The Slovak Presidential Elections: A Tale of Two Strategies

by Seongcheol Kim

The first round of the Slovak presidential elections took place on March 16, 2019, with Zuzana Čaputová of Progressive Slovakia and Smer-backed Maroš Šefčovič advancing to the second round taking place on March 30. WZB researcher Seongcheol Kim examines the contrasting discursive strategies of the two candidates in the election campaign thus far, especially their competing attempts to appeal to conservative voters.

sources: David Duducz for and Jozef Jakubčo for SME

In the relatively short history of direct presidential elections in Slovakia, there has been no shortage of unexpected twists and close calls in the first round – from then-Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan narrowly missing the second round in 2004 (after having consistently led the opinion polls) to then-PM Robert Fico’s underperformance as well as eventual winner Andrej Kiska’s narrow edging out of Radoslav Procházka in 2014. The 2019 first round, by contrast, had an awfully anti-climactic feel to it: after what had looked like a wide-open race for months, Zuzana Čaputová of Progressive Slovakia (PS) confirmed the trend in the last pre-election polls and received over 40% of the vote, more than twice the total for her nearest opponent Maroš Šefčovič (independent, supported by the ruling Smer).

The election campaign took place in the shadow of the 2018 governmental crisis and the protest campaign “For a decent Slovakia” that had followed the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. In this context, the two frontrunners deployed diametrically opposing discursive strategies: Čaputová campaigned with the slogan “Let’s stand up to evil,” whereas Šefčovič claimed to “not divide people into good and evil, into decent and non-decent.” From a Laclauian discourse theoretical perspective, it might be said that Šefčovič’s discourse was a broadly institutionalist one that constructed a non-antagonistic relation between the governing and the governed, yet this, too, alternated with moments of antagonistic division in which the Smer-backed candidate claimed to defend “conservative and Christian values” against his “super-liberal” opponent on issues such as same-sex adoptions or civil partnerships. Šefčovič’s strategy, then, was to concede the “liberal” pole of the electorate to Čaputová while attempting to channel votes from the more fragmented field of socially conservative to far-right candidates – in particular, the ex-judge-turned-defender of “traditional values” Štefan Harabin and the openly neo-fascist Marian Kotleba.

Šefčovič’s strategic choice is indicative of a wider temptation that increasingly presents itself to mainstream politicians across Europe: the idea is to displace (and partially incorporate) far-right challenger discourses by articulating a common frontier against “liberalism.” The problem here is that many (if not all) of these far-right discourses combine the likes of nationalism, nativism, and authoritarianism on the one hand with populism on the other (a synthesis that Mudde has referred to as Populist Radical Right). In the last parliamentary elections in 2016, the Slovak party system saw an expansion of populist challenger discourses from the center-right to the far right that presented competing constructions of an opposing power bloc (whether it’s “financial groups and oligarchs,” “standard political parties,” or “criminals from the government”) – all of which include the longtime ruling party Smer as a locus of power pitted against “the people.” In the presidential campaign, Harabin likewise singled out “the Euro-bureaucrat non-doctor Šefčovič” for his attacks, even questioning the veracity of the latter’s doctoral degree. In such a situation, the ruling-party candidate can try displacing the frontier onto a conservative one against “liberalism” (given that the populist challenger discourses are also either socially conservative or outright authoritarian), but will have a hard time doing the same with the populist people/power frontier – that is, unless he were to construct a (national-)conservative and populist opposition against a combination of “liberalism” and external powers such as the EU and Soros (this being the playbook of Fidesz in Hungary), for which the longtime EU Commissioner Šefčovič would be the least credible candidate.

Čaputová’s strategy, on the other hand, was one of drawing a very different kind of frontier centered on “justice for all” against “evil.” Her campaign discourse thus partially de-emphasized liberalism (and even relativized her personal positions on LGBT rights in the context of the presidency) while presenting a moralized opposition that could even also interpellate conservative voters dissatisfied with the status quo. “Evil” thus became something like an empty signifier that equivalentially linked all kinds of deficiences in the status quo, as Čaputová put it in a pre-election debate with Šefčovič:

“Evil constitutes phenomena in society that I think have to change. It’s corruption, it’s abuse of power, it’s uninvestigated scandals and cases, it’s scores of injustices that happen to ordinary people that then lead to frustration and to voting for extremists. It’s lies that we are confronting, also from top politicians.”

source: Čaputová in pre- election debate

Čaputová’s discourse thus even had an element of populism to the extent that it pitted “top politicians” and (mis)practices of power against “ordinary people,” while subsuming this opposition into the logic of a “good” vs. “evil” frontier – as she made clear in her follow-up to the above-cited quote:

“This is what I am referring to, these phenomena. They have to change. On the contrary, I think that evil is an entity that is here, it is one of the two poles that we have. In my opinion, what I will attempt, if elected, is for the ‘good’ pole to not disintegrate. Every person who is capable of compassion, who is capable of love for those around them, who yearns for fairness – let us unite around common solutions, because in order for evil to win, it is enough for good to disintegrate.”  

source: Čaputová in pre- election debate

If Šefčovič sought to interpellate conservative voters by displacing the frontier onto a “conservative and Christian” one against “liberalism,” Čaputová did the same by partially enlisting the services of populism and displacing the frontier onto a moralized liberalism lite against the “evil” in power. Studies conducted shortly before the first round suggest that Čaputová’s strategy was a more successful one than Šefčovič’s  – with over half of those who voted for the populist OĽANO and Sme Rodina in 2016 voting for Čaputová in the first round, in addition to relatively high proportions of self-identified conservatives (only slightly behind those voting for Šefčovič). In terms of voting intentions for the second round, too, Čaputová even comes out slightly ahead of Šefčovič among Kotleba’s and Krajniak’s (Sme Rodina) voters; Šefčovič, in spite of his lead within the Harabin electorate, remains hampered by his inability to displace the populist people/power logic that continues to be deployed to great effect against the largest ruling party. Even from a purely strategic standpoint, therefore, this and similar failures in other contexts should give plenty of pause for those on the center-left and center-right alike who advocate some kind of Kulturkampf lite – or indeed a modern-day “Conservative Revolution” – in response to the rise of the far right.

Seongcheol Kim is a research fellow at the Democracy & Democratization department at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). His research interests are located at the intersection of comparative politics and applied discourse theory. His research focus centers on populism and radical democracy from a discourse and hegemony analytic perspective. He is currently on a research stay in Bratislava.

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