Populists Slapped as Slovaks Poised to Elect Pro-EU President

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union has to worry about one fewer member, for now, sliding into the nationalist-populist rising that’s roiling its post-communist wing.

As the bloc’s executives wrangle over democratic standards with governments in Hungary, Poland and Romania, the presidential election in euro-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 Muslim migrants would rape Christian women and advocated closer ties with Russia. Both of the pro-European finalists strike a contrast with the polarizing president of the Czech Republic, Slovakia’s former federation partner, Milos Zeman, an ardent fan of Russian leader 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 the capital Bratislava. “The results confirm the country is oriented toward the West. Extremism was defeated.”

Liberal lawyer Zuzana Caputova, who advocates for gay rights, rode a wave of anti-corruption anger among voters for an overwhelming victory in the first round Saturday. She won more than twice as many votes as the runner-up, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, who ran on the ruling Smer party’s ticket.

Caputova is seen as the favorite for the March 30 runoff. Just a year ago, the NGO activist 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’s been rising since the murder last year of a journalist investigating corruption between business and ruling politicians.

The killing triggered the largest street protest since the fall of communism and toppled veteran Prime Minister, Robert Fico. 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. Incumbent Andrej Kiska, an advocate of pro-western orientation and a 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.

Graft Allegations

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 “super-liberal 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 Supreme Court judge 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 from the World War II that sent most of the country’s Jewish citizens to death 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 the 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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