More than democracy is at stake in polls in Slovakia and Poland

If Slovaks and Poles vote in conservative, populist forces, this would not bode well for EU unity on Ukraine.

epa10856676 Slovak former Prime Minister and chairman of the Smer-SD party Robert Fico speaks at the party's election campaign rally in Nitra, Slovakia, 12 September 2023. Robert Fico, a socially conservative left-wing populist and two-time former prime minister, takes poll lead ahead of elections and his party has called for stop military aid to neighbouring Ukraine. Parliamentary elections in Slovakia will be held on 30 September 2023. EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK
Former Slovak prime minister and chairman of the Smer-SD party Robert Fico speaks at the party's election campaign rally in Nitra, Slovakia on September 12, 2023 [Martin Divisek/EPA/EFE]

In recent years, populism, nationalism and illiberalism have increasingly come to dominate politics in Central Europe. The epitome of this trend has been Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who, along with his conservative populist Fidesz party, has been in power since 2010. Poland has also gone down the illiberal path, with the nationalist-conservative Law & Justice (PiS) party maintaining its grip on power for the past eight years.

On October 15, Poles will vote in parliamentary elections, which could prolong PiS’s rule. Two weeks earlier, Slovakia, which has been governed by a technocratic government since mid-May after the early demise of a chaotic, centre-right coalition, will head to the polls as well. The country may also bring a populist conservative Smer-Social Democracy to power.

If PiS and Smer-Social Democracy win in Poland and Slovakia, respectively, this would strengthen the populist, illiberal trend in Central Europe and erode post-communist democratisation in the region. Worse still, it could affect the European Union’s common foreign policy towards Ukraine, weakening support for Kyiv.

Democratic backsliding

Smer’s leader Robert Fico is Slovakia’s longest serving prime minister, having held the prime ministerial seat three times. During his previous terms, the democratic development of the country was repeatedly sabotaged.

Fico’s previous governments have been accused of interfering with the independence and integrity of the judiciary and the prosecution. During his tenure, several judges, prosecutors and other officials were alleged to have been involved in bribery, abuse of power and collusion with organised criminal groups.

Fico and his party often attacked and intimidated journalists who criticised their policies or exposed their wrongdoing. He and his political allies also promoted discrimination against minorities and migrants.

It was commonly believed that the 2018 killings of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee and the serious criminal charges brought against many high-profile former members of Fico’s cabinet relating to establishing and leading criminal groups, abuse of public office, and corruption, sealed the prime minister’s political fate.

But he made a comeback last year, launching a particularly crude and tasteless public campaign to boost his popularity. For example, just before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Fico criticised NATO’s military presence in Slovakia, riding on a wave of pro-Russian sentiment. He also attacked the Slovak President, Zuzana Čaputová, labelling her a “US agent” to score political points with his anti-establishment constituency.

A return to power for Fico would not bode well for Slovak democracy. Another premiership for him would entrench the misuse of public resources to reward political supporters and maintain power. It would promote nepotism and corruption, including within the judiciary, which would lead to further erosion of public trust in state institutions and the legal system.

Clientelism and institutional favouring of certain oligarchs, which was pervasive during Fico’s previous terms, would limit economic opportunities for others, and worsen the already significant problem of brain drain, with much-needed structural reforms taking a back seat altogether.

Poland’s democracy is also on the line. Under the leadership of the conservative PiS, the country has failed to meet EU requirements for judicial independence. As a result, Brussels has blocked it from drawing on some 35 billion euros ($37bn) in EU Recovery and Resilience Facility funds.

The Polish government has also undermined media freedom and restricted the rights of minorities, women and LGBTQ+ people. One of the most controversial issues that has sparked protests in Poland is the near-total ban on abortion imposed in January 2021.

The PiS has also tried to instrumentalise the law against its opponents. In May, the Polish parliament passed legislation aimed at purportedly investigating Russian influence in the country between 2007 and 2022. But critics have pointed out that it could be used against members of the opposition ahead of the parliamentary election. The law further strained relations with Brussels, which triggered an infringement procedure against Warsaw.

If PiS wins the October elections and leads another government in Poland, it would continue pursuing its undemocratic agenda, undermining the legitimacy of the judiciary, strengthening its grip on the media, and curtailing fundamental rights and protections of minorities, women and LGBTQ+ people.

Anti-Ukraine posturing

At risk this fall is not just democracy in Central Europe, but the region’s standing in Europe and even Ukraine’s future. Smer-Social Democracy and PiS’s public rhetoric on Ukraine have increasingly raised red flags.

Fico built his electoral campaign on spreading false pro-Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine. He has called Ukrainians “fascists” and ruled out any potential NATO membership for Ukraine, saying that the country should remain a “buffer between Russia and NATO”. He has threatened to withdraw Slovak government support for Kyiv and called the EU “suicidal” for slapping sanctions on Russia.

Whether Fico will act on any of these threats if he takes power is not clear. In the past, he has made similar statements without following up on them with solid policies. For example, in 2016, he called for the EU to lift sanctions against Russia only to support them in EU forums. But a Slovak government led by him would certainly not be good news for Ukraine.

While Poland’s pro-Ukrainian stance has appeared steadfast, in recent weeks, Kyiv and Warsaw have traded jabs over the import of Ukrainian grain. The dispute emerged after the EU decided to lift a ban on such imports into the common European market. Warsaw indicated that it wanted to reinstate the ban in order to protect the interests of Polish farmers, whose profits are threatened by the lower prices of Ukrainian grain. Kyiv criticised these protectionist policies and said they work in favour of Russia.

The dispute escalated into a full-blown diplomatic crisis, with Poland announcing that it would stop supplying weapons to Ukraine and threatening to ban other imports from its neighbour.

The hostile rhetoric by the Polish government may indicate PiS’s desire to secure the support of rural and far-right voters in order to improve its chances of winning an effective majority at the polls. In this context – and given Poles’ longstanding and deep-seated aversion towards Russia – the disagreement with Kyiv is unlikely to result in a dramatic turnaround in Polish foreign policy.

But the spat with Ukraine could see the erosion of trust between the two countries, weakening the EU’s common stance against Russia. It could have negative consequences for Kyiv financially, as well as politically and strategically, should it continue.

Such developments make the elections in Slovakia and Poland consequential not just for the domestic affairs of the two countries. The choices Slovaks and Poles make at the polls this fall will reverberate well beyond their borders.

They will not only determine the future of democracy in Central Europe, but also may affect the delicate equilibrium in the region and the EU’s steadfast support for Ukraine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.