On Saturday 30th September, Slovakians made their way to the polls to elect a new parliament, with the results promising to have a profound impact, not only on domestic affairs but on the balance of power across Europe and the illegal Russian war in Ukraine.
In the lead-up to the election, opinion polls had suggested that the Smer-SSD (Smer) party led by Slovakia’s populist former prime minister Robert Fico, would be run close by Progressive Slovakia (PS), led by Michal Šimečka, a vice-president of the European Parliament.
Throughout his campaign, Fico had been incredibly vocal about his intentions to halt military aid to Kyiv should his party be victorious at the polls. As the results of the election came in, Fico was seen wearing a wry smile with his party celebrating a clear win, making him the favourite to lead the country for a fourth time.
Fico jubilantly announced to reporters that he was waiting for Slovakia’s president to give him a mandate to start forming a government – expected on Monday 2nd October – after officials declared that Smer-SD had scored 22.9% in Saturday’s vote with 99.98% of ballots counted. He also stated that his position on halting military aid to Ukraine “had not changed.”
Slovakia’s President, Zuzana Caputova a former member of Progressive Slovakia and a longtime political rival of Fico, told the media that she would task him with forming a new government. “I will entrust the formation of the government to the winner of the election.”
With concerns over Fico’s pro-Moscow stance, The Atlantic Dispatch spoke with Dr Veronika Poniscjakova, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Portsmouth who explained to us the complicated political situation in Slovakia, what the nation’s reaction to the war in Ukraine has been and what the consequences of withdrawing aid to Kyiv could mean.
How can you best explain the current political status in Slovakia and how is it about to change?
Poniscjakova: The last parliamentary election was held three years ago, and in its aftermath, a centre-right coalition was formed, it was rather unstable though, and due to constant disagreements, PM Matovic stepped down, and was replaced by PM Eduard Heger, from the same party (initially, until he broke away and formed his own).
It was during Heger’s tenure that the war in Ukraine broke out, and his government was really supportive of Ukraine, welcomed refugees, provided aid to Ukraine, and visited Kyiv early on.
Heger’s foreign policy was rather effective but domestic issues persisted, as did issues within the coalition, and the government fell. Heger then led a caretaker government, which was ultimately replaced by a technocrat government of PM Odor who was appointed by President Caputova.
Caputova has also been supportive of Ukraine from day 1 of the war. She is, however, not running for re-election in 2024, so Ukraine will lose another ally.
Meanwhile, during Heger’s tenure, the opposition in Slovakia (composed of centre-left, and far-right parties), criticised the government’s response, engaged in misinformation and disinformation, blamed Ukraine and NATO for the war’s outbreak, praised Russia, and argued that Slovakia should align itself with Russia.
This former opposition (plus one other nationalist party that didn’t make it to the last parliament) is now very likely to form a coalition government.
What do you believe will be the ultimate outcome of Saturday’s vote?
Poniscjakova: Most polls predicted that SMER would win the election, and would be able to form a government with right-wing and far-right wing parties.
The next couple of weeks will be crucial. To form a coalition, the parties involved will have to compromise a lot. SMER may have an easier job putting together a coalition than Progressive Slovakia though.
I think that the best outcome would be a coalition that is pro-EU, pro-NATO and pro-Ukraine, and should stay aligned with the West, and democratic states.
Slovakia was once part of the communist block and under Soviet influence, and it should not be part of the Russian sphere of influence for everyone’s sake. That is the best outcome.
But, personally, the least I hope for is that the far-right wing party Republic will not be part of a government. Not only do they have radical views regarding NATO, EU, Ukraine and Russia, but many of their candidates have praised the wartime Slovak government, and have denied the Holocaust. This is just unacceptable.
What is the feeling of the public in Slovakia towards sending aid to Kyiv and what is the sentiment towards Russia? How have refugees been welcomed in Slovakia?
Poniscjakova: Sadly, a great chunk of the Slovak public has been a victim of effective Russian propaganda, and they believe that the war was caused by NATO – the United States in particular, so some people are opposed to sending more aid, and want a closer relationship with Russia.
Some people, especially from poorer and more rural areas, are also opposed to any programmes helping Ukrainian refugees.
Having said that, after the war started, and Ukrainian refugees started arriving in Slovakia, so many people volunteered to help, they offered their homes, and provided aid, and overall, there was a huge sense of solidarity and empathy for those people in need.
What effect has the Russian-Ukrainian conflict had on Slovakia?
Poniscjakova: I think the conflict further polarized Slovakia. I think many people realise that if Russia wins, it means that Russia will seek to control other areas, like Slovakia.
These people will be voting for the parties that are very pro-NATO, and they want to ensure that Slovakia will remain a sovereign, democratic, Western state. But other people, who have been consuming all the pro-Russian propaganda, will do the exact opposite.
If Slovakia were to halt aid to Kyiv, what do you think the consequences of this could be and do you think it could result in a Domino effect?
Poniscjakova: I definitely think that there could be more countries that may stop (or limit) providing aid to Ukraine, mainly for populist reasons. There’s a parliamentary election in Poland in two weeks’ time, and the far-right challenger to the current government is running on that very same platform.
In the United States, we can see the same thing. The Republican Party presidential debates we have seen thus far show us the divide, and what could potentially happen. And it’s not just the presidential election, there are many candidates running for Congress that are vehemently opposed to any aid to Ukraine.
Why is Fico so set on stopping aid to Kyiv?
Poniscjakova: He’s a populist and will do anything to get more votes. He’s been relatively critical of NATO and the United States, and his base loves it. No one seems to remember that when he was in power, he was very much committed to NATO, and made multiple trade deals with the United States.
It is hard to predict what he will do if he does form the next government. He may withdraw aid to Kyiv, as he has been campaigning (and if he forms the government with the far-right, neo-nazi party, then he will be forced to stop aid), but if there are moderating forces, and if the public is more open to sending aid to Kyiv, then he will too. He’s an opportunist populist.
With thanks to Dr Veronika Poniscjakova, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Portsmouth Military Education team based at Royal Air Force (RAF) Halton.