A tug of war in Poland and Slovakia

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Welcome back. It came as quite a shock this week when Poland, one of Ukraine’s staunchest European allies, declared that, although it would honour existing contracts, it would stop new weapons supplies to Kyiv. We shall see how long the measure lasts — but, one way or another, it underscores the importance of parliamentary elections to be held in Slovakia on September 30 and in Poland on October 15.

Each contest will measure the strength of political illiberalism in central Europe. Each will also test the depth and solidity of the region’s support for Ukraine in its war of self-defence against Russia. I’m at tony.barber@ft.com.

The Slovak and Polish elections fall at a delicate moment for the EU. On the one hand, the 27-nation bloc is trying to maintain a united front of military and financial backing for Ukraine. But cracks are appearing in that support, and there is deep concern about what will happen if the Republican party wins the White House in next year’s US presidential election and scales back Washington’s commitment to Ukraine.

On the other hand, the EU is preparing the ground for potentially far-reaching internal reforms to open a path for Ukraine and other countries, mainly in the Balkans, to join the bloc. Election victories for populist or conservative nationalist parties in Slovakia and Poland would raise questions about whether such reforms might be paralysed by disputes among existing EU member states, leaving Ukraine and fellow candidates languishing on the sidelines.

A thorn in the EU’s side

Political illiberalism, in its central European guise, has been a thorn in the EU’s side since Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán won the first of four consecutive election victories in 2010. The trend gathered pace with the ascent to power in 2015 of Poland’s rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which was re-elected in 2019.

However, it isn’t one-way traffic in central Europe, as Soňa Muzikárová, a Slovak political economist, reminded us in the FT this month. In the Czech Republic, opponents of populism won parliamentary elections in 2021 and a presidential election last January. Slovenia’s parliamentary contest of April 2022 produced a similar result.

Now attention is turning to Slovakia and Poland — a pair of countries where we must be careful to highlight the differences as well as the similarities in political culture and foreign policy.

Robert Fico: Slovak bogeyman or blusterer?

The central questions in Slovakia’s election are whether former premier Robert Fico will return to power, perhaps taking the country down an Orbán-style illiberal path; and whether the next government, whatever its political leanings, will continue Slovakia’s present policy of firm support for Ukraine.

Right now, opinion polls put Fico’s ostensibly centre-left Smer party ahead of all its rivals, but far short of the support needed to form a government on its own.

Bar chart of Percentage of vote in opinion poll, September 21 2023 showing Slovakia's Smer is in the lead

I’d like to draw your attention to two first-class analyses of Slovakia’s political scene. One…

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