They couldn’t be more different. In terms of size, Slovakia is a minnow, dwarfed by Ukraine and Turkey. This small Central European country is embedded in the European Union and NATO, and is a member of the eurozone. Turkey is in NATO, but it is far from clear if it will ever join the EU. Ukraine, as the EU’s big and important eastern neighbor, has aspirations to become fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic structures.
All three countries also have vastly different economies and very different geostrategic outlooks. Slovakia is the most fortunate. Unlike Turkey or Ukraine, its borders are secure. It doesn’t have to contend with wars or conflicts.
But these countries share one thing in common. During last weekend’s elections, the public rejected the status quo. It was a status quo perpetuated by corruption and the erosion of the rule of law. In varying degrees, a combination of nepotism and oligarchs chiseled away at the democratic institutions.
Over the past several years, Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had moved increasingly toward authoritarianism as his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) did its utmost to stifle the opposition, the media, the judiciary, and academia.
In Ukraine, the energy unleashed by the pro-Western Maidan movement of 2014 had given way to disappointment with the slow pace of reform and the continuing persistence of corruption. Under President Petro Poroshenko, many of the oligarchs were protected or could continue their old way of doing politics by controlling media outlets and hindering economic, political, and judicial reforms.
In Slovakia, the local oligarchs, some with very close ties to Russia, had created a kind of deep state. When Ján Kuciak, an investigative journalist, unveiled the seedy, sleazy, and murky side to Slovakia’s other political world, he and his finance, Martina Kušnírová were gunned down.
Those killings shook the Slovak public. It had had enough of the corruption and the consistent miscarriages of justice. That was the main reason why Zuzana Čaputová—a 45-year-old lawyer and political novice, who spearheaded the movement against the corrupt status quo—was elected president on March 30. Her campaign slogan, “Stand up to evil,” captured the sorry state of Slovak politics, but also the resilient nature of civil society.
The resounding victory of a wild-card candidate in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections also confirmed the miserable caliber of the country’s political elites. Volodymyr Zelensky—a comedian, whose claim to fame was his immensely successful television series in which he played an honest teacher who was elected president—won all but five of the country’s regions, according to preliminary results.
Unless there is a major setback, Zelensky is poised to become president during the run-off vote in three weeks’ time. It’s hard to know what Zelensky stands for. But the coming days will test his ability to see off the status quo. Already, Poroshenko—himself an oligarch and who came in a poor second—is suggesting that Zelensky was supported by Russia and was a “puppet” of oligarch Igor Kolomiseky, a foe of the current president and owner of a television channel that gave Zelensky lots of air time. It promises to be an unsavory campaign.
In Turkey, Erdoğan’s creeping control of the media and constant intimidation and imprisonment of the opposition and his critics didn’t deter voters from dealing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a ferocious blow to its power.
The AKP lost control of the big cities, especially Istanbul, where Erdoğan first launched his political career, and Ankara. Voters punished Erdoğan for the economic slowdown and his creeping authoritarianism. The opposition now has the task of channeling its success into a coherent political movement that will be able to resist all attempts by Erdoğan to divide and discredit it.
These three election results were won not on the ticket of classic populism, whose leaders rally their supporters around conspiracies and on being as “anti” as possible—whether its foreigners, Russia, the European Union, or immigrants. Instead, voters showed their resilience to the entrenched status quos by opting for something: For ending corruption. Ending nepotism. Ending impunity. Ending political stagnation.
It’s hard to know how Zelensky, if he maintains his momentum, can deliver on any of the above—not that he has so far articulated a political and economic program. Turkey’s opposition is going to need staying power in order to tap away at the AKP’s power. It has to capitalize on these local government elections results and prepare itself for the parliamentary elections. Just like Ukraine, politics could turn nastier.
As for Slovakia, it has a great chance to remake politics. Its citizens did it during the later 1990s, when they ousted Vladimír Mečiar. As prime minister, he turned the country into his corrupt, personal fiefdom that risked denying Slovaks the opportunity to join NATO and the EU. They turned the tables on him. Through sheer political will power, they got the country ready to join both organizations in 2004. That success, however, wasn’t enough to rid Slovakia of its culture of corruption. Čaputová now has the wind in her sails to do just that. Her victory could convince Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians that populism and corruption can be defeated. Few doubt that it will take mammoth efforts in Slovakia, Ukraine, and Turkey to create new politics. But maybe a beginning is in sight.