In Slovakia, the original discourse of the Catholic Church’s struggle for the preservation of the “traditional family” has spilled over into public politics in the form of what have come to be known as culture wars. New figures have appeared on the scene of anti-gender campaigns. The mobilization of Christian movements, however, is lately being disrupted by a fission in the seemingly unified agenda.
If culture wars are defined as polarizing strategies of political and other elites, the point of which is to frame political issues as questions of morality, culture, and identity, and to put a spotlight on them, then Slovakia has been living through an entirely new phase of culture wars in the past decade.
From the marriage, adoption, and sexual education referendum campaign, which called for the cautionary restriction of the possibility to legalize homosexual marriage or adoption by homosexual couples (2014-2015), through the campaign against the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (widely known as the Istanbul Convention, 2016-2019), to the recent series of proposals on the restriction of access to abortion, the so-called morality issues seem to have spilled over the banks of the discourse dominated by the Catholic Church and the ageing Christian-Democratic Movement (KDH) politicians.
To what and to whom do we owe this? Is there truly no other source of entertainment in a country, some of whose regions have an unemployment rate over 20 percent, whose economic model is still based on cheap labor, and where the pandemic recently sharply highlighted the limits of the health care system?
The word “gender” resounds in churches all over the country, and tens of thousands of people take part in the Marches for Life. Does that mean Slovak people are now demanding a stepping away from the right to abortion and the equalization of hetero- and homosexual couples? This also seems to be suggested, parallel with the anti-gender campaigns, by a part of the political spectrum’s shift toward conservativism.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this is made by the Smer-SD party, whose leader, Robert Fico, had notoriously identified himself as an atheist until, upon the Catholic Church’s request, he included into the constitution the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman (2014), and opposed the Istanbul Convention (2018-2019). When the Slovak Parliament accepted the resolution to stop the ratification process, Fico triumphantly proclaimed that “liberalism’s ass got kicked”.
Anti-Gender Campaigns and Their New Protagonists
In a society that is still conservatively oriented, at least on the demand side, to promptly explain this situation by a hypothetical call for more conservative politics, is, however, slightly distorting. A far stronger explanatory factor, in the case of Slovakia, seems to be the new supply of conservative agenda. Unlike other countries where the international campaign against the Istanbul Convention was effective as well, Slovakia saw the formation of two new conservative political parties, and new personalities of the Pro-Life movement entered Slovak politics.
To view the Slovak anti-gender campaign with a focus on the people who have created it yields a slightly more pragmatic explanation of its scale and intensity. In other words, it is a way of pointing out that behind the force of conservative issues in Slovak politics since roughly 2014, there are (among other things) the dynamics connected to the competition in the national political space.
Anti-gender campaigns began precisely when the traditional Christian-Democratic KDH started to face a crisis, perhaps the most serious one in its entire existence. Between 2008 and 2014, the party was left by its founders and leaders (František Mikloško, Vladimír Palko, Daniel Lipšic, Ján Čarnogurský), and in 2016, it did not make it into the Parliament for the first time.
The year 2016 also marks the beginning of the intensive nationwide campaign against the Istanbul Convention. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, it was KDH who constituted the principal opposition against Vladimír Mečiar’s party HZDS (Movement for a Democratic Slovakia), and greatly contributed to the formation of a coalition that eventually defeated Mečiar in 1998. This moment was dubbed by the winning coalition and its voters as the second, local “End of History”, through which the country connected to the global “End of History”, i.e. the sense of a definitive triumph of liberal democracy, commenced at the beginning of the 1990s.
In 1998, the new government consisted of liberal and conservative right-wing groups, and despite internal differences, it promoted the politics of a liberal-conservative consensus oriented toward the country’s integration into international structures (although abortion, for example, has always been opposed by KDH – in 2001, under Mikuláš Dzurinda’s government, they attempted to include the ban on abortion in the constitution, and upon failing, asked the Constitutional Tribunal to review the constitutionality of the Abortion Law).
The liberal wing of KDH from the times of Mečiar’s rule gradually became independent under Dzurinda’s party SDKÚ (The Slovak Democratic and Christian Union), and left KDH in the hands of a more conservative leadership. The defeat of the right-wing coalition by the Smer party in 2006, when Slovakia was already a part of both the European Union and NATO, however, started a long process of searching for a new agenda, especially on the part of KDH, as the culturally most conservative member of the coalition.
“Morality” issues became the flagship of the party, an element which could clearly distinguish it from the more liberal section of the right, and since the isolation or abduction of the country by autocratic leaders seemed to be a safely staved off threat, the party was able to go its own political way. Or, more precisely, was able to search for it. Weakened by many years of engagement in a neo-liberal government, however, KDH was losing its monopoly over conservative politics, and a vacancy opened on the political scene, which could be fought for by new players. Thus started a competition over the representation and articulation of the Christian voice in politics, unprecedented on the post-revolution conservative right, because for years, KDH relied on the authority, both political and moral, of leaders linked to the Catholic dissent of the Communist era.
