Central Europe’s liberals prepare to halt the populists’ advance – Financial Times

As Zuzana Caputova stormed to victory in Slovakia’s presidential poll, supporters at her election night party erupted into cheers, applause and chants of “Zuzana”.

But it was not just the progressive, anti-corruption lawyer’s well-wishers at home who were cheering. As the EU gears up for parliamentary elections in six weeks’ time, progressive politicians across central Europe, which has witnessed a string of victories for populists and nationalists in recent years, are hoping her victory could signal the start of a liberal recovery in the region.

“Last [month] we saw hope and change, how we can win, and that it’s possible to wrest our country back from the embrace of populists and lazy old parties,” Robert Biedron, whose newly-founded left-liberal party, Spring, will make its debut in the May poll, told a group of activists and supporters last week in the Polish capital.

“Zuzana Caputova . . . showed that change is possible . . . On May 26 each of us will be able to say ‘yes’. Yes to a European community, yes to a European future.”

Hungarian liberals also took heart. “We do feel there is a progressive change in the region, people are fed up with the hate and populism of the governing parties and they are rising up out of their apathy,” said Katalin Cseh, lead candidate for the European elections for Momentum, an opposition party set up two years ago. “We hope this can give a boost to the progressive side.”

Along with Progressive Slovakia, which backed Ms Caputova’s presidential bid, Momentum and Spring are among a number of upstart groups in central Europe trying to push back against the illiberalism of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski — leaders whose Eurosceptic, nationalist programmes have set their countries at loggerheads with the EU.

Like Ms Caputova, Mr Biedron — an unabashed atheist who came to prominence as Poland’s first openly gay politician — and Momentum are running on socially liberal programmes, with policies such as support for LGBT rights and a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Robert Biedron, centre, leader of Poland’s Spring party, said Caputova’s victory proved that change was possible

Despite the similarity of their platforms, analysts are sceptical that they can match Ms Caputova’s success. While opinion polls after his party launch in February gave Mr Biedron as much as 16 per cent support, more recent surveys have put him on half that. In Hungary, Momentum has won support for the prominent role party leaders played during winter protests against a new labour law, but polls suggest it faces a battle to beat the European Parliament’s 5 per cent threshold for representation.

One reason is that Ms Caputova’s success was the consequence of a unique set of circumstances. She rode to victory in part on the back of popular outrage at the brutal murder of a young investigative journalist and his fiancée, an event that upended Slovak politics to a degree that has not been replicated elsewhere.

Slovakia is also easier terrain for a progressive upstart than Poland or Hungary. Its outgoing president, Andrej Kiska, a pro-EU former businessman and philanthropist who took a softer stance than his peers on issues such as migration and LGBT rights, was already the most liberal head of state in central Europe.

“Caputova is a new kind of politician, like Biedron, or perhaps [French president Emmanuel] Macron. But of course what is key for these politicians to succeed is the circumstance in which they find themselves.” said Piotr Buras from the European Council on Foreign Relations. “What Caputova and Macron benefited from was the collapse of the national party system. And this is not the case in Poland.”

Hungarian progressives observed the election in Slovakia with envy; there is a feeling that “while this is possible in Slovakia it might not be possible in Hungary”, said Csaba Toth, executive director of the Budapest-based Republikon Institute think-tank.

“The differences in media landscape and campaigning in general, in addition to the electoral system, mean that this would be something very difficult to do in Hungary,” Mr Toth said.

Even in Slovakia, the European elections next month are likely to bring more mixed results than the presidential poll.

Ms Caputova’s surge has boosted the alliance between Progressive Slovakia and Together — two new pro-European parties running for the first time — to around 14 per cent. But far-right parties are also expected to score strongly. The latest polls put nationalist, populist and extreme-right groups on course for as much as 30 per cent.

“In general, smaller parties as well as fringe parties with a more dedicated voter base usually outperform mainstream political forces in European elections,” said Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at the Freedom House think-tank.

“So an increase in polarisation and gains on both ends of the political spectrum is more likely than a progressive renewal in isolation.”

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