Image credit: Mikuláš Galanda
In an exclusive for Asymptote, Slovak writer Jana Juráňová reports on last month’s groundbreaking presidential election in her country.
It took just two weeks since Zuzana Čaputová was elected Slovakia’s first woman president for the press to stop talking about this astonishing event and pivot to other domestic issues. As our media are preoccupied with things like the malfunctioning ruling coalition, which insists on clinging to power come what may, the population has slowly reconciled itself to the fact that this gang will continue lining their own pockets and haemorrhaging Slovakia’s economy, even if it bankrupts the country. Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister and chairman of SMER-Social Democracy—the senior partner in the coalition government whose links with real social democracy are actually rather tenuous—keeps promising new “social packages,” like some freshly crowned fairy tale king tossing gold coins from a carriage, making economists shudder at the thought of how much all these “free” handouts will cost. A lot of coverage has also focused on the creation of a new party, announced by outgoing President Andrej Kiska after extensively agonising over whether to stay in politics or not. While he kept the public guessing with vague statements, two smaller parties emerged, including Progressive Slovakia, which nominated its deputy chairperson Zuzana Čaputová as its candidate in the presidential election (she resigned from her previous position after accepting the nomination). At that point, the party’s ratings were quite low and she was a relatively unknown environmental activist and lawyer. Despite losing ground, SMER-SD remains the strongest party in parliament, polling 20% support, a figure all the more remarkable in the wake of the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée a little over a year ago, and given the endless supply of scandals involving the party’s top officials. In this set-up, Kiska’s new party is likely to attract the mainstream electorate, currently composed of reluctant voters and non-voters. No wonder that passions are running high within the panicking coalition following the news of the President’s new party, as well as among opposition parties worried that the newcomer will take away their votes. Amidst this turmoil, the fact that the first woman president in Slovak history will take office almost 100 years since the day women’s suffrage was won in postwar Czechoslovakia in 1920 seems to have slipped people’s minds.
We have been plagued with so many problems that we regularly forget the most pressing of them. That the greatest scandal of recent years—the murder of Ján Kuciak—has not been forgotten is only thanks to the huge effort on the part of journalists who have managed to publish a steady trickle of news on the criminal investigation, as well as the young activists behind a new movement, For a Decent Slovakia. Other burning issues have been rapidly cooling off, as Slovakia returns to the state of the proverbial frog that didn’t manage to leap out of the boiling kettle in time and is slowly getting used to living at boiling point without even realising it’s been cooked.
Slovakia boasts non-existent motorways, unfinished and mothballed tunnels, and a thirty-year-old derelict building site of what was supposed to be the biggest and most modern hospital. The only way one can take the frustration of encountering, at every turn, something that has not been finished, or never begun, or does not exist, or does not work, is by no longer taking any notice. And the politicians who bear responsibility for this state of affairs would like nothing more than for us to stop seeing, comparing, looking, or being horrified. They are counting on the limited human capacity to be permanently unhappy and frustrated. Eventually, we will all get used to the problems and stop seeing them, stop feeling the pain. An illegal landfill here, some poisoned water there, a clearing where a forest used to be: hardly a day goes by without such stories coming to light.
People have been losing interest even in an issue as fundamental as a dysfunctional Constitutional Court. Just before the presidential election we were treated to the live spectacle of the parliament electing judges for this body. It has been widely known for some time that most of them were about to come to the end of their term of office. Parliament was supposed to elect eighteen candidates, of whom the president should have picked and appointed nine judges. There were nearly forty candidates in the first round, including many highly competent ones. However, former prime minister Fico, who had been forced to resign by the wave of protests that erupted after the double murder of the journalist and his fiancée, reckoned that the Constitutional Court was the ideal hiding place that would provide him with immunity after he left the political heights. He hijacked the whole process of electing a judge which in turn had a huge impact on the outcome of the presidential election. His party was bent on fielding a candidate who would eventually appoint Fico—if he were to be elected by the parliament. However, in what was nothing short of a miracle in this barely functioning democracy of ours, Fico ran into massive opposition and his bid failed.
This is the context in which the presidential campaign took place. However, as the campaign drew to a close, most of these issues receded and were hardly reflected in the election debates, even in the second round, in which Zuzana Čaputová faced off against Maroš Šefčovič, the SMER-SD nominee.
