Online Media Monitoring of the 2019 Slovak Presidential Election
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Election opening discussion on values
On June 15, 2019, Slovakia inaugurated Zuzana Čaputová as the nation’s first woman President. As Vice President of the Progressive Slovakia Party, Čaputová claimed victory over veteran diplomat Maroš Šefčovič. Shaped by different eras of Slovak politics, both politicians adopted unique approaches to political culture and values during their campaigns.
The first and second rounds of the election took place on March 16 and March 30. To detect malign narratives or disinformation campaigns, the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Beacon Project conducted online media monitoring throughout the month, during which Slovak and Czech online media produced over 5,600 election-related articles. Monitoring focused on narratives related to morality and values which were particularly prominent during the European and national parliamentary elections in Slovakia.
Slovakia at a political crossroads
This year’s election was marked by a crossroads in Slovak society. It highlighted demands for change, a destabilized political status quo and the question of defining Christian values. Leading up to the election, as many Slovak political commentators, including Grigorij Mesežnikov and Aneta Világi, noted, this crossroad divided Slovak citizens into three camps. The first was determined to walk the road of change that liberal candidate Čaputová represented by fighting for the restoration of political integrity and rule of law. Supported by Šefčovič and the leading Smer party, the second camp appealed to the party’s electorate by promising to maintain a strong social state and protect traditional values. For the third camp, change was tied to the far-right extremism that characterized nationalistic candidates like Marian Kotleba, whose party LSNS successfully fended off legal charges of propagating racist and anti-democratic values.
The desire for change as exemplified by these three camps illustrates the presence of deeper divisions in Slovak society. In fact, the main topic throughout this election was change, appearing in a total of 917 articles. This symbolizes a value shift in Slovakia, which became apparent during the 2018 mass protests against the “oligarchic, value-empty and cynical Slovakia” represented by the ruling elite. Additionally, many of the monitored articles discuss a rift between Catholicism and Liberalism, as well as between different understandings of the role Christian values should play in daily life (see Beacon Project Flash Report No. 2). Different conceptions of Christianity were often discussed in connection to political views on migration to Europe. Some claim that love for one’s neighbor should include helping migrants in need. Others believe non-Christian migrants could pose a threat to national unity.
Today, 62% of Slovaks identify as Catholic. However, this percentage is declining while atheism grows, according to Slovakia’s 2011 national census. Moreover, many respondents were unwilling to disclose to the census their faith, marital status or nationality. Yet online media discussions constantly invoke core Slovak values - Christianity, the traditional family and a strong state are among those most often mentioned. Nevertheless, the articles fail to explain what these values mean to the everyday Slovak citizen and how these citizens envision them translating into political action within the framework of a secular state.
The election discussion showed potential for dramatically decreased support for traditional parties and the reshaping of the Slovak party system. The outgoing President Andrej Kiska recently announced his intention to establish a new political party by joining political figures from different points on the political spectrum. Potential cooperation between Kotleba and Harabin would be a possible surprise, as both of their political capital strengthened as a result of their presidential campaigns (in the first round their combined electoral support reached almost 25%). Harabin is likely to either use his voter base to start a new party or join forces with Kotleba in order to attract even more voters from Smer, who have reached their record minimum levels of public support. Either way, a significant portion of the Slovak population is not satisfied with the country’s current state and is willing to accept radical solutions on the edge of democratic governance.
A topic of interest throughout the elections was the balance between Slovak sovereignty and the competencies of EU legislation. The separation of tasks between the municipal or state level and the EU level generated much debate. As the Beacon Project observed, participants in online media discussions often equate the EU with extreme liberalism and disrespect to the values of individual nation-states. Narratives such as “the EU’s migration policy threatens peace in Slovakia” or “Brussels liberal elites are destroying our Slovak traditions” were used to encourage uncertainty about the direction of Slovakia and the EU more broadly.
Monitoring also revealed that Slovaks are still processing their modern history. Issues such as Czechoslovak Communist Party membership and its consequences for public involvement after the revolution, opinion on the heritage of the “Slovak State” (existing as a client state of Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945) and active involvement in the Velvet Revolution often played an important role in the descriptions of candidates. The general willingness to discuss these historical events could be a sign of ongoing societal changes connected to the maturing of the first post-communist generation.
Finally, the Beacon project spotted narratives portraying liberal politics as a threat to the survival of the Slovak society. The recently formed coalition of centrist parties Progresivne Slovensko and Spolu, preferences for whom grew from 8.4% to 13.4% between January and April 2019 (a bounce largely resulting from the winning of their presidential candidate), is expected to become the second largest political group in the parliament. In reaction to this, the current leading party Smer (which is, at least on paper, a Social Democratic party) announced that they expect to experience “a fight between two value streams, ultraliberal vision questioning traditional values and social vision protecting pillars of Slovak society.” Smer is not alone in trying to incite fear through narratives of what a possible ‘liberal direction’ might mean for the country. Others speculated that Čaputová owes her success to her public relations campaign, which was allegedly financed by the Jewish community. Unsuccessful presidential candidate Kotleba, who leads the far-right LSNS party, stated that “Zionists are working on destruction of Slovakia in future Euro-Islamic-fascist super-state.” Similar rhetoric is used by newly established ultra-Catholic parties and even with extremist parties, who aim to mobilize part of the Catholic voters by appealing to their desire to protect traditional values.
The Slovak presidential election revealed a low level of understanding of values which Slovaks use to label themselves as members of different social and political groups. Deep divisions between different parts of the society are often misused by local and foreign malign actors spreading misinformation and disinformation about sensitive topics (migration, EU interference, gender, social security, and more) which have the potential to polarize the nation even further. It is on such divisions that political actors prey and seek to increase their influence.
As Slovak online media predicts, these divisions will continue to play a role in upcoming elections. At the same time, Čaputová’s victory indicates Slovaks are able to overcome their differences when democracy and rule of law are at stake. Moreover, the currently mobilized supporters of Čaputová and Šefčovič could inhibit aforementioned tensions by reversing the patterns of traditionally low turnout in parliamentary elections and by actively participating in shaping Slovakia’s future as, above all, a free and democratic country.