Slovakia and Poland at the Ballot: Pellegrini Prevails, Political Deadlock in Warsaw
Fabio Turco 17 April 2024

On the weekend of April 6-7, the citizens of both Poland and Slovakia went back to the polls, only six months after elections that resulted in important shifts in their respective governments. These more recent elections constituted a first test for the new executives. The elections in Poland were for local administration, while those in Slovakia were presidential.


Slovakia: Victory for Pellegrini (and Fico)

At the start of the weekend, the citizens of Slovakia elected a successor to President Zuzana Čaputová. Peter Pellegrini, the government candidate, won with 53.1 percent of the vote, defeating pro-NATO and pro-EU former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivan Korčok. A decisive victory, but not one that could have been easily predicted. Two weeks prior, Korčok had won the first round of the election with 42.5 percent of the vote, while Pellegrini came in second with 37 percent.

Two factors made the difference. First, Pellegrini likely received votes from many who originally opted for nationalist and pro-Russian candidate Štefan Harabin. The latter won 11.7 percent of the vote in the first round. Second, turnout was very high: over 61 percent of the electorate voted, the second-highest turnout since Slovakia began holding direct presidential elections.

For Pellegrini, who is 48 and an economist by training, this victory constitutes the highest achievement so far in a political career that began in 2006. For many years, he was one of the most prominent members of Direction – Social Democracy, the party of the current Prime Minister Robert Fico. In 2018, when Fico had to resign as prime minister following a scandal connected to the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, it was Pellegrini who replaced him.

Pellegrini led Slovakia until the 2020 elections, when he ran for the position of prime minister. After losing, he founded a new party, Voice – Social Democracy, a more moderate version of Direction, broadly social-democratic but with a strong tendency toward