The hope for democratic politics in Central Europe
By Boris Strečanský, Senior Expert, Member of the Board – Center for Philanthropy, Bratislava
August 30, 2019
In 1999, ten years after the implosion of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, Slovakia changed its constitution and held its first direct presidential elections by a popular vote. Slovak voters elected Rudolf Schuster, a candidate of the democratic and pro-European coalition who was also a former top communist cadre in the pre-1989 era. He won with over 1,7 million votes topping the infamous authoritarian nationalist, Vladimír Mečiar in elections with the highest turnout ever in Slovak history – 73%. Slovakia went on the path of liberal democratic development and European integration and levelled up with its neighbors in terms of quality of democracy.
Twenty years later, in presidential elections with the lowest historical voter turn-out rate (41%), Slovak voters elected the public interest lawyer and environmental rights activist Zuzana Čaputová with over one million votes. She beat the high caliber candidate of the ruling party SMER, Maroš Šefčovič, the experienced diplomat and Vice-President of the European Commission.
This comparison is relevant because it tells a story of change in our society, democratic politics and public life that occurred in Slovakia in the last twenty years and the formative role of civil society in the political socialization of a young generation that is nurturing an environment in which new public leaders can grow. This storyline is not linear. It plays out at the same time on the background of an ongoing struggle of ideals about liberal democracy with their illiberal, corrupt and/or ideological counterparts.
It is also a story of emancipation, the growing salience of gender relations, and the rising voice of women in a still misogynistic environment in Central Europe.
But most importantly, it is a story of the emergence of a new political generation rejecting the old-style profit-seeking and corrupt politics. This new generation is redlining hatred and xenophobia and is calling for politics as a public service for common good and for advancing democracy and freedom. In this context, the election of Zuzana Čaputova offers both, a new narrative and a new hope. Her first months in the office show a commitment to universal rights, democracy and freedom, as well as responsibility towards future generations and respect to pluralism, the vulnerable, and those without a voice.
Escaping the Old Narrative
An influential narrative explaining the nature of post-communist political change in the region since 1989, holds that it has been the former pragmatic communist elites that were most prepared and ready to use their social capital and experience to keep control over the state, skillfully manipulating the public affairs and entrench themselves in political, economic and security structures of post-communist societies.
The consequence of this development has been the pervasive corruption and “oligarchization” of politics in Central Europe. Political parties in the region have been troubled by scandals, corruption, and lack of public trust. For example, in Slovakia, 80% of the population does not trust any politician, and electoral and other types of civic participation are decreasing. The self-stylization of populists and extremists’ political movements into safeguards of ordinary people’s interests against the corrupt elites and ethnic minorities, such as Roma, has proven to be an efficient way of raising voters’ support.
However, the roots of radicalization are broader than that. They include poor performance of the state in ensuring the fundamental justice. There is corruption. Oligarchs remain above the law and the judiciary system is biased or politically controlled. Another major factor is the role of new media, including lack of trust in traditional channels of information, proliferation of fake news, and alternative facts and conspiracy theories. The disenchantment with the outcomes of mainstream political elites, combined with the new media, has contributed to the rise of anti-systemic, anti-establishment, and extreme right-wing political movements that are present in all countries of the region. Also, nostalgia for the period before 1989 is still present.
The new narrative that is inspired by the Čaputova’s victory is that there is a new generation of publicly active people that is coming of age. It is a generation that is in its forties, has a better, more modern education, and has been politically socialized in a variety of environments abroad or at home. It has experienced the period of the integration into the EU, and exposure to academia and labor movements has broadened this generation’s perspective. It has grown up already in the conditions of a free society, in a context of imperfect democracy, but it was a democracy. Also, it has been influenced by the nature of public discourse and deliberations in the public space in which civil society institutions, as well as independent media, played a crucial role. And, at last, it is a generation that is influenced by the fluidity and informality facilitated by new media and technology, and is becoming more assertive, self-confident and influential to shape the institutions and fix the failing policies.
