams of invective, massive trolling campaigns, false accusations. If they can appear calm and poised, some of that anger might just bounce off.

Of course, not every country has an environmental lawyer waiting in the wings, prepared to take the national stage. But if nothing else, Caputova’s success offers the hope that even when politics seems to be at its darkest and most dangerous, a new political project, one that no one imagined before, can still capture the public imagination.

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