University of Chicago

How to Defeat Populism: Three Lessons from Slovakia by Jenny W. Xiao

On March 30, 2019 Zuzana Caputova, leader of Progressive Slovakia (PS), won a sweeping victory in the country’s presidential election. In a few months, she will become Slovakia’s first female president.

Her triumph marks a symbolic victory for liberalism in Central Europe, a region increasingly consumed by right-wing populism: in Hungary, Viktor Orban is building an “illiberal democracy;” in Poland, the Law and Justice Party is dismantling the rule of law; and in the Czech Republic, nationalist leaders are stoking anti-Muslim sentiment. Populism seems unstoppable, but how did Slovakia buck the trend?

Caputova’s election is indeed a victory against all odds. A 45-year-old single mother with little political experience, she appeared to be an unlikely challenger to Maros Sefcovic, Vice President of the European Commission and endorsed candidate of the ruling Smer party. Despite working for two decades as a lawyer and civil activist, Caputova has never held public office prior to her bid for the presidency. Just six weeks before to the first public debates, few voters even recognized her name. Moreover, in a predominately Catholic country, it seemed that Caputova’s personal background and support for LGBTQ rights would alienate her from conservative voters. But after the race began, Caputova soon pulled ahead in opinion polls and eventually won the run-off against Sefcovic with 58% of the votes.

Yet the appeal of far-right populism should not be downplayed. In the first round of the presidential election, more than 10% of the electorate backed Marian Kotleba, a neofascist. His right-wing party, Our Slovakia, won 14 out of the total 150 parliament seats in 2016 election. In this presidential campaign, Kotleba railed against “Gypsy criminals” and the corrupt “political mafia” that rules Slovakia, promising to stand up for the “decent Slovakian people.” Another candidate, former justice minister Stefan Harabin, claimed that Muslims were “killing and raping European women” and that his opponents were “destroying Slovak culture.” According to political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller’s definition, Kotleba and Harabin are clearly populists. Their narrow and exclusive definition of “the people” threatens the core ideals of liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, political observers should be relieved (at least for the time being) that Caputova prevailed in the race despite the populist tide. She showed that a populistic takeover is not inevitable, and that democratic backsliding can be reversed. The key question we should ask now is what lessons pro-democratic leaders and citizens can learn from her victory.

Lesson 1: Civil resistance works

It would be a mistake to attribute the liberal triumph to Caputova alone. Instead, her election should be seen more as an achievement of Slovakia’s national resistance against democratic erosion.

A year ago, the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnerova triggered mass protests across Slovakia—the largest the country has seen since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. In one of his investigative reports, Kuciak exposed high-level corruption within the ruling party. Immediately after his assissination, rotesters, many of whom young Slovaks, gathered under the banner “Movement for a Decent Slovakia” and forced then-Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign.

It was this movement that inspired Caputova. In fact, she made combating corruption the central issue in her campaign, winning the support of those who were determined to protect their democracy against rampant corruption. Studying political movements, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth found that peaceful civil campaigns can be surprisingly successful. The case of Slovakia shows that popular protests can be a powerful way to resist democratic erosion.

Lesson 2: Unite, not divide

In order to defeat populism, political scientist Cas Mudde advices liberals to develop an inclusive political vision. This is exactly what Caputova did in her presidential campaign.

As a single mother who held progressive values, Caputova faced assault from the radical right. During one of their debates, reactionary judge Stefan Harabin, called her a “lover of migration” who was brainwashed by “gender ideology.” Neo-facist candidate Marian Kotleba’s campaign published articles that portrayed homosexuality as a “threat” to Christian values and the traditional family, attacking Caputova’s pro-LGBTQ stance. Instead of responding to such insults, Caputova stated 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, she managed to bridge the divide between progressives and conservative Christians.

Lesson 3: Debate the populists, but ignore their lies        

In his book What is Populism?, scholar Jan-Werner Mueller suggests that democratic leaders should try to engage populists in political debate. Yet civilized debate has become increasingly difficult, as populists rely heavily on “alternative facts.” Caputova’s strategy, however, is to debate them while ignoring the lies.

The 2019 Slovakia presidential race is not free from political smears or media disinformation. In fact, Caputova’s rivals alleged that she was backed by the American investor George Soros. They also spread anti-Semitic rumors that Caputova was a puppet of Jewish bankers or that she was Jewish herself. In an interview with The Washington Post, Caputova revealed that she largely ignored the attacks and only corrected the facts on a Facebook page. This might be a better strategy than intensive fact-checking and obsessing over populists’ lies—research shows that such efforts might be counterproductive, as repeating the rumor could strengthen the populist message.

On June 15, 2019, Cupatova is set to become Slovakia’s youngest and first female president. Although her position is largely ceremonial in the Slovakian political system, she has come to symbolize the liberal force in Central Europe’s populist political landscape. Since the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, the region has been dominated by a tsunami of populism, but Caputova shows that the populist tide is not undefeatable. Liberals around the world have much to learn from her unexpected victory.

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