by Sarah Ampolsk
In observing the elections that have taken place on the European continent thus far in 2019, two countries stand out. The first is Slovakia, one of the four central European “Visegrad” countries, which – along with neighboring Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary (together comprising the V4) – had most often appeared in the news in recent years for issues relating to corruption and democratic backsliding. In its March presidential election, Slovakia bucked the recent V4 trend of anti-establishment, nationalistic leadership by electing a left-wing activist (and the country’s first female president), Zuzana Caputova.
Caputova, a political novice, catapulted to the nation’s highest office on a promise to root out corruption and “stand up to evil,” which resonated with Slovakians still reeling from the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, who had been preparing a story on the then-government’s alleged ties to the Italian mafia at the time of his death. But although this was the catalyst for Caputova’s foray into national politics, she had been an activist long before. An environmental lawyer by trade, Caputova has been likened to US activist Erin Brockovich. In her pre-political life, she was the vanguard of a movement to halt a dumping site in her native Pezinok that would have had adverse effects on the local environment; she not only won the case, leading what was at that time referred to as the largest mobilization of citizens since the Velvet Revolution which toppled communism in 1989, but the European Union Court of Justice took interest in the issue as well, spurring the body to create rules mandating public involvement in decisions regarding projects that could potentially affect the environment. For her successful efforts, Caputova was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Europe in 2016.
Although Caputova’s historic election was not entirely centered around the environment, her prior activism played a not insignificant role in her campaign. In our rapidly warming world, where recent studies have climate change growing more catastrophic by the day, environmental issues have mobilized citizens across Europe. In Caputova’s case, her history of environmental activism, combined with her pledge to form a more just government, clearly resonated with the corruption-weary Slovakian public. We are currently in an era of rapid democratic backsliding in Europe and across the globe, and this trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. However, the election of a liberal environmental lawyer to a position previously held by a nationalist – with the caveat that there were, of course, many more issues at play – is worth noting: perhaps climate change is an issue so pressing that it could be the thing that bucks the trend.
Or so I’d hope. However, another recent European election that also focused heavily on environmental issues deserves attention, and for complete opposite reasons than the Slovak example. Finland, long considered to be one of Europe’s liberal bastions, posted a surprising result in its recent parliamentary elections earlier in April: a nationalist populist party, the Finns Party, came second to the center-left Social Democrats, winning 39 seats in the 200-seat legislature to the Social Democrats’ 40. Jussi Halla-aho, the leader of the Finns Party, campaigned not just on immigration – the bread and butter issue of nationalists worldwide – but on climate change. Specifically – and considering that Finland stands to be heavily impacted by the rise in global temperatures, shockingly – Halla-aho’s Finns Party framed climate issues as urban and elitist, imposed by a out-of-touch political majority whose policies would end up being detrimental to the average Finn. The rhetoric resonated with what is, judging by the outcome – 2nd place in an election with a 72% turnout – a large portion of Finnish citizens who believe that their country has already shouldered too much of the burden in global efforts to combat the changing climate.
I believe what it boils down to is this: attention to climate change is growing, and with it, activism; and, with that, counter-activism. From the above two elections, we can see that this is an issue that is very salient to the left, but which also is easily integrated into far-right, nationalist talking points. It is too early to make a grand projection on what role climate issues will play in Europe in the coming years based solely on these two elections, but it bears watching: will the fight for environmental justice be the straw that breaks the nationalist camel’s back, or will it add fuel to the already raging fire?
(Picture c/o Wikimedia Commons)