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Springtime for Change?

A new crop of liberal politicians offers fresh shoots for Central Europe this spring.

by Martin Ehl 13 March 2019

The emergence of two liberal politicians from the ashes of nationalistic and populist failures, has huge potential to shape the political scene, political culture, and societies of their respective countries, Slovakia and Poland.


In Slovakia's elections – the first round to be held on 16 March – Slovaks have the chance to elect the country's first female president, in the person of blonde, sharp-witted Zuzana Caputova, a liberal, divorced mother of two, who comes from an NGO, anti-establishment background.


Caputova emerged unexpectedly as the leading contender after her main liberal-center opponent Robert Mistrik gave up his race to support her, and she now faces two main rivals, and a group of other candidates.


Slovakia's European commissioner, Maros Sefcovic, is the candidate of the strongest party – Smer-Social Democracy – which was tainted by the scandal around last year’s murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and of his fiancee. The other major candidate, an independent, is former Slovak Justice Minister and judge Stefan Harabin, who represents nationalist, populist, and fascist forces in Slovak society.


How has Caputova – a little-known lawyer from the newly established, liberal Progressive Slovakia party – gained such popularity? The answer seems to be a combination of a fresh, feminine face and a more widespread anti-establishment, anti-corruption drive for reform and for cleaning up Slovakia, a movement which started building after the killing of the journalist and his future wife in February 2018.


Election law prohibits polling in the two weeks before an election, but the last polls published, at the end of February, showed Caputova leading the field, the choice of nearly 50 percent of those intending to vote. According to the Slovak Constitution, the winner of the presidential election requires over 50 percent of the vote, so it is almost certain that a second round will be held, on 30 March.


Another liberal face who offers big potential for change this year is Robert Biedron in Poland.


A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine that this liberal and openly gay politician, the successful mayor of the northwest Polish town of Slupsk, could create a nationwide movement which has turned into the political party “Spring” (Wiosna).


Immediately after its founding congress in February 2019, the new party reached third place in national polling, with 14 percent support, behind the long-established contenders – the governing conservative party Law and Justice (PiS), and, in second place, the struggling centrists of the Civic Platform.


Taking the third position so quickly, in a “super-electoral” year for Poland, means Spring will be able to test its strength in European Parliament elections in May, and then prepare to seriously contest the national parliamentary elections in the autumn.


Again, there are many possible explanations for this quick rise to popularity. Biedron has been espousing a lot of populism, mixed with liberal ideas, as well as revolutionary plans – such as abolishing coal as the main source of Poland's energy, or the separation of the state from the Catholic Church. The latter idea speaks especially to urban and younger Poles, who are fed up with endlessly hashing over the nation’s history; politics based on that rehashing of history – including nostalgia about the heroic, anti-fascist (World War II) resistance and anti-Communist opposition; and social conservatism.


Spring is financed through crowdfunding. Biedron and his team have been zigzagging across the country, holding public meetings and discussions, and his performance has destroyed the myth of Polish hatred toward homosexuals. His opponents have not used his sexual orientation against him, and he has not engaged with the issue in debates. He has been criticized for unrealistic economic plans – for example, introducing a basic income for all, or abandoning coal – but not for his sexual orientation.


Caputova and Biedron, both in their 40s, are to some extent experienced politicians but on the local level. They launched themselves into higher-level politics using a springboard of sincerity, openness, and positive agendas. In doing so, they marked themselves out as different from the world of older and more experienced politicians, where the prevailing political practice is the incitement of fear as a major generator of votes.


Caputova and Biedron have also both made an integrated Europe, and its future, a major feature of their “positive” platform.


With these two new faces in Slovak and Polish politics, this will be a particularly fresh springtime in Central Europe for liberals.

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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