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Central Europe has witnessed a string of victories for populist and nationalist parties in recent years. On Saturday, Slovakia bucked the trend, picking Zuzana Caputova, an unabashedly liberal, pro-EU candidate, as its first female president.

Ms Caputova’s unexpected victory — she entered national politics only a year ago — undoubtedly owes much to the transformation of Slovak politics in the wake of the brutal murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée last year.

But could it also be a sign that the populist surge in central Europe is past its zenith? Ms Caputova’s win comes just two months after Robert Biedron, Poland’s first openly gay politician, founded a political party that backs civil partnerships, separating church and state and loosening the country’s stringent abortion laws. Meanwhile, in Hungary, the upstart Momentum party has begun to rally against strongman Viktor Orban.

There are several reasons why Ms Caputova’s success will be harder to repeat in places such as Hungary and Poland, where nationalists hold sway. The most obvious is that her win was to a large part made possible by the upending of Slovak politics by the murders of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova — an event that is (happily) without parallel in the region.

Another is that Slovakia’s broader starting point was different from that of other countries in the region: although Robert Fico’s Smer party, which has dominated politics for a decade, shares the hostility to migrants of Poland’s and Hungary’s governments, it has not gone anywhere near as far in attacking the judiciary or media as its counterparts in Warsaw and Budapest. Andrej Kiska, the man Ms Caputova will replace as president, was already the region’s most liberal head of state.

“The situation in [central Europe] is varied. If you look at Hungary, the media is not free. So who would promote change?” said Aneta Vilagi, from the Comenius University in Bratislava. “The situation in Hungary is very difficult. It’s hard to imagine that in the coming years the situation would change dramatically.”

But there is one respect in which Ms Caputova’s success does perhaps have broader resonance. Her surge to the front of the field began after another moderate candidate dropped out and endorsed her, leaving Slovakia’s liberal camp united around one candidate, rather than fragmented as elsewhere. The question is whether the region’s other liberals will be able to follow suit.

james.shotter@ft.com; @JamesShotter

Chart du jour: Banking’s Nordic noir

The money laundering scandal that erupted last week at Swedbank, costing chief executive Birgitte Bonnesen her job, has led to renewed scrutiny of the Nordic banking sector and its dominant presence in the Baltic states. The allegations against Swedbank concern dubious transactions in its Estonian branch, echoing revelations at Danske Bank last year. (FT)

Brexit corner

After UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest failure to secure parliamentary backing for her Brexit deal, on Monday it’s the turn of MPs to try and settle on an alternative strategy — be it a customs union, single market membership or a second referendum.

The House of Commons will hold indicative votes in the hope that at least one plan can secure a majority, but where things go from there depends on how Mrs May reacts to whatever parliament decides to do.

The FT examines the nightmare scenario now confronting Mrs May: how to get her deal through the House of Commons without provoking a revolt in what has largely become a Brexit party.

“Parliament is going to keep rejecting the deal, we’re going to end up with a permanent customs union and split in the Tory party,” predicted one senior cabinet minister.

Meanwhile, EU capitals are concerned that British MPs still haven’t grasped the ramifications of the situation: If the UK wants to continue with Brexit, it needs to either rapidly adopt its exit deal or embrace a long extension and take part in EU elections.

The New York Times warns that what Britain is going through amounts to “a hollowing out of confidence in democracy itself”, in a richly reported piece that captures the public’s frustration with the country’s political pantomime.

“I think people have totally lost confidence in democracy, in British democracy and the way it’s run,” said Tommy Turner, 32, a firefighter. He was perched on a stool at the Hare & Hounds, a working-class pub in Surrey, where nearly everyone voted to leave the European Union. Among his friends, he said, he sensed a profound sense of betrayal that Britain was not exiting on March 29, as promised. (NYT)

But the question is: Can Brexit really be wiped from history as easily as the ninth season of Dallas? Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung hopes so in this satire: (FAS

“Samantha Cameron clung to her pillow. But it did not go away. She opened her eyes. The sound came from the bathroom. But that was completely impossible, she was living alone now, after the sudden death of her husband. Samantha got out of bed. Had she perhaps forgotten to turn off the water? No, there was really someone in the shower…” )

Trans-Europe Express

Victorious Volodymyr
A comedian with no political experience has stormed to victory in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, and will now face a run-off against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. (FT)

“Thank you very much . . . everything is super,” victorious candidate Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address after the exit poll results were announced at his campaign headquarters, an upscale Kiev club equipped with fuzzball and bean bags. Earlier he had played table tennis surrounded by journalists.

Macron’s new generation
The French president announced three new arrivals to his government to fill vacancies created by upcoming EU and municipal elections. France’s new Europe minister is 33-year old Amélie de Montchalin, an economist who previously served as an MP. (JDD)

Lega love affair
France’s Le Journal du Dimanche reports on Marine Le Pen’s determined pursuit of Italy’s far-right League party, in the hope of cementing an alliance in the European Parliament elections. But the paper warns that Le Pen’s Rassemblement National might be shunted aside by League leader Matteo Salvini in favour of other partners — not least Poland’s Law and Justice. (JDD)

President Vestager
The EU’s highly regarded competition commissioner has thrown her hat into the ring to become the next European Commission president. In an interview with the FT, Margrethe Vestager said EU leaders had a long to-do list with two urgent issues: climate change and the data-led “industrial revolution” (FT)

Wide open space
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Madrid on Sunday to protest against government neglect of the country’s rapidly depopulating countryside. Between 2011 and 2017, some 60 per cent of local authority areas shrank in terms of population, with midsize towns and even provincial capitals also affected. (El País)

Regulate me, I implore you
Mark Zuckerberg has called for governments to set tougher privacy standards for Facebook and other internet companies. (FT)

@jimbrunsden; jim.brunsden@ft.com

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