Twenty-five years after defeating Meciar, Slovaks face a similar West vs. East choice.

At the end of this month, Slovaks will vote in Central Europe’s most consequential election in a year and a half. At stake: will the new government strengthen Europe or strengthen Russia?

Unlike when Hungarians re-elected Viktor Orban in April 2022, Slovaks will almost certainly elevate to power the fourth different prime minister in less than four years. Turbulence has dominated the last half decade since massive street protests forced Robert Fico to resign after governing for 10 of the previous 12 years. That has led the country into a power vacuum.

The double murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in 2018 highlighted high-level corruption and shocked citizens into action. Their demands for change translated into unexpected electoral victories for two previously untested outsiders. In 2019, Zuzana Caputova was elected the country’s youngest and first female president. In 2020, Igor Matovic’s Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) party rode the wave of discontent to a surprise win in the parliamentary election. But whereas polls show Caputova consistently remaining one of the most trusted politicians in the country, Matovic resigned after barely a year in a government crisis triggered by the purchase of Russian COVID vaccines.

Two government reshuffles later, Caputova announced in June that she will not seek a second term next year. Meanwhile, the caretaker cabinet of Ludovit Odor, which the president appointed in May after yet another government collapsed, has no electoral mandate.

Views on Ukraine War Could Decide the Election

It is thus easy to understand why Slovaks are weary of politics and politicians. The 25 parties on the ballot for the 30 September parliamentary election include no less than five parties led by former prime ministers.

Among many vital questions facing Slovaks is whether the new government will be a continuation of politics driven by personalities or a shift toward politics driven by values.

The most prominent divide over values hinges on the war in neighboring Ukraine. The governments of Odor and his predecessor Eduard Heger were steadfast in their support of Ukraine, as has been Caputova, whose responsibilities include that of commander in chief of the armed forces. But Fico and otherscurrently in opposition have been vocally questioning why Slovakia should be spending precious euros on defending another country, or on public benefits for the approximately 100,000 Ukrainian refugees currently in Slovakia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Slovakia in July at the invitation of President Zuzana Caputova. Slovakia’s popular leader recently announced she will not seek reelection in 2024. Photo via Slovak presidency.

The precariousness of this election presents dangers for Europe. The country is wedged between Poland and Hungary, both of which have caused political headaches for European Union and NATO leaders in recent months and years. In June, the European Court of Justice sided with the European Commission, which had sued Poland for breaching EU law with sweeping changes that endangered the independence of judges. And Hungary’s parliament has dragged its feet in approving Sweden’s accession to NATO, apparently over criticism from Swedish politicians over Hungary’s democratic backsliding.

In contrast, until now Slovakia has been a reliable bastion for European unity on topics ranging from Ukraine to the euro. (Unlike its four EU neighbors Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Austria, Slovakia is a member of both NATO and the eurozone.)

But the current election campaign shows that Bratislava’s faithful pro-EU and pro-Ukraine advocacy cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary, Slovakia has been among the EU states most vulnerable to Russian propaganda and disinformation. And Republika, a far-right extremist party that calls for Slovakia’s withdrawal from NATO, is currently polling in fourth place with 8 percent support. If Fico’s party, which leads the polls, wins, it will likely seek to form a coalition with Republika. The Kremlin would like nothing more.

Will Young Voters Lead the Way?

Aiming to prevent such a scenario are several pro-EU, pro-NATO, pro-Ukraine parties, including Progressive Slovakia, currently polling in second place, and several smaller parties hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

But these parties’ most important offer – which undecided young Slovaks tell us they are seeking – is a set of values that will remain stable, regardless of who happens to be the leader at any given time.

Young Slovaks are very concerned about their future. In recent years, many have already chosen to study or work abroad. Approximately 17 percent of Slovak university students are enrolled in universities outside the country. After only tiny Luxembourg, this is the second highest rate among OECD countries, where the average is 2 percent. Now, many more young Slovaks are considering leaving their country if the election turns their government in a euroskeptic direction.

These young professionals and students do not pine for a charismatic populist leader. Rather, they want politicians and parties to finally develop a mature political culture, where thoughtful leaders debate how to mitigate climate change, enhance energy security, responsibly address migration, and reduce the risks of another pandemic.

Slovaks face a choice similar to that they made 25 years ago this month, when Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, a populist Russophile, was defeated by a coalition of parties that had campaigned on unambiguous European and transatlantic integration. Thanks to the results of that election, Slovakia quickly got back on track and was admitted to both the EU and NATO within six years.

Will Slovak voters steer their country towards Europe again? The results are not likely to be so decisive as to leave the danger at the door. More likely, citizens will be tested again in the first half of 2024, when they will vote in both presidential and European elections. If young and internationally minded Slovaks turn out to vote each time, they can determine the fate not only of Slovakia, but also of Europe.

Lucia Klestincova and Rick Zednik are co-presidents of Volt Slovensko, the Slovak national chapter of the pan-European political party Volt Europa.