Tight Finish in Slovak Vote Makes Government’s Shape Hard to Predict

Two exit polls released early Sunday after Slovakia’s parliamentary election showed a tight finish between a liberal party that wants to maintain robust support for Ukraine in its war with Russia and a Russia-friendly populist party, in a vote that many in Europe saw as a bellwether of support for the war.

But neither of the top two finishers came close to winning a majority, leaving the shape of the next government — and its policy toward Ukraine — dependent on the performance of smaller parties with widely differing views on Russia and on their readiness to form a coalition with either Progressive Slovakia, a liberal grouping, or a rival party headed by Robert Fico, a pugnacious former prime minister strongly opposed to helping Ukraine.

Faced with a plethora of choices between communists and far-right nationalists, Slovakia, a small Central European nation that borders Ukraine, voted on Saturday in a general election freighted with outsize consequences about the West’s support for Ukraine.

Twenty-five parties from across the political spectrum put up candidates for Parliament, but the first- and second-place finishers — separated by less than two percentage points, according to exit polls — offered diametrically opposed positions on Ukraine.

Exit polls indicated that Progressive Slovakia, a liberal party that wants to continue support for Ukraine, had finished just ahead of Mr. Fico’s Smer party.

Analysts cautioned that the official vote count, which was expected to drag on until Sunday morning, could put either party in the lead but with such a narrow margin that both have a shot at forming a coalition government. Early official results that gave Mr. Fico’s party a strong lead came mostly from villages, which are more conservative, and did not include liberal-tilting cities like Bratislava, the capital.

The seemingly close result leaves Voice, the social democratic party of Peter Pellegrini, an estranged former ally of Mr. Fico, as a likely kingmaker.

Despite near-constant political upheaval since the last election in 2020, Slovakia, a member of the European Union and NATO, has been a particularly robust and steady supporter of Ukraine in its war with Russia, welcoming refugees and providing millions of dollars’ worth of mostly Soviet-era weapons. It was the first country to provide Ukraine with fighter jets and air defense missiles.

Given Mr. Fico’s vociferous opposition to aiding the Ukrainians, the election was closely watched across Europe as an indicator of mainstream consensus on the war.

But Slovakia’s election, for most voters, was not primarily about Ukraine, said Dominika Hajdu, an analyst with Globsec, a research group based in Bratislava. “It was more about values, conservatism versus liberalism” and bread-and-butter issues, like food and fuel prices.

As in many other European countries, Slovakia has a proportional voting system that helps smaller parties win seats, so long as they get 5 percent of the vote, and makes the shape of the government dependent on which smaller parties make it over the threshold.

Mr. Pellegrini, whose Voice party finished third, according to exit polls, campaigned on promises to strengthen the state and lower grocery prices. He shares the anti-immigrant views of Mr. Fico, his former boss, and of the far-right nationalist party Republika. Unlike Mr. Fico and the far right, though, Mr. Pellegrini has shown no interest in halting support for Ukraine.

Mr. Fico’s party, Smer, led in the polls throughout much of the campaign but lost momentum in recent days, as previously undecided voters, apparently put off by Mr. Fico’s often aggressive style, sought calmer alternative candidates.

Mr. Fico served for more than a decade as Slovakia’s prime minister until he was forced to step down in 2018 amid widespread public outrage over the murders of Jan Kuciak, a young investigative journalist who was digging into government corruption, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova.

Mr. Fico was replaced as prime minister by Mr. Pellegrini, a protégé who later formed his own rival party.

Progressive Slovakia, which narrowly failed to win seats in the last election, appears to have benefited in Saturday’s vote by its distance from Mr. Fico and the often squabbling center-right politicians who have run the country for the last three years in a series of unstable coalitions.

Previously, the only E.U. member to speak out forcefully against aiding Ukraine was Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an increasingly authoritarian leader whose constant clashes with his nominal partners in NATO and the E.U. on a range of issues have made his country a noisy outlier with limited influence.

Slovakia, governed since 2020 by a series of mainstream, if fractious and very unstable, coalition governments, played an important and early part in rallying Europe’s support to Ukraine and cannot be as easily ignored as Hungary, which officials in Brussels and other major European capitals have come to see as an inveterate troublemaker.

The failure of any party to win anything near a majority in Saturday’s election opened the way to laborious back-room haggling over the composition of a new coalition government that could leave either of the probable top two finishers — Mr. Fico’s Smer party or Progressive Slovakia, led by Michal Simecka, a former journalist and liberal member of the European Parliament — in overall charge.

Mr. Fico vowed during the campaign to “not send a single cartridge” of ammunition to Ukraine if elected and staked out increasingly pro-Russian views, a position amplified by a galaxy of small but influential Moscow-friendly news media outlets in Slovakia and pro-Russian voices on social media.

The vice president of the European Union’s executive arm in Brussels, Vera Jourova, a Czech politician responsible for digital policy, called last week on digital platforms like Facebook and TikTok to do more to blunt what she described as Russia’s “multimillion-euro weapon of mass manipulation” ahead of elections in Slovakia on Saturday and in Poland in mid-October.

The Slovak vote, she said, was a “test case” for Russia’s ability to influence voters’ choices through online disinformation.

Slovakia has deep pools of genuine sympathy for Russia stretching back to the 19th century, when an early Slovak nationalist politician and writer, Ludovit Stur, despairing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s grip on the region, looked to Russia, a fellow Slavic nation, for help. He suggested that land inhabited by Slovaks be absorbed by the Russian Empire.

Russia has worked hard to strengthen these historical sympathies through pro-Russian media outlets and groups like Brat za Brata, or Brother for Brother, a belligerent motorcycle gang affiliated with the Kremlin-sponsored Night Wolves bikers’ group in Russia, which has an influential presence on social media.

A Globsec survey in March of public opinion across Eastern and Central Europe found that 51 percent of Slovaks believed either Ukraine or the West to be “primarily responsible” for the war. The figure is much lower in other Eastern European countries.

Any shift away from support for Ukraine by whatever coalition government is ultimately formed would be unlikely to reduce the flow of arms significantly, given that Slovakia has already given most of what it can spare. Still, it could help bring into the mainstream calls for an end to support, or at least a reduction, which are so far limited to Europe’s political fringes.

The slow progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against entrenched Russian positions in Ukraine’s south has dampened expectations of a quick victory and amplified voices in France and other major European countries opposed to an open-ended commitment to arming Ukraine.

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