The campaign revealed and magnified all sorts of myths about Slovak society and false expectations on the part of politicians and the churches, as well as the media and other public actors. President-elect Zuzana Čaputová performed the role of a litmus test. Right from the outset we heard the predictable mutterings that Čaputová’s greatest handicap was her being a woman. Remarkably, unlike in the past, these claims met with the disapproval not just of many women, but many men too, and not just on social media. The discussion about whether she was smiling too much or too little didn’t last long and was not particularly intense—in fact, some feminists objected to cheap idealisations of the candidate, pointing to the danger that this might raise expectations she would not be able to live up to. The discussion showed that the perception of politics and women in Slovakia’s public sphere has undergone a major shift towards an open, gender-balanced society.
Women had stood for the presidential office twice before. One, in 1999, was Magdaléna Vášáryová, a former diplomat and member of parliament. One particular moment in a televised debate was quite telling: when she repeatedly tried to take the microphone from the other—male—candidates, even the democratic-minded public intellectuals called her impudent, despite the fact that she would probably not have had a chance to speak otherwise, and even though another participant in the debate, a Nationalist party candidate, was obviously under the influence. One of the issues raised at the time was her husband, the “first gentleman,” Milan Lasica—a humourist by profession, who seemed to take his future role not with a pinch of humour but rather with apprehension and maybe even shame. The situation improved somewhat by the time the second woman, Iveta Radičová, stood for president in 2009. Nevertheless, a bishop had scandalously given her a dressing-down for living with a man out of wedlock. A year later, Radičová proved herself to be a more than capable, though short-lived, prime minister.
This year’s presidential campaign was contested by several populist, anti-establishment candidates and it had been widely assumed that Čaputová, as a woman, would not stand a chance if she were to compete against one of them in the second round. However, this assumption was rejected by many, especially young voters, and she proved them right in the very first public debate, where she took an assertive yet peaceable stance against Štefan Harabin, an anti-NATO and pro-Russian Supreme Court judge and former justice minister. Unlike the other, male candidates, she was not afraid to distance herself from him and remind the public of his controversial past. Her polling figures soared.
While some attributed this to clever marketing by Čaputová’s team, many had to concede that no amount of PR could have breathed life into a spiritless puppet and accounted for her success. This perception grew with every public debate, in spite of the fact that journalists went about choosing the debate topics in a rather strange way. They avoided raising any of the most pressing issues, which a president may not be able to resolve directly but on which she can set the tone of debate. Thus there was little or no talk of the Roma, racism, the migration crisis, the rise of neo-Nazi parties, corruption at the highest levels, and social inequality. Instead, journalists focused on adoption by gay couples, registered LGBTI partnerships, abortion, and ratification of the Istanbul Convention. The purpose was pretty obvious: as the nominee of a liberal, left-leaning party, Čaputová couldn’t deny her support for these issues as this would have incensed her supporters, but by voicing more liberal attitudes she would anger the proponents of “traditional Christian values,” whatever that may mean. Čaputová stated clearly that she was in favour of maintaining the current law on abortion rather than heeding ultraconservative calls for tightening it; she maintained that it was preferable for a child to be raised in a same-sex family than to be sent to an institution, and that she believed same-sex couples deserved the legal certainty afforded by registered partnership. At the same time, she made it clear that she was not planning to proactively raise any of these issues and would focus on other things, but most journalists were not too keen to find out what those things were. This made her easy prey for both journalists and her opponents, who subjected Čaputová to a barrage of questions on cultural issues all the way through the campaign. Her responses were consistent, making the debate rather wearisome for her as well as the public. All the other candidates bent over backwards to show their opposition to her open-minded attitude and continued to victimise LGBTI people. And yet, despite the traditionalism and conservatism of Slovak society, these views didn’t harm her: on the contrary, her support kept growing.