This competition was entered by both new and established individuals. With issues such as abortion, gender equality politics, and sexual education in schools, the conservative civil society came to the fore. The Marches for Life, mass gatherings against abortion and for the “traditional family”, for instance, owed their success to the wide platform of organizations united under the title Fórum života (The Forum of Life), led by the young generation inspired by mobilizing strategies used by Christian movements in the United States.
The first March for Life, held as a sort of test run in Košice in 2013, was the product of precisely this experimentation with new tools of mass mobilization. The Forum for Life later entered an even larger coalition named Aliancia za rodinu (The Alliance for Family), which led the campaign for the referendum on family between 2014-2015. The petition proposing the referendum was signed by more than 400,000 people, and even though the referendum itself failed (its result was invalid due to insufficient turnout), the mobilization of such massive support encouraged the Alliance’s further activity oriented at the general public, and its leaders became publicly known personalities.
The Istanbul Convention had already been lobbied against by Christian organizations and the Catholic Church before. But after the relatively successful experience with the referendum for family, the fight against the Istanbul Convention – and more precisely, therefore, against “gender ideology” – was chosen as the new mutual goal of mass mobilization. The term “gender ideology” is, of course, not a coinage of Slovak activists, and the Slovak Bishops’ Conference had already used it in a pastoral letter from December 2013, which warned against the “followers of the culture of death, bringing a new ‘gender ideology’”. The tools of the new Alliance for Family campaign, too, had already been tested out in the previous one: a petition, a wide coalition of civic organizations, marches, lobbying. The Catholic Church supported the new initiatives symbolically as well as financially.
The Christian Voice
For the purposes of the new campaign against “gender ideology”, the coalition was enlarged even further. The new platform, Slovenský dohovor za rodinu (The Slovak Convention for Family), was, most importantly, joined by the charismatic priest Marián Kuffa from Žakoviec, a village in the north-east of Slovakia, until then mostly well-known for his aid to socially excluded people in his parish, provided by his association called Inštitút Krista Veľkňaza (The Institute of Christ the High Priest).
The cooperation with Kuffa, but also with ultra-conservative groups involved in the production and dissemination of hoaxes, contributed to the radicalization of the campaign’s discourse in comparison to the previous times, as well as to a certain transformation of the style of the marches themselves. If the Marches for Life in many ways resemble Gay Pride parades, in that they are celebratory, inclusive events accompanied by cheerful music, the marches of The Slovak Convention for Family resembled Church processions with a serious atmosphere, images of the Virgin Mary, and marchers with quite a high median age, who were asked to count the rosary as they marched. Despite the differences in focus and style – from the Forum of Life through to the Slovak Convention, for a wide spectrum of conservative personalities, these mass mobilization projects became, in a way, a training simulator of political engagement on the national level.
Once the KDH party lost its monopoly, it was possible to observe the diversification of the public representatives of the “Christian voice” – new political parties were formed, as well as new civic platforms and new conservative media (due to splits in editorial teams, the online conservative newspapers Postoj and Štandard were founded in addition to the weekly magazine Týden).
The blending of politics and the civic sector may not have been new, but some of the freshly emergent figures made it right into politics. Not only through the traditional KDH, but also through OĽaNO, Igor Matovič’s party of the “ordinary people and independent personalities”. The co-founder of the Alliance for Family, Anna Verešová, social worker and Pro-Life activist, thus appeared on OĽaNO’s electoral list and in 2016 was elected PM. OĽaNO opened up the path to the Parliament to other key protagonists of the Anti-Istanbul Convention campaign, for example Štefan Kuffa, the director of a hospice in Kežmarok, who entered the National Council of the Slovak Republic in 2012.
Later, due to rifts with OĽaNO’s leadership, he decided to try his luck in KDH, but when they turned their backs on him, he did not hesitate to approach Marian Kotleba’s extreme-right party, ĽSNS. The new conservative politicians who emerged through OĽaNO also include entrepreneur and civic activist Alojz Hlina, who later became the KDH chairman, and high school teacher of the Catholic religion Richard Vašečka, later the co-founder of one of the new conservative parties.
In the competition over the representation of the “Christian voice”, the competitors logically adopted topics which would depict them as trustworthy and authentic. The fight against the “attacks on the traditional family”, the attack on the theological dogma of the difference and complementarity of men and women, and the concept of heterosexual marriage as the cornerstone of society, was waged multi-vocally, and resounded therefore with a multiplied intensity.
