Last month, I ran as a candidate in the parliamentary election in Slovakia on the joint list of SPOLU, a center-right party of which I am a founding member, and the left-liberal Progressive Slovakia (PS). Both groups, members respectively of the European People’s Party (EPP) and Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe, are recent creations, founded in the fall and winter of 2017. We scored some successes last year when the coalition of the two won the European election with over 20 percent of the popular vote. PS’s nominee, the lawyer Zuzana Čaputová, also won the presidential race with a platform stressing rule of law and fairness. In the aftermath of the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírova, that agenda resonated strongly.
Since last summer, however, our support in the polls slowly declined, notwithstanding several resets to our campaign strategy. And in the parliamentary election in February, our coalition failed to cross the required 7 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. Slovaks did vote overwhelmingly against the ruling left-populist Smer, associated with the corruption and stasis of the past decade, and also rejected the lure of the growing neo-Nazi party of Marian Kotleba. Although we ran the most expensive and volunteer-heavy campaign in living memory, voters were equally uninspired by us. To understand the magnitude of the failure, note that we received essentially the same number of votes in this election (200,000) as we did in the European election last year (198,000). Yet the turnout in the European election was roughly a third of the turnout in the general election.
The disappointment prompted immediate post-mortems about the failures of our campaign. (Whether I was ever cut out for electoral politics is a separate question!) But there is another, more interesting side to the story, relevant to Europe’s center-right. As this election highlights, the space for moderate center-right politics is getting so narrow that there might be very little or no path forward for politics built around the traditional tenets of EPP parties that dominated Europe’s political landscape for decades.
It was not just us, SPOLU and Progressive Slovakia, that performed poorly in this election. Slovakia’s Christian Democrats (KDH), a long-time fixture of Slovak politics, failed to enter parliament for the second consecutive time. The newly built center-right party of former president Andrej Kiska, For the People, barely made it into parliament, in spite of the recognition that the party enjoyed by virtue of being headed by a former head of state.
The clear winner of the election was Igor Matovič and his anti-corruption movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO). Part Italy’s Cinque Stelle, part Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS), OĽaNO lacks formal party structures, a wide membership base, or a coherent ideology. Since its inception in 2010, its haphazard candidate lists included Catholic conservatives, anti-corruption activists, and B-list celebrities, many of whom went their own way once in parliament.
This time might be different since power is an effective glue. The mandate that Matovič received is large and gives him a lot of leeway to let the various factions pursue their agendas, from “locking thieves up,” to direct democracy, to restricting access to abortion. How exactly he will govern remains an open question. An effective crackdown on corruption would be welcome, even if OĽaNO’s platform has been mostly silent on policy details (unlike our peer-reviewed 244-page election manifesto). Also, the leader of the second party in the emerging governing coalition, the populist We Are Family, had prior and well-documented contacts with Slovakia’s mafia.
A pessimistic but plausible scenario for Slovakia involves heavy-handed attacks on the judiciary, law enforcement, and other independent institutions, much like in Poland. While there is an acute need to act to restore trust in the ability of government to deliver basic justice and fairness, the devil is in the detail. After all, the path of both Poland and Hungary toward authoritarianism was also paved by a partly genuine desire for a reckoning with the injustices and corruption of the past. Moreover, questions will inevitably be raised about Slovakia’s geopolitical allegiances. While SPOLU, KDH, and For the People—the three EPP parties that seemed recently the core of the future governing coalition—had unabashedly pro-EU and Atlanticist credentials, those who hold the cards after the election seem more ambivalent.
One of OĽaNO’s MPs accused the United States of seeking to “divide Slavic nations” and compared the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw-Pact armies to the post-1989 “invasion by the West.” We Are Family, meanwhile, campaigned jointly with Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National ahead of the European election last year.
While Slovakia’s future trajectory under Matovič’s leadership is uncertain, one thing is not. This election was not kind to traditional center-right parties with broad memberships, detailed policy platforms, and clear commitments to Western alliances and the European project. To be sure, it came as a sore disappointment for our left-liberal coalition partner, Progressive Slovakia, too. Yet, their absence from parliament might provide a rallying cry for their natural constituency of highly educated voters in large cities, mobilized by environmental issues and questions of social and cultural liberalism, such as gay rights or abortion, which might come under scrutiny in coming months. In the Slovak context, it’s unclear if this elite liberal constituency will ever be large. Yet with clear goals and a degree of ideological coherence, it will be easier to maintain that constituency energized and united in the coming years than to nurture the looser coalition needed to keep a pluralistic and ecumenical center-right party afloat.
The prospects for the moderate center-right are no more encouraging in other European countries. In the Czech Republic, our partner party TOP09 is barely surviving. Hungary’s Fidesz has suffocated not only its competitors on the far right but also the possibility of any serious center-right challenger. Even in Poland, the large Civic Platform has been struggling, consistently trailing behind PiS by over 15 percentage points in the polls. On my recent trip to Sweden, I spoke to members of the Moderate Party, which I had long seen as a model for SPOLU, who saw no alternative other than abandoning the old tenets of free markets, internationalism, and a relatively open immigration policy in favor of a far more parochial and statist outlook. Otherwise, the argument went, the populist Sweden Democrats would continue to grow.
But seeking to steal the far right’s agenda is not without its risks, as France’s Les Républicains would attest. It seems to take a lot of luck and political skill to accommodate demands for tighter immigration controls and a “retaking of control” from supposedly unaccountable international bodies without resigning oneself to the more irresponsible versions of far-right politics. Austria’s Sebastian Kurz has proven adept at such balancing acts. Similarly, Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement with the EU suggested, at least for a moment, that nationalist impulses could be tamed. But whether those two examples are durable and provide lessons to center-right politicians elsewhere in Europe remains to be seen.
As of now, however, it is fair to say that the space between the cosmopolitan and progressive politics of the left, with its excesses, and the vulgar nationalism of the populist right is shrinking. That leaves those who want to preserve and defend globalization and Western alliances, without buying wholesale into the left’s agenda on economic or cultural issues, in an uncomfortable spot.
It is certainly possible that there is not much of an appetite for center-right policies among the voting public, and that people like me are simply on the wrong side of history. My own electoral defeat is certainly consistent with that hypothesis. But that makes the question of what the future holds for EPP, Europe’s largest family of political parties, all the more urgent. If it becomes increasingly impossible to lead broad and moderate tents of conservatives, classical liberals, rural voters, and businesspeople into winning elections, what will European politics look like in a decade or two? And it is equally reasonable to ask about the consequences of new policies being embraced on the center-right for electoral reasons—policies that are sometimes in tension with fiscal probity, economic liberalization, and internationalism. In the four years to come, Slovakia will become an interesting laboratory for such inquiries.