War Enters the Election Arena
Local elections, yet with global implications, sure. The Russian-Ukrainian war, or rather the stance towards it, has become one of the key points in the pre-election agendas of European politicians. Conversely, the outcome of European elections will undoubtedly influence the intensity of support for Kyiv from the European Union. Hungary, Estonia, Poland, Slovakia, where else?
Let's start with the "problematic teenager" of Western Europe, Hungary. Hungary doesn't shy away from demonstrating its own opinion, distinct from that of the EU and NATO, regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict. The ruling government relies on the sentiments of its citizens, while also fueling those sentiments. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the de facto political leader, along with his FIDESZ party, won the parliamentary elections in April 2022, securing two-thirds of the votes.
For a political force that has been in power in Hungary since 2010, this result is more than impressive. One of Orban's key campaign slogans went something like this: to prevent Hungary from being dragged into the Russia-Ukraine confrontation. Following their victory in the elections, the Hungarian Prime Minister and his idea of making "free ride" on the European security train can be seen as gaining approval from local voters.
What is the result? Budapest has successfully blocked the launch of the 11th package of EU sanctions against Russia for a couple of months now.
This is not the only issue for the EU, which increasingly understands the threat emanating from Moscow with each passing week. The EU is taking more active measures to prevent this threat.
On September 30, 2023, elections will be held in Slovakia, neighboring Ukraine, where the SMER-SD party led by former Prime Minister Robert Fico, who held office from 2006 to 2010 and from 2012 to 2018, is striving for power. The likelihood of his return to the prime minister's office is acknowledged by the country's president, Zuzana Caputova. Fico is known for his poorly concealed sympathies towards Putin, which reinforced by Russian oil deliveries to Slovakia.
On the path to the start of the parliamentary campaign, Slovakia lost its pro-Ukrainian-oriented Prime Minister, Eduard Heger. He resigned in May, along with several ministers from his government. The country is currently led by a caretaker cabinet headed by banker Ludovit Odor. It is not difficult to imagine that in the event of Robert Fico's return to power, Bratislava could become the second open sympathizer of the Kremlin in the EU, after Budapest.
The closer Moscow, the fewer friends Putin has.
There is also a reverse example: in March 2023, the Reform Party, led by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, won the parliamentary elections in Estonia, which is liberal in its ideology. Their opponents from the Conservative People's Party (Estonian: Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond, EKRE) failed to convince voters that it was their support for Ukraine that led to the highest inflation rate in the European Union in 2022.
Kallas retained the position of prime minister and maintained the course of supporting Ukraine. It is worth noting that both Hungary and Estonia are parliamentary republics, where the role of the head of state is predominantly ceremonial.
Traditionally moderate Czech Republic has demonstrated the full impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war on Central European politics in this year's presidential elections. The challenge to millionaire populist Andrej Babiš came from retired General Petr Pavel, who was once the chairman of NATO's Military Committee. Interestingly, he was the first representative from a newcomer country in the Alliance to hold this position. Pavel did not hide his support for Ukraine during the election campaign, and it turned out that he made the right bet. Consequently, Pavel replaced Milos Zeman, who was well known for his pro-Russian sympathies, in the presidential office.
Since his victory in January 2023, Petr Pavel persistently emphasizes the need to strengthen security. With the straightforwardness of a former special forces operative, the Prague Castle host speaks about the Russian threat. Therefore, the government and parliament have to keep this fact in focus. The powers of the president in the Czech Republic are quite limited as it is a parliamentary republic. However, Petr Pavel brilliantly fulfills the role of moral authority. Moreover, he formally holds the position of the Commander-in-Chief of the Czech Armed Forces.
On the day of this article's publication, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published an interview with Petr Pavel, in which he expressed his intentions with utmost clarity: "...in my opinion, the countries supporting Ukraine in this conflict have been slow in many areas and have postponed the provision of certain types of weaponry. I am proud that the Czech Republic was not one of those countries: from the very beginning, we provided everything we could."
Fierce pre-election battles are expected in another Central European country, Poland. The ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which has been in power for 8 years, will strive to defend its positions in the traditional confrontation with the Civic Platform, led by Donald Tusk. PiS is subservient to the will of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, formally an ordinary parliamentarian but in reality the most influential person in Polish politics.
A recently passed law, known as Tusk Lex, was directed against the leader of the opposition, Tusk, establishing a parliamentary commission to investigate Russian influence on Polish politics and economy. The opposition responded to this initiative with the "June 4 March," drawing clear parallels between themselves and the Solidarity trade union, which exerted significant efforts to bring down the pro-Soviet regime in socialist Poland.
In the second echelon of the Polish pre-election race, we have the coalition "Left", consisting of the Polish Peasants' Party and the "Poland-2050" party, as well as the far-right "Confederation" party. They are vying to overcome the pre-election threshold, which stands at 5% for parties and 8% for political coalitions.
The composition of the negotiation landscape, which will shape the ruling coalition, depends on who from the second echelon will enter the Polish parliament. Currently, the far-right "Confederation" has a better chance of making it to parliament.
It is important to understand that governing the country alone is unlikely for any single political force. A coalition provides ample room for negotiations and compromises, both domestically and in foreign policy.
The "Ukrainian question" will be more crucial than ever in the Polish elections. However, it is unlikely that any participant will try to follow Budapest's path. The Polish people feel the threat from the East too clearly. Of course, it is not excluded that the Kremlin may attempt to exploit the Volhynian tragedy, a dark chapter in Ukrainian-Polish relations. This tragic event will mark its 80th anniversary this July, and Moscow will not miss the opportunity to re-open old historical wounds.
A Little Further from the Frontline
It appears that hot electoral battles will unfold in the Balkans. Early parliamentary elections in Serbia are almost a settled matter. President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić have both agreed to this. The largest country in the Western Balkans continues to balance between sympathy towards Russia and the desire to reap benefits from European Union membership. It is the parliamentary elections that can shape one decision or the other.
Bulgaria is experiencing high political turbulence. It is possible that due to this, the government of Nikolay Denkov and Maria Gabriel will be short-lived. Here too, the influences of Brussels and Moscow intersect.
Cavalry from Beyond the Hills
From June 6th to 9th, 2024, the elections to the European Parliament will take place, where the European People's Party currently plays a leading role. The extent to which it will maintain its positions will depend on the prices of communal services in the coming winter, the inflation rate, and other economic indicators.
Given the current geopolitical circumstances, it is unlikely that any election participants will openly sympathize with the Kremlin. However, this does not negate the Kremlin's perpetual inclination to use pan-European elections and issues to destabilize the situation in the European Union.
The US presidential elections? They are still almost a year and a half away. But the "Ukrainian question" will certainly be at the center of the foreign policy discourse during the primaries and the formation of the political positions of both Democrats and Republicans.
And About Moscow
On March 17, 2024, presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Russia, in which Vladimir Putin has the right to participate under existing norms. Judging by his recent rhetoric, which has become extremely anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western in recent weeks, he hopes that the war will sweep away all accusations against him. Moreover, the administrative machinery, which has flexed its muscles during the war, will easily disregard the voices of those voters whose minds have not been influenced by rigid militaristic propaganda.
The main challenge for Putin is the failures of the Russian army, but rather everything remains manageable in the political field. The only factor of political uncertainty is the strengthening positions of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who leads the Russian private military company Wagner. However, despite Prigozhin's assertiveness, he does not pose a real political challenge to Putin. Rather, he seems like a scarecrow against which even the current Russian president appears quite neighbourly and respectable.