What came as no surprise, however, was that after some time of expanding joint platforms, the first splits and schisms appeared. These led to each faction’s need to distinguish itself from its conservative rivals. This political work again relied mainly on issues perceived as conservative. The fission of the conservative space on the political level intensified even further and increased the supply of attitudes toward abortion, marriage, and gender. If one has watched Slovak politics in recent years feeling like there truly are no other urgent issues, then this was largely due to the context of the competition over the conservative positions in the political space, and the preceding collapse of KDH’s monopoly.
The West/East Splitting
The fission during the campaign against “gender ideology” gave birth to three principal streams. The first one can be characterized as liberal-conservative and is represented, for instance, by the contemporary (extra-parliamentary) party KDH, who also defends conservative attitudes, but focuses on a broader range of issues with an emphasis on social policies, and supports the pro-European orientation of the country. The decision to abandon strict conservatism was sealed by the election of new leaders, first Alojz Hlina (appointed chairman after the lost election of 2016), and then Prešov governor Milan Majerský (2020).
The second stream is ultraconservative but pro-European, represented by the newly founded Kresťanská únia (The Christian Union), led by politician and long-standing Member of the European Parliament Anna Záborská. This is also the party of the afore-mentioned Richard Vašečka, who got into politics through OĽaNO. Anna Záborská decided to leave her home party following internal conflicts, which led, among other things, to her low position on the party’s electoral list for the European Parliamentary elections. Before the Slovak Parliamentary election in 2020, Záborská and Vašečka entered a pre-election collaboration with OĽaNO, on whose electoral list they got into the Parliament.
The third stream is connected with the gradual schism between urban conservative intellectuals and the provincial ultraconservative politics championed by the charismatic priest Marián Kuffa, who repeatedly spread hoaxes from conspiratorial websites, who stylized himself as a persecuted Christ, and who had his brother Štefan Kuffa negotiate an alliance with the extreme right. He even disseminated conspiracy theories about the participants and organizers of the reverential-turned-protest gatherings following the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, which shook the country more than most events of the post-revolution development.
Less than a month after the murder, Kuffa delivered and broadcast sermons on YouTube complaining that the gatherings were also attended by “people full of hatred, people from the LGBTI community, and feminists, as well as non-governmental organizations, and, without stopping for breath, suggested that the Parliament introduced “a law they already have in Israel, America, and Russia, so that these organizations have to be transparent about their incomes, and as easy as that, they would be out of the game. Let’s take a look at who finances you – well, well, well! So that’s why you play this kind of politics”. That was when he crossed a red line – respected conservative media gradually, though too late, turned away from him, and the Bishops’ Conference officially admonished him for meddling in politics.
Needless to say, such meddling is no rarity in Slovakia – historian Miloslav Szabó summed it up as Slovak priests’ “temptation of radical politics”. Along with several former politicians close to HZDS or KDH, Marián Kuffa’s brother, Štefan Kuffa, co-founded a new political party called Kresťanská demokracia – Život a prosperita (Christian Democracy – Life and Prosperity), later renamed ŽIVOT – národná strana (LIFE – National Party), which secured itself positions on the electoral list of Marian Kotleba’s extreme-right party, and Kuffa the politician, along with his son, is now an MP again.
The dividing lines between the new camps are interesting: between KDH and the remaining two parties, what matters is their position on the liberal-conservative axis, but the difference between the second and the third stream lies in their attitudes toward the geo-political orientation of the country, rather than toward abortion or gender policies.
While the ambition of Anna Záborská’s Christian Union is to lead a generally cultivated style of European politics, and champion an ultra-conservative agenda as an internally respected player, Kuffa’s party follows up with the pro-Russian streams in conservative Slovak politics (which are nothing new). It can therefore be argued that in the anti-gender campaigns, the East/West splitting, similarly to the splitting between cultural liberals and conservatives, has found new political opportunities, articulation, and representation.
Culture wars – however inaccurate the term – change politics. They change the division of positions in the political space, the make-up of political elites, and the agenda of issues that are given time and attention. But looking at things from the perspective of a demand springing from the “national culture” or the allegedly deeply rooted attitudes only reinforces what is inaccurate about the term “culture wars”.
From such a point of view, it is tempting to explain things through culture, which, however, only serves as a strategy to frame political issues in situations where political opportunities emerge to improve one’s position in the political space. An analysis of the motivations of petition signatories and marchers would of course be helpful. Nevertheless, these remain responses to the challenges to action formulated by social, political, and religious elites. A closer look at the logic of their actions suggests that perhaps we are not condemned to culture wars after all.
The text was created in cooperation with Heinrich Böll Stiftung Prague (HBS) and published in the A2 magazine (issue 24/2021). The author’s views may not reflect the views of HBS. Translated by Alžběta Ambrožová.