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Will Slovakia’s Elections Signal War Fatigue?

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The often-overlooked Central European country’s elections serve as a bellwether over Western public attitudes concerning the war in Ukraine.

Slovakia will hold elections at the end of this month, just over thirty years after securing an elusive permanent independence. Unelected governments have led the country for nearly a year, as former Prime Minister Eduard Heger resigned following a vote of no-confidence in December 2022, and the country’s president appointed a caretaker “technocratic” government in May of this year.

Three-time former Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer – sociálna demokracia (Direction – Social Democracy) party has led polls for months. Fico is a populist who is difficult to categorize ideologically. He possesses undeniable political skills but holds significant baggage from his previous tenures in office. Even if he secures the highest vote tally, he might struggle to find willing coalition partners. In deeply fragmented Slovak politics, coalitions of several parties are often required to form a government, and this year figures to be no different.

Americans should take note of the outcome in Slovakia this year, as it could portend the voting behavior of a war-weary, economically encumbered populace ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The State of Slovakia

To the extent that Western media analyze the Slovak elections at all, they tend to present events through a distorted lens. They assume a successful outcome for Fico and Smer would signal alignment with neighbors Hungary and Poland, which are often at odds with the Brussels political establishment (in fact, Fico has a track record of strained relations with Hungary and Slovakia’s Hungarian minority community.) They also project a Russia-hyperfocus onto Slovak voters. Neither is accurate or helpful for understanding the country.

Consider a few examples. The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris asserted, “Within the E.U., some officials and diplomats voice concern about a leader who might align with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban,” and described Fico’s strong polling as “a pro-Russian tide in Slovakia.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s Andrea Dudik and Daniel Hornak fancifully warned that a Fico regime would “add a new challenge to Western allies,” labeled Orban “an old ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” and suggested a Fico-led Slovakia “could be isolated within the EU along with Orban.”

Slovak voters, though, are concerned primarily with matters closer to home, and Slovak politicians are campaigning accordingly. If the war next door affects voter behavior, it is overwhelmingly through its economic ramifications.

The country is buckling under inflation that has reached crisis proportions. It soared to over 12 percent in 2022 and is forecast to tally at just under 11 percent this year. It is currently over twice the eurozone average. Food prices are particularly onerous. Ukrainian agricultural imports are burdening Slovak farmers.

Proud of their eurozone membership and remarkable economic management after starting from scratch in 1993, Slovaks grapple with the fact that their GDP, adjusted for purchasing power parity, has fallen behind those of Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and EU economic laggard Romania. Slovaks perceive not only that they are no longer catching up economically to the West; they are, in fact, falling further behind.

This unease is reflected in the ongoing political campaigning. Ads for Peter Pellegrini, another former prime minister, simply ask: “Do you want cheaper energy?” The Christian Democrats assert, “You deserve better.” Fico declares, “People deserve security.”

Amid this economic turmoil, Slovaks are tiring of the war’s repercussions. The unelected caretaker government has proceeded with arms shipments and economic sanctions, despite the deprivations at home and the relative unpopularity of these measures among voters. Public outcry ensued after the government donated more than a dozen military aircraft to Ukraine but did not provide direct air rescue to Slovaks stranded in Greece during this summer’s wildfires. The chasm between the current political powers-that-be and the people is palpable.

A Bellwether Election

Onlookers can view this election as a bellwether for two reasons.

First, Slovakia’s political environment has developed differently from its neighbors, and therefore tends to defy standard ideological classification.

In Czechia, Hungary, and Poland, communist-era elites morphed into the democratic era’s establishment Left, and they largely oversaw accession to the EU, NATO, and the free market. Nationalists and Christian democrats preserved a broad anti-communist front, and this morphed into the modern establishment Right.

Slovakia, lacking long experience with nationhood, first had to learn to direct its own affairs from Bratislava. Furthermore, communism enjoys a different legacy here. Many Slovaks associate the communist regime with industrialization and modernization, while their more industrialized neighbors remember stagnation. The communist atrocities of 1956, 1968, and 1980 resonate less vividly here than in Budapest, Prague, or Warsaw. For several reasons, the country’s nationalists and Christian democrats did not unite politically. The legacy of supporting or rejecting independence in the early 1990s still matters.

This results in fractured political movements that have elements of both Left and Right and usually fail to gain anything close to an outright majority in parliament. It makes for difficult governance, but it allows Slovakia to escape the simplistic ideological rhetoric of Western observers. If Slovak voters offer a pronouncement on the war, it cannot be viewed through a standard ideological lens.

The second reason the Slovak elections are a bellwether is due to the way the country’s prevailing historical and geopolitical forces lend themselves to status quo preservation.

More than most in the region, Slovak geopolitical strategy privileges the status quo. Unlike Hungary, which lost two-thirds of its territory after World War I, and Poland, which can still observe Stalin’s fingerprints on its geopolitical realities, Slovakia did quite well when it gained its long-awaited independence. No significant Slovak population lives beyond the country’s borders in neighboring nations. The minority Hungarian community is steadily becoming “Slovakized” or moving to Hungary or elsewhere in the West. Despite the war in a neighboring country, Slovaks feel militarily sheltered. There remains the specter of losing territory to Hungary or being forcefully reunited with Czechia, both of which happened in the last century, but it is not an immediate pressing reality.

This all results in a minimal appetite for clashing with Brussels or Washington. The longer the status quo prevails, the better for Slovakia’s hard-won independence. Thus, if Slovaks challenge what is regarded as the Brussels-prescribed order on a major issue like the war in Ukraine, the international community ought to take notice.

An October Surprise

The October elections in neighboring Poland will garner more international attention, but they arguably will prove less of a bellwether for the United States and other Western countries. The country, after all, has endured centuries of Russian atrocities and shares borders with both Russia and Belarus. These distinctions do not apply to Slovakia.

If Fico and other war-skeptic forces triumph in Slovakia this month, Western media will turn to regular and overused explanations: that the results stem from a local variation of “Trumpism,” or are because of “Russian propaganda” and “democratic backsliding.” The informed observer will note a simpler explanation: people deserve security.

Péter Szitás is a research fellow at the Danube Institute. He is a former adjunct professor at J. Selye University in Komárno, Slovakia, and the Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, Slovakia. He holds a Ph.D. in literature and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from Eötvös Loránd University, in Budapest, Hungary, and a Master of Arts in International Security and Defense Policy from the National University of Public Service, in Budapest, Hungary, and is a Ph.D. candidate at the latter.

Michael O’Shea is a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute. He is an alumnus of the Budapest Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Hungary Foundation and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina and a Master of Business Administration from Indiana University.