They call her the Tatra Tigress, the fiery sociologist with flowing blonde hair who is set to take office as Slovakia’s first female prime minister on 8 July. Dr Iveta Radicova is the leader of the SDKU, the largest of the four centre-right parties that won 79 out of 150 seats in the June elections, toppling the left-wing populist, Robert Fico.
The sighs of relief could be heard from Washington to Brussels when Ivan Gasparovic, the president of Slovakia, asked Dr Radicova to create a coalition government. Slovakia’s friends and allies hope that her coalition government will mark the start of a new era, turning away from the old-style authoritarian, nationalistic politics and towards a forward-looking modernity – with a decidedly feminine touch.
Dr Radicova, 53, is a widow, and her late husband, Stano Radic, was one of Slovakia’s best-known comedians and intellectuals. She models herself on Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, but unlike Ms Merkel, is often emotional in public, says Milan Nic, a political analyst at the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank. “She is emotional and temperamental. She has a temper and she likes to show it off. Rather than being seen as a tough and resolute politician, she prefers to spend time with artists and intellectuals.”
Slovakia is one of Europe’s newest nations, carved out of the former Czechoslovakia, and independent only since 1993. For much of that time progress has been decidedly bumpy. Under the autocratic rule of Vladimir Meciar, the country’s first prime minister, Slovakia languished while its neighbours, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic pulled ahead in the race to European integration.
All that changed in 1998 after the election of Miklos Dzurinda as prime minister. Dzurinda kick-started the moribund Slovak economy, slashed taxes and attracted substantial foreign investment, especially in car manufacturing. Radicova served briefly under Dzurinda as minister for social affairs, as the compassionate face of his financially stringent government.
But in 2006 Dzurinda lost to Robert Fico, who claimed to be a leftist but formed a coalition with the far-right and openly racist and anti-Roma Slovak National Party. Although democratically elected, Fico seemed to be firmly of the region’s authoritarian old school: he attacked the media, launching numerous libel suits against the media, courted Russia, attempted to control sections of the economy and passed a restrictive law on minority languages that caused relations with Hungary to plunge to new depths. Even so, his strident populism resonated with many of his countrymen: his party, Smer, won 62 seats, making it the largest fraction, but not large enough for a majority.
But now the Tatra Tigress is about to take control, Slovakia is at a crucial turning point, says Milan Nic. “We are a deeply polarised country, with two faces. One is modern and culturally diverse. The other is nationally and culturally homogenous. The modern face won in June, just. But the country had modernised more than we thought and had adapted better than we realised.”
Dr Radicova faces enormous challenges and will have to clear up the country’s messy public finances while maintaining the social welfare safety net. But when she growls, Slovakia – and its neighbours – will sit up and listen.