These Populists Aren’t Like the Others

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This weekend, Slovakia and neighboring Ukraine will hold presidential elections in which anti-establishment – though not right-wing – forces are poised to do well. Eastern European voters, known for their conservatism and xenophobic leanings, are about to show that the rise of populism isn’t primarily about these things. It's more do with the electorate’s desire to be heard and its rejection of establishment corruption.

In Saturday’s run-off in Slovakia's presidential election, political novice Zuzana Caputova is expected to beat Maros Sefcovic, the country’s European commissioner. Caputova is an anti-corruption activist who rose to prominence amid the wave of protests following last year’s murders of an investigative journalist and his fiancee. For years, she had fought against the businessman charged with the killings, trying to force the authorities to close a landfill in her hometown.

The murders focused Slovaks’ attention on the links between international organized crime and the country’s ruling center-left party, Smer. Voters turned to an outsider to fix the system, and they picked a woman and a liberal. Sefcovic opposed Caputova on a conservative platform, attacking her support for same-sex marriage – and came a distant second to her in the first round on March 16.

In Ukraine, a country at war, incumbent Petro Poroshenko has appealed to voters’ nationalism and religious conservatism. His campaign has focused on a strong military and support for both the Ukrainian language and the Orthodox church, newly independent from Moscow.

But Poroshenko is highly likely to face a run-off against Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian who speaks better Russian than Ukrainian. Like Caputova, he is a political novice and a popular figure from outside the establishment. Like Caputova, Zelenskiy appears to hold broader views than his establishment rival. He’s not churchy, he opposes forcing the Ukrainian language on Russian speakers, and he is backed by the liberal reformers pushed out of the government in recent years after they tried to challenge established interests close to Poroshenko. 

The populism gaining ground in Slovakia and Ukraine is a different strain from that in Poland, Hungary, parts of Germany and Italy, where voters have flocked to right-wing or far-right, nationalist forces. It is above all, against corruption. Both Zelenskiy and Caputova want their supporters to unite against internal rather than external threats.

One could spend hours discussing the differences between the two – the straight-shooting activist liked for her authenticity and the wry-faced actor, the Slovakian oligarch-fighter and the supposed puppet of Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. But the similarities are more significant. Neither is, by any stretch, an authoritarian or a proto-fascist, and both offer their supporters something visibly missing in their countries: the promise of justice and clean government. Both Caputova and Zelenskiy are pointedly non-ideological.

The phenomenon they represent isn’t new. In a 2014 paper, Sean Hanley and Allan Sikk from University College London described a group of new parties that campaigned on a combination of anti-establishment rhetoric and demands for reform. Along with ANO, the party of the Czech Republic's current prime minister, they included in this bracket Bulgaria’s Simeon II National Movement and Estonia’s Res Publica, which won national elections in the early 2000s.

Their success, Hanley and Sikk found, was driven by voters’ preoccupation with corruption rather than by economic hardship. But once in government, these groupings tended to lose their anti-establishment credentials along with the support of the protest voters who brought them to power. The Simeon II Movement hasn’t been able to get into the Bulgarian legislature since 2009 and Estonia’s once powerful Res Publica is now part of a minority party in parliament.

Caputova and Zelenskiy could face that fate, too, if they win. But their success to date shows that the anti-corruption strain of populism is alive and well.

Establishment politicians need to recognize that the opposition to their dominance isn’t really ideologically motivated. It’s not racist, nor is it radical leftist in nature. Those characteristics are likely to be accidental and tangential, dependent on the personal preferences of the most electable outsiders. The real opposition comes from a dissatisfaction with business as usual. If that morphs into an electorally successful movement, it is more the fault of the elite than evidence of any dangerous undercurrents in society. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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