In Central Europe, a stereotype of corruption breaks

An election win for an anti-corruption party in Slovakia signifies a popular shift toward making honesty and merit the rule in governance.

Igor Matovic, leader of The Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO), stands in front of Bratislava Castle in Slovakia for a televised interview after the Feb. 29 parliamentary election.

One stereotype of people in Europe’s former communist countries is that they still see personal connections and political favoritism as necessary for success in life. Merit and honesty come a distant second. This image was dealt a blow in the Feb. 29 parliamentary elections in Slovakia (which was once half of Czechoslovakia). An anti-corruption party came out on top, riding a wave of demands for openness, equality, and rule of law in government.

Just by its name alone – Ordinary People and Independent Personalities – the party reflected a popular movement to build a culture of integrity. Its slogan, “Let’s beat the mafia together,” hinted at a shift toward breaking old patterns of corruption. “We want to show ... central Europe has not gone crazy,” the party’s leader, Igor Matovič , told Reuters.

To build a majority in parliament and become prime minister, Mr. Matovič must still form a coalition with other parties. But the momentum for clean governance is well set. Two years ago, after the murder of an investigative journalist, mass protests forced a prime minister to resign and triggered a number of probes into official graft. Then last year, an anti-corruption activist, Zuzana Čaputová, was elected president.

While that position holds few powers, Ms. Čaputová has set a high example. “Maybe we thought that justice and fairness in politics were signs of weakness,” she told supporters in 2019. “Today, we see that they are actually our strengths.”

Mr. Matovič sees his party’s rise as a revival of the pro-democracy uprising 30 years ago, known as the Velvet Revolution, that tumbled communism in Czechoslovakia. Many of Slovakia’s leaders after 1989 were former communists who regarded seats of power as opportunities for self-enrichment. The revolution has not ended, Mr. Matovič told voters during the campaign. Rather it “goes on inside each of us” who believe in its ideals.

As prime minister, he will need to build up institutions that are transparent and accountable. Corruption could soon be seen as the exception and not the rule. And a lingering stereotype could be broken. Many in Slovakia have already made that choice.

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