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In substance, they have something in common, but in style they could not be more different.
One is a technocrat, his language grey and impenetrable; the other is affable and charming, with a dry sense of humor.
Contrasts aside, however, Miroslav Beblavy and Ivan Stefunko believe that only together can they change Slovakia.
They struck their latest blow when a coalition of their parties – Stefunko’s Progressive Slovakia and Beblavy’s Together – came first in last month’s European Parliament elections in Slovakia with 20.1 percent of the vote, roughly four percentage points ahead of the ruling Direction-Social Democracy party, Smer-SD, which has not lost a parliamentary or European election since 2004.
It followed the shock election in late March of Progressive Slovakia’s deputy chair, 45-year-old anti-corruption lawyer Zuzana Caputova, as president of Slovakia.
Stefunko and Beblavy, both 42, are fast emerging as the faces of a new generation of professionals – human rights lawyers, think tankers, entrepreneurs, artists, architects and non-profit activists – in their 30s and 40s who have converged on the two parties as what they see as their best hope of changing a staid political system discredited by corruption and cozy ties to shady business.
With Caputova due to take office on 15 June, reporters have taken to calling them the “hipsters in power.”
“As a team, we opt for a clear, pro-European orientation and a different style of leadership, based on a charismatic idea, not on a leader,” said Beblavy.
“We also share a deep discontent with how the country has been governed.”
Entrepreneur and investor Stefunko, the more flamboyant and liberal member of the tandem, said: “I had ups and downs, but now, with kids, at the peak of my career, I think it’s a good time to put my professional life at risk and do something for others in the country.”
‘Don’t Lie, Don’t Steal’
Progressive Slovakia and Together were formed in late 2017 and early 2018 respectively.
In February 2018, 27-year-old investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee were shot dead in their home, apparently a contract killing to silence Kuciak’s reporting on corrupt business deals. Tens of thousands of Slovaks rallied in anger and disgust, eventually forcing the resignation of the prime minister, Robert Fico.
Local elections followed in the autumn, and candidates backed by the two new parties swept to power in four cities, including the capital, Bratislava, where Matus Vallo, a 41-year-old architect, became mayor.
“We’re not exhausted or frustrated, unlike our older colleagues in politics,” Vallo, who as an architect and urban activist has long lobbied for more effective use of the capital’s public space, told BIRN by phone.
He and his allies, Vallo said, “believe in simple things: don’t lie, don’t steal, be honest.”
In fact, the alliance is still without an official program, with talks between the two ongoing. Progressive Slovakia has just 500 members and Together roughly 900.
Their emergence represents “one of the most interesting political phenomena on the scene,” said Juraj Marusiak, a political scientist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. “But it is difficult to depict their future.”
“The source of their allure is a generational rebellion,” Marusiak told BIRN.
“What has so far united them was that they wanted to kick out the old generation of politicians. But being anti-Smer may not be enough to glue together a governing coalition and then rule the country.”
To do so, the alliance would need to bring in other opponents of Smer-SD, likely among at least three liberal or conservative parties inside and outside parliament.
Fico, still the leader of Smer-SD, has proven adept at bringing together different political actors under his leadership, while those opposed to him have been accused of having too many generals, too few foot soldiers, with egos getting in the way of effective collaboration.
Critics of the newcomers say they focus too narrowly on the problems of young urban voters and will struggle to steal support from Smer-SD in rural areas.
“For me, they’re nothing more than a marketing novelty, supported in an unprecedented way by the media, with no agenda, no structures, no experience, and with one goal only: to protect their liberal president,” said Milos Zverina, a publisher who ran for the European Parliament on behalf of the far right People’s Party Our Slovakia.
They do have some experience, however.
Beblavy, in fact, is a political veteran, having been appointed a ministerial state secretary in a center-right government in 2002 at the tender age of 25. He has been a member of parliament since 2010, for one then another conservative party.
Stefunko dabbled in politics just after university with small left-wing parties that were eventually absorbed by Smer-SD. The experience put Stefunko off politics for more than a decade – that is, until he began plotting a liberal revolution from a couch in Bratislava’s Café Tulip.
“We have known each other for more than 20 years,” the bearded Stefunko said of his collaboration with Beblavy.
Beblavy, who is further to the political right than Stefunko, said: “We don’t try to change them and they don’t change us.”
Though he resigned as Progressive Slovakia’s leader in the wake of Caputova’s victory in March, Stefunko – who has survived three brain operations and suffers from epilepsy – is the party’s deputy chairman and a figure of authority. He was replaced by Michal Truban, a 35-year-old entrepreneur.
“My own disease helped me realize how badly the health system functions in my country,” Stefunko told BIRN.
Progressive Slovakia rejects the criticism that it is targeting only to a certain class of urbanites.
“First, we want our message to take root within urban communities. The next task is to reach all the disappointed, especially in neglected settlements, and convince them that far-right is not a solution,” said Irena Bihariova, a 39-year-old Slovak Roma, lawyer and deputy chair of Progressive Slovakia.
Smer-SD Loses Its Shine
The irony, for some, is the degree to which Smer-SD, as a group of young professionals in the early 2000s, also once represented the hope for change. It has since been in power for 11 of the past 13 years, and to many Slovaks is no longer the solution but part of the problem.
“We began as a group of young, progressively-oriented professionals fed up with all the dirt in public life, that was then also associated with mainstream parties,” said Boris Zala, a member of the European Parliament and one of the founding fathers of Smer–SD.
In 2006, Fico, then a 42-year-old lawyer and compelling orator, led Smer-SD to victory in a parliamentary election, held against a backdrop of widespread discontent over the corruption of the center-right governing coalition and its neoliberal economic agenda.
“We offered more technocratic appeal to demagoguery-based politics, much as they do today,” Zala said of Progressive Slovakia and Together.
Smer-SD has become dependent on older voters from small towns and struggles to attract the young.
It too has become tainted by corruption, while the murder of Kuciak unleashed pent-up public anger over the ties between shady businessmen and the political elite, the country’s failing public services and Smer-SD’s flirtation with nationalists in order to shore up its grip on power. If they ever take the reins of government, Beblavy promised “radical changes in all public sectors.”
Stefunko said he did not interfere in the work of Bratislava mayor Vallo or President-elect Caputova, “but I always tell them: ‘Do what you promised, and don’t be afraid to confront people with your vision. This is the only way to earn their respect.’”
#PragueMediaPoint Conference for journalists, media professionals, and scholars
The 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world. – WHAT’S WORKING
The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
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