Originally published in Bulgarian in Baricada.org. Translated for LeftEast by Kamelia Tzeneva.
A fiasco for the conservative left
The candidate of the extra-parliamentary party “Progressive Slovakia” Zuzana Čaputová is the new president of the country. Despite her victory, the extreme right manages to set the tone for political debate.
The news that Slovakia will be headed by a woman for the first time travelled around all global media channels this weekend. The lawyer and environmental activist Zuzana Čaputová, from the extra-parliamentary party “Progressive Slovakia,” got 58,40% of the votes in the second round, compared to 41,58% for Maroš Šefčovič from the ruling party Smer-SD. Šefčovič, who is an European Commissioner for Energy, was already lagging considerably in the first round, but the potential flow of votes from those oriented towards the far right offered a chance for him to catch up with Čaputová. The ones in question, however, decided to stay at home – voting activity reached a record low of 41,79%. Practically speaking, Čaputová is supported by 24,39% of the people eligible to vote.
Despite its social democratic profile and membership in the Party of European Socialists, Smer-SD, until the very end, made an effort to activate and consolidate … the conservative vote. It was in the last two days before the elections that a sequence of events took place which raised the levels of political tension. One of the coalition partners of Smer-SD in the current government – the Slovak National Party (SNS), headed by Andrej Danko, put a proposition on the daily agenda in parliament on Thursday, 28 March.This was a proposition for the government not to consider r ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. An eagerness for Slovakia to withdraw its signature from the agreement, also known as the Istanbul Convention, was also stated. According to the SNS, it contradicts the constitution, which states that marriage can only be entered into by a man and a woman.
101 of 133 attending MPs voted against the government starting the process of ratification. Slovakia still has not withdrawn its signature, however, and the document hasn’t been sent to the Constitutional Court. Thus the possibility remains for it to be reintroduced for a vote in the National Assembly with the formation of a new government. The circumstances that developed so quickly around the Istanbul Convention are an unambiguous attempt on part of Smer-SD to discredit Čaputová, fuelling fears of “gender ideology”, since she supports the legalisation of cohabitation and adoption by same-sex couples. The leader of the social democrats, Robert Fico, even cautioned that he would outlaw adoption by gay couples, which according to him, is “perverse,”with a constitutional law.
It is a different matter how Fico himself changes positions situationally when it comes to the Istanbul Convention. More than a year ago, in the role of Prime Minister, Fico defended the document with an argument also maintained by Šefčovič, namely, that “Arabs” are sexually harassing “our women” whom we need to keep safe. This islamophobic perspective on the issue of violence against women is present in other European countries. It is thus that, for example, in neighbouring Austria, where the ruling Austrian coalition of conservatives and the far right is in power, introduced heavier punishments for sexual assault, underlining precisely the participation of “foreigners” in their commitment.
But let’s go back to Slovakia where, on the very same day, along with the rejection of the Istanbul Convention, another important political decision was made. After 6 months of postponing, negotiations and discussions, Smer-SD managed to introduce a cap on the retirement age at 64. It will be explicitly included in the Constitution that a raise in the age is not allowed, as it would condemn people to “death of old age near the machines”, in Fico’s words. Simultaneously, a lowering of the retirement age is planned for women, according to the number of children she has raised. With one child this would be 63.5 years, with two – 63 years, and with three or more – 62.5.
This urged discussions about whether raising children and the ensuing lowering of the retirement age should be explicitly bound to the parent’s gender. The worry here is that this wording will be discriminatory against both women and men. It imposes responsibility for child-rearing solely on women and also, albeit indirectly, binds maternity to biological childbirth. On the other hand, men who are single parents will not be rewarded with a lowering of their retirement age. Thirdly, there is the question of what constitutes “raising”, as problematic arguments have been made according to which a child is “raised” only on the condition that he or she has successfully passed a matriculation exam.
The message that women will be given stimulus by the state to give birth with reference to the solving of the demographic crisis resonated in the pre-election environment. Emphasis the topic of birth rate could be interpreted as an indirect attack on Čaputová, who has a clear position against the banning of abortion. She sees in the ban a revocation the right of women to govern their own bodies. The topic of abortions has surfaced more than once in public and political debates in Slovakia. The outright fascist Marian Kotleba, who got 10% in the first round of the presidential elections and thus came in fourth, made two unsuccessful attempts to carry out changes in the law in the direction of restrictions and a ban.
On the day before the elections – 29 March, the cabinet issued another important message – their will for a tax reform. Along with the demographic crisis, tax reform was at the core of the pre-election debate. All sorts of ideas were put on the table which are yet to be the object of in-depth discussions, considering Slovakia’s economy, which is driven mainly by automotive manufacturing. Ideas about lowering the corporate tax from the current 21% to 15% were discussed; as was the possibility to lower taxes for workers through a decrease in income tax. The introduction of 10% VAT on all foods (at the moment Slovakia has differentiated VAT which means that the 10% applies only to some basic goods; for the rest the rate is 20%) was discussed, as well as a decrease in the rate of VAT for print media from 20% to 10%, an increase in Christmas allowances for pensioners from €100 to €200; and an increase in the minimum wage from €520 to €600, among others.
Despite these last couple of politically charged days of the pre-election period, Smer-SD obviously didn’t manage to accumulate support for their candidate Šefčovič. Despite the fact that it wasn’t mobilised on the day of the vote, the electoral potential of the far right remains an important factor and manages to guide the political agenda. This is why Čaputová’s victory should not be necessarily perceived as indicative of a future to come – it is more than visible that in the country there is a serious niche for anti-systemic and, at the same time, perhaps outright fascist political players.
In relation to this, the Supreme Court is faced with an extremely important decision – in April it will have to decide whether Kotleba’s organisation “People’s Party – Our Slovakia” is unconstitutional. And, of course, we are yet to find out whether Čaputová will succeed in establishing herself in the presidential post so that she can steer politics in the country.
Lea Vajsova is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Sofia University. Her research interests are in critical social theory and social movements. She is a member of LevFem, a left-feminist collective.