The "old West" should take note as voters in Europe's East flock to fresh faces.
Outside commentators, particularly in the rich countries of the “old West” sometimes like to give the impression that ex-communist Europe is run by sleazy strongmen, who play on these benighted countries’ innate bigotry.
The news from that region can be gloomy, with worries about the rule of law, corruption, media freedom, and ethnic tensions. In this regard Slovakia has had a particularly bad patch. The murders last year of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová suggested that organized crime is operating with impunity, and presumably under official protection. Kuciak wrote about corrupt businessmen, frauds relating to EU subsidies and the VAT, and attempts by Italy's notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia to cultivate ties with Slovak politicians. More than a year later, the Slovak authorities have arrested a businessman who they say ordered the murders.
That is welcome, if belated. But the bigger news is Zuzana Čaputová’s victory in last weekend’s presidential election. She easily beat the establishment candidate, EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič. Čaputová is a political outsider, with strong liberal views and a stellar record as a corruption fighter. Šefčovič (disclosure: a friend of mine) was a strong candidate too – but he was fatally tainted in the voters’ eyes by his ties to the ruling party of Robert Fico. His attempts to adopt crowd-pleasing tropes were unconvincing.
Čaputová’s victory busts the outsiders’ stereotype. Slovakia is supposedly a socially conservative country run by a tightly-knit clique of insiders. But given a broader choice, Slovaks grabbed the chance. They may disagree with her about gay marriage. But they can see that she apparently is beholden to nobody, loves her country and wants to make a difference.
It is a similar story in Ukraine, where Volodymyr Zelensky did stunningly well in the first round of the presidential elections. There are plenty of question marks about the TV comedian’s views, experience, friends, and judgment. Voters will have to weigh these in the second round of the contest in three weeks. But the most important lesson is that a neophyte trounced two of the country’s biggest political insiders, President Petro Poroshenko and the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Ukraine’s political system has its faults, but it is fundamentally open. Outsiders can and do win. Russians will be drawing conclusions for that as they chafe under the Kremlin’s stagnant and phony political system.
A triumph for outsiders is also likely in Lithuania’s presidential election on May 12th, where the independent economist Gitanas Nauseda enjoys a strong lead over the center-left prime minister Saulius Skvernelis and the conservative MP Ingrida Šimonytė.
The question for the rest of Europe is why such upsets do not happen in their own countries more often? Strong individual candidates have a chance of breaking through in presidential races. In parliamentary elections and government decision-making, however, personal talents matter less, and business interests, regional tensions, and political cartels often matter more. Voters feel exasperated; protest votes pile up; risks to stability mount.
That is a difficult problem. All over the industrialized world, voters are displaying their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In Britain, for example, public support for Brexit in the 2016 referendum and afterward is less an expression of well-informed disagreement with the intricacies of Europe’s political architecture than a no-confidence vote in the way things have been run for in recent decades.
In short, to see political paralysis, corruption, and seething popular resentment, do not look always east. I suspect that voters in plenty of countries would like to have someone like Čaputová bring a breath of fresh air to their fetid politics. Not least in Britain.
April 4, 2019