The new political generation embodies a new understanding of ways of communicating with their constituencies using new media as well as raising support through a number of smaller individual contributions instead of locking up in financial obligations to local oligarchs. An illustrative example is the campaign of Zuzana Čaputová which raised € 323 thousand from over 4,000 donors – the maximum allowed funding for her campaign. It is the first time that a political campaign managed to raise such amount from that many donors in Slovakia.
Still, the above-mentioned attributes do not cover the full cohort and it does not mean that the younger the people are, the more democratic practices and values they embody or believe in. Surveys show that many young people show very low levels of trust towards political institutions: over a third of them believe in conspiracy theories or contemplate leaving the country, a country that they perceive is uninterested in them.
Also, it would be too simplistic to define the new generation of politics and civic leaders only by age. Rather, the new generation is a metaphor for a significant layer in society that is defined by ambitions and values, as well as aspirations for modern, transparent, and participatory policies, with respect to human and civil rights, human dignity, and freedom. It represents a hope for new politics.
In the last several years, the perception of Central Europe has been profoundly affected by its self-centered positioning in the discourse regarding the redistribution of the asylum quota in Europe. This is combined with eroding democratic practices and illiberal policies in Hungary and Poland, including attacks on civil society and restricting civic space. Despite this, the victory of Zuzana Čaputová speaks about the moods of voters in Slovakia and maybe generally the region of Central Europe. It can be cautiously seen as a sign of a broader trend of rebounding the liberal democratic politics and the promise of a new generation of politicians that are rising on the wave of emerging new movements. New political movements, such as Czech Pirate Party, PS/Spolu coalition in Slovakia or the Romanian Demos civic platform that converted to a political party, are examples of the changing space. Also, the mass civic anti-corruption protests since 2017 in Romania, Slovakia (For Decent Slovakia) and most recently, in the Czech Republic (Million Moments for Democracy), that all organized public gatherings with tens and hundreds of thousands in the streets of many Central European cities, indicate that there might be a more fundamental change that is going on under the surface that demands political reform in the region.
The change is visible not only on national, but also on the municipal level. The municipal elections in Slovakia in 2018 provide a case in point. In past decades, there has been an increase of independent candidates of which many have been active in the civic space before and many of them were successful. After recent elections in the fall 2018, major cities such as Bratislava, Nitra, Trnava, Trenčín but also many smaller ones, are now led by mayors and governed by counselors who have been known as civil society activists or have been politically socialized in the civic space and belong to the new political generation.
Bridge over troubled water?
People engaged in nurturing civil society, especially in Central Europe, need to be very careful not to prematurely celebrate or be overconfident in this victory. They must keep a realistic view of the rule of law and the state – civil society relationship dynamics in this region. These two important dimensions of democratic development face many serious challenges in the region, especially in Hungary, but also elsewhere. For example, in late August 2019 the extreme right-wing neo-Nazi Kotleba Our Slovakia party proposed legislation to Slovak parliament calling for the “foreign agent” labeling of non-profit organizations that receive foreign funds and the Czech government has earlier this year initiated a restrictive change in the subsidy policy towards the non-profits.
But even when the future poses new challenges, the symbolic meaning of Zuzana Čaputova’s victory reaches beyond the Slovakian context and brings to the forefront two important messages relevant for the region and for those concerned with philanthropy and civil society more broadly.
First, it is an encouragement and a hope for a new style in politics and policy-making that puts public service and universal values and principles above the transaction-based, rent-seeking or identitarian politics. This interpretation may sound naïve, but in the Central European context where politics have been molded into a realm of utilitarian personal enrichment, oligarchisation, and clientelis for decades, it shows a stark contrast.
And secondly, it is figurateively and literally connecting the value of civil society with democracy. It shows that long-term investments in civil society and in its various elements, including rights-based approaches in policy or human and civil rights advocacy, is important as it can change the face of politics as well and cultivate an environment in which new, potent leaders emerge with a significant political weight and leverage.
Senior Expert , Member of the Board
Center for Philanthropy, Bratislava
The goal of the Center for Philanthropy is to develop philanthropy and civil society. More information: http://www.cpf.sk/en/