The Intrepid Irena and the New Era for Progressive Slovakia7 min read
In June 2020, Irena Bihariová was elected chair of the party Progresívne Slovensko (PS). Her appointment made history as the first major Slovak party to be led by a Roma woman. This is a significant success as women’s and Roma representation in Slovak politics is virtually non-existent. Few women manage to become party leaders and even fewer Roma enter mainstream parties.
Besides her symbolic breakthrough, PS is developing into a stronger party under Bihariová’s leadership; support for the party is growing and PS is emerging as a more powerful opposition in the Slovak political scene. Bihariová showcases the strength and capability of women leaders in politics, a demonstration which is needed in Slovakia. This is also meaningful to the wider Visegrád Group (V4) countries, where women’s representation in politics is minimal.
Slovakia: The New Darling of the West
The V4 countries have been of interest to Western media since the 1990s. As communism collapsed in Europe, Czechia became the “darling of the West” due to its booming economy. In recent years, Hungary and Poland have populated Western media with sobering reports of increasing populism and weakening human rights. By comparison, their quiet neighbour, Slovakia, has remained largely an enigma.
Then, in 2019, Slovakia became the unlikely hero of Central Europe. It erupted into international news with the election of President Zuzana Čaputová whose victory appeared to diametrically oppose the political developments in Hungary and Poland under the parties, Fidesz and PiS, respectively. Her win was a rare victory for women’s advancement in politics in a region promoting traditional gender roles.
Her election win also secured more recognition for the newly formed PS. Established in 2017, the party became, and remains, Slovakia’s chief social-liberal political party. Their values are progression, freedom, and equality. Before the presidential race, Čaputová was the vice-chair of the party. Her election win, alongside Matúš Vallo, an independent candidate supported by PS who was elected Mayor of Bratislava in 2018, secured recognition for the party.
Whilst Čaputová’s successes are commendable, the presidency is largely a symbolic role with limited powers. Čaputová is symbolically good for women’s representation in the country, but she is largely unable to implement policies that can advance women’s representation in politics as a whole.
However, PS, as the leading liberal party, has this capacity. It has always advocated for advancing women’s rights and representation in politics. Bihariová’s election honours this promise. As chair, she uses this opportunity to develop PS’ credibility in fighting for citizens’ rights. Despite the outpouring of support for women’s representation in politics after President Čaputová’s election, international media has largely ignored the significance of Bihariová’s election.
Breaking down stereotypes is a recurring theme in Bihariová’s life. Born in western Slovakia, in Trnava, Bihariová grew up in poverty. She escaped from this hardship to study law at Comenius University, one of Slovakia’s top universities. Until working for PS, her career focused on tackling hate crime and extremism. In 2009, Bihariová headed the non-profit organisation, People against racism, which supports victims of extreme crimes and provides free legal aid. Her work has won her recognition and a human rights award.
Tackling these issues is fundamental to Bihariová as she is Roma and has first-hand experience of discrimination because of her ethnicity. Throughout her career, she has drawn attention to the pejorative views of minorities and entrenched antigypsyism in Slovakia. These systemic issues have plagued relations between the political institutions and Roma communities. There are countless cases of parties running explicitly anti-Roma campaigns, which have fostered anti-Roma sentiments throughout society. Many Roma families face social exclusion which force them to live in isolated communities, struggling with poverty and unemployment. In 2019, the Pew Research Centre found that anti-Roma sentiment was particularly high in Slovakia.
Challenging the prejudice has been left to a handful of Roma politicians, often representing specific Roma parties, who attempt to tackle the government. These parties struggle to enter parliament. Peter Pollák is a rare example of a Roma politician who has reached the highest government levels. The majority of Roma politicians are men. Very few Roma women exist in Slovak politics.
Bihariová is a rare example of a Roma woman in politics. It is more unusual still that she leads a mainstream political party. Her identity allows her to advocate for liberalism and human rights from a personal perspective. Nonetheless, the combination of her ethnicity and gender encouraged the rhetoric that, as Roma, she could only handle ‘Roma issues’ and, as a woman, she could only focus on ‘women’s issues’. Bihariová managed to rebuff these assumptions.
She acknowledges that being a Roma woman provides her with a different perspective from the traditional ruling elite, nevertheless, she iterated that her commitment to minority and women’s rights is part of an extensive political manifesto. Her academic background and career verify her capabilities as a leader, and a politician.
At the same time, Bihariová insists that although she is Roma, and has witnessed and experienced discrimination, she cannot represent the entire community. She describes herself as being from an “assimilated family”, meaning a Roma family that has integrated into mainstream society and does not live in an isolated Roma community. This duality, having lived and worked as part of mainstream society but also being Roma, allows Bihariová to represent the mainstream and minorities in Slovakia. She is also a symbol of Roma women’s capabilities. Her presence tackles stereotypes by providing an opportunity for underrepresented groups in the Slovak government to see themselves in mainstream politics.
A Return to the Liberal Agenda
Bihariová’s appointment is a medley of successes in PS. Beyond the symbolic importance of her ethnicity and gender, her leadership is strengthening PS. She is rebuilding its credibility as a relevant party in Slovakia.
PS, despite its successes with Čaputová and Vallo, has struggled with national politics. In the 2020 parliamentary elections, PS created a coalition with the party, Spolu [Together], believing that if they united there would have more chance to bring liberalism into the parliament. This failed as PS/Spolu did not reach the 7% threshold that allows coalitions into the government (missing out by just 0.3%). In those 2020 elections, the conservative OĽaNO party was victorious. OĽaNO, led by Prime Minister Igor Matovič, now leads a four-party coalition government. The long-standing SMER party, who are linked with corruption and organised crime, came second in the votes. Notably, the neo-fascist ĽSNS party managed to enter the parliament ahead of PS.
PS’ former personable chair, Michal Truban, supported the PS/Spolu coalition but he emerged as too compromising and a weak debater; a toxic combination when combined with Spolu, who is less liberal and whose leader was related to the established political elite. This weakened PS’ identity as ‘political newcomers’ with the ability to reshuffle Slovak politics.
Bihariová, in contrast to her predecessor, is critical of the PS/Spolu coalition and is uncompromising in her determination to return PS to its socially liberal roots. She has suggested that Spolu weakened PS’ values and agenda. She believes that PS must stand independently if it wants to become “a constructive counterweight to radical conservatives in the parliament and defend liberal values”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for PS to demonstrate the failures of populist leaders and governments. PM Matovič is a notoriously sensationalist leader with poor communication. His coalition government has been involved in numerous crises since entering office. This has led many, including his coalition partners, to see him as untrustworthy. Whilst Bihariová is not a particularly trusted politician, under her leadership, support for PS is growing. In July 2020, opinion polls showed that support for PS was 5.2%. Now, in March 2021, support is at 8.0%.
A Promising Future?
The developing public support for PS looks optimistic. If support continues to grow, PS may become a credible opposition to the wave of conservative and populist parties dominating Slovakia. As the government crisis under Matovič deepens, society may look to other politicians and parties for guidance. If they turn to PS, their plan is ready.
The amalgamation of Bihariová’s liberal values, career, and identity as a Roma woman make her a legitimate representative of social liberalism. She is already a strong figurehead for PS, and her strength is developing the party every month. With a clearly articulated liberal strategy already advocated, including more comprehensive health care and insurance plans, expanded mental health services, and more effort towards tackling the spread of misinformation, PS is clearly putting citizens’ first. We should be watching for Bihariová, and PS, at the next parliamentary elections.