Čaputová emerged as the clear winner of the first round of the election, with the SMER-SD candidate Maroš Šefčovič coming in second. The run-off pitted two pro-European candidates, a man and a woman, against each other. On the one hand, a former communist suddenly turned practising Catholic, who based his campaign on applauding traditional values and flaunting his wife, “the future first lady” (a TV spot showing her cooking schnitzels for Sunday lunch earned him the nickname Šniclovič, while a clip of a bizarre dance with plastic bottles that the couple performed at a populist SMER-SD celebration of International Women’s Day went viral, turning them into a laughing stock). On the other, there was Čaputová, who had tirelessly spearheaded a successful campaign that shut down a rubbish dump which had threatened to poison the land, air, and water in her community of Pezinok, which earned her the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, and who had previously challenged Marián Kočner, a shady businessman now suspected of having ordered the murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. A divorced mother of two daughters, she was not reluctant to introduce her partner, whom she has not yet married, to the public.
Another issue that dominated the pre-election debate and was used as a scourge for Čaputová was the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Signed by Slovakia in 2012, the document had not yet been ratified by parliament because of opposition from the Catholic Church and various pro-life groups, railing against what they call “gender ideology.” Šefčovič, who in his capacity as EU commissioner had actually campaigned for the convention, now came out against it, throwing his pro-European image overboard in a bid to win the election. An anti-democratic coalition including SMER-SD, as well as a neo-Nazi party, managed to block the ratification of the convention but the ploy failed and Čaputová scored a resounding victory while her rival rushed back to his cushy job in Brussels.
It has thus transpired that the will of the parliamentary majority does not necessarily reflect the mood and views of the majority of the electorate. On the contrary, these political manoeuvres mobilised the electorate against the SMER candidate. That, in addition to the fact that Čaputová stuck to her liberal views when fielding questions on moral and ethical issues did not finish her off, has shown that these issues can be misused only when the MPs’ vote is driven by their fear of going against the attitudes of the people, which they don’t really understand.
Another thing the campaign has brought to light was the ability of the Catholic Church to influence public opinion by issuing public statements. They have done so in the past but this time caused a wave of revulsion and criticism when they decided to lavish their favours on Šefčovič, apparently regarding his belated and quite unconvincing embrace of some vague Christian values as sufficient. One of the most hilarious points of the campaign came when a TV moderator asked Šefčovič to list the Ten Commandments and all he could manage was an impromptu Hexalogue, which included a new one, “thou shalt not commit grave sins,” making him the butt of numerous jokes. Just before the second round of the election, the Bishop of Nitra went as far as to declare that voting for the liberal Čaputová would be a grave sin, leading to a social media explosion of posts along the lines of “I’m about to commit a grave sin.” On the other hand, she received the support of former bishop Robert Bezák, ousted by the church hierarchy some years ago, as well as the respected Czech theologian and priest Tomáš Halík, a Templeton Prize recipient.
The campaign brought many surprises, helping to clarify precisely what Čaputová stands for and, to a considerable extent, what we stand for. We have learned that many people support populist, anti-establishment candidates and that another large group of people will stay loyal to those in power under any circumstances. Yet, against all the odds, Čaputová prevailed. What does this mean for the future? Her powers as president are limited, but her actions and words can be of immense significance. In this respect she can continue in the footsteps of outgoing President Andrej Kiska.
The story of Čaputová’s campaign is incredible and unique in Slovakia’s history. She has prevailed thanks to the force of her personality, the force of her arguments, and her credibility. We have projected on her our hopes and desires, perhaps too many hopes and desires, including those she cannot possibly fulfil because she is an elected president, not the Queen of Heaven, Princess Diana, or Mother Theresa. It would be unfortunate if she were turned into a sex symbol for democratic-leaning Czech and Slovak intellectuals of a slightly sexist bend, because, let’s face it, this kind of friendly, admiring sexism can be quite annoying. It may not be as crass or straightforward as the kind of sexism her fellow women politicians encountered in the past, but rejecting positive sexism disguised as flattery and admiration might be more difficult than dealing with the coarse and unambiguous variety. However, as Čaputová surprised us positively from the very start of her campaign I, for one, look forward to seeing the start she makes in office and how she carries on. And I hope we won’t spoil things for her—or for ourselves—by our naively unrealistic expectations and by thrusting her into the realm of fairy-tales, daydreams, and legends.
Jana Juráňová is a writer, columnist, author of fiction and children’s books as well as theatre and radio plays. In 1993 she co-founded ASPEKT, a feminist cultural, educational, and publishing organisation. In the course of her literary career she has been shortlisted four times for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, Anasoft Litera. Her books have been translated into ten languages.
English translation by Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Slovakia
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