Look, we at Good Authority get it. Russia’s war against Ukraine is not doing a good job conforming to the short-attention-span-24-hour-news-cycle that we seem to be living in these days. Despite some rather dramatic developments in the early weeks of the war and then again last fall, this summer’s Ukrainian counteroffensive has produced few “breaking news” storylines. The conflict looks, instead, like a war of attrition.
Enter the 2023 Slovakian elections.
The party of ex-Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who famously declared that if he returned as prime minister Slovakia would not send “a single round more” of ammunition to Ukraine, won the September 30, 2023, Slovak parliamentary election. Suddenly, a development! Headlines in the English-language press appeared along the lines of “Pro-Russian Win In Slovakia Elections a Red Flag for Ukraine” and “Unease in the West as Slovakia Appears Set to Join the Putin Sympathizers.” And even prior to the election we were warned that “Slovakia’s Election Threatens to Upend Western Unity on Ukraine.”
There are, however, two important lessons from political science to keep in mind when interpreting these results – and what the 2023 Slovak elections say about Western unity and public opinion towards supporting Ukraine.
First, Slovakia has a parliamentary system of government. This means that Fico’s Smer party “won” the election with 23% of the vote. It will therefore not be able to govern alone, but gets the first shot at forming a government. At best, Smer will enter a coalition with other parties, not all of which share its position on Ukraine. At worst, Smer may not even enter the government, as there is no guarantee that it will be a part of the coalition that emerges from these negotiations. Indeed, that’s happened before, when the leading party wasn’t part of the government that formed following Slovakia’s 1998 parliamentary elections.
(As an aside, Slovakia is a county of approximately 5.5 million people. According to the Slovak National Statistic Office, just under 3 million voted in the election. Smer got 681,017 votes. For added perspective, the net population of the U.S., E.U., South Korea, and Japan – all of which are providing support to Ukraine – adds up to close to 1 billion people.)
Second, political science has repeatedly shown that voters care more about domestic politics than foreign policy when casting their votes in national elections. So of those approximately 700,000 people who voted for Smer, many likely were thinking of reasons other than their feelings about supporting Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Indeed, when I reached out to University of Birmingham professor Tim Haughton, a political scientist who was in Slovakia for the election and has been studying Slovak politics for more than 20 years, he was emphatic on this point. Tim’s response: “The Markiza exit poll showed that the main reasons for choosing parties were [being a] strong leader, bringing order, dealing with economic challenges of ordinary people, and choosing a party that was most likely to deliver prosperity for Slovakia. Foreign policy might be linked to some of these themes, BUT THIS WAS AN ELECTION DRIVEN BY DOMESTIC FACTORS” [caps from Tim’s email].
When I asked Tim for his assessment of the likelihood that the emerging government would lead to an about face in Slovakia’s position towards supporting Ukraine, his response was much more nuanced than most of the headlines we’ve seen in the aftermath of the election:
There can be a large gap between rhetoric and reality. On the basis of [Fico’s] rhetoric we would expect any Fico-led government to mean Slovakia will turn from a staunch supporter of the Western coalition’s stance on Ukraine to become pro-Putin. However, if Fico does become prime minister two factors might have a significant impact. Firstly, any government will be a coalition government involving the Hlas (Voice) party. Peter Pellegrini, the leader of Hlas, has stressed he doesn’t want a change in Slovakia’s geopolitical orientation. Forming a coalition would provide a justification for making the reality of a Fico government’s foreign policy different from the campaign rhetoric. Secondly, Robert Fico’s primary interests are in domestic politics. His priorities are to deliver for his base, his financial backers, and associates. He may just be happy for Slovakia to take a back seat, stress that a small country like Slovakia has very little influence anyway in NATO and the E.U., and focus his energies on domestic politics.
Taking these two points together, therefore, suggests that caution is in order in interpreting the Slovak elections as any sort of decisive game-changer in terms of Western support for Ukraine, either at the mass level or the elite level. If Fico does become prime minister in the weeks ahead, he won’t be the first NATO leader opposed to providing military support to Ukraine (see: Hungary’s Victor Orbán), nor is he likely to be the last. But for now, the biggest impact of the 2023 Slovak parliamentary elections is likely to be felt in Slovakia – as voters watch to see how the next government tackles domestic issues such as inflation, corruption, energy prices, and populism.