It appears that the EU has to worry about one fewer member sliding into the nationalist-populist rising that is roiling its post-communist wing.
As the union’s executives wrangle over democratic standards with governments in Hungary, Poland and Romania, the presidential election in eurozone member Slovakia propelled a supporter of deeper integration and a top EU diplomat into a runoff.
The vote was a defeat for candidates who condemned the loss of national sovereignty in the EU, warned that Muslim migrants would rape Christian women and advocated closer ties with Russia.
Both of the pro-European finalists also contrast with polarizing Czech President Milos Zeman, an ardent fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a proponent of closer ties with China.
“Slovakia sent a positive message,” said Grigorij Meseznikov, director of the Institute for Public Affairs, a think tank in Bratislava. “The results confirm that the country is oriented toward the West. Extremism was defeated.”
Liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova, who advocates for gay rights, on Saturday rode a wave of anti-corruption anger among voters for an overwhelming victory in the first round.
She won more than twice as many votes as the runner-up, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, who ran on the ruling Direction-Social Democracy (Smer) party’s ticket.
Caputova is seen as the favorite for the March 30 runoff. Just a year ago, the advocate was mainly known for stopping an illegal landfill in the heart in Slovakia’s wine region.
She then capitalized on public discontent with the ruling elite that has been rising since the murder last year of journalist Jan Kuciak, who was investigating corruption between business and ruling politicians, and his fiancee.
The killing triggered the largest street protest since the fall of communism and toppled then-Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico, a political veteran. Caputova’s pledge to “fight the evil together” resonated with Slovaks seeking change.
“I see this as a call for change,” Caputova said about her first-round result. “We’re facing a crisis of confidence in the political representation.”
Slovakia’s presidency is largely ceremonial, although the post has a key role in granting mandates to form governments and appointing judges.
Slovakian President Andrej Kiska, an advocate of a pro-Western orientation and critic of the Smer-led government, is stepping aside as president after a single five-year term.
While Slovaks generally support the EU, where Sefcovic has been the country’s most visible figure, his popularity suffered because of the endorsement by Smer and Fico.
Fico oversaw Slovakia’s adoption of the euro and kept the nation of 5.4 million in the EU mainstream, but at home his party faced accusations of graft. The runoff pits voters enraged by those allegations against government supporters attracted by generous social spending.
Sefcovic, 52, touted his experience as a career diplomat and promised to fight for better care for pensioners. He also pledged to work against what he called a “superliberal agenda.”
“We’re hoping that we’ll be able to mobilize voters who very much care for Slovakia to remain a Christian country,” Sefcovic said.
The nationalist forces were represented by Slovakian Supreme Court Justice Stefan Harabin, whose campaign featured anti-migrant slogans.
The second strongest populist contender was Marian Kotleba, a member of parliament who publicly celebrates Slovakia’s Nazi puppet state during the World War II, which sent most of the country’s Jewish citizens to extermination camps.
Even with this weekend’s defeat, it would be “shortsighted” to interpret the results as the elimination of the far-right extreme, said Martin Slosiarik, director of Bratislava-based pollster Focus.
Parliamentary elections are slated for next year.
“Anti-establishment forces garnered more than a quarter of the vote,” Slosiarik said. “The results show that there will likely be three blocs after next year’s general elections: the anti-establishment, the current ruling parties and the democratic opposition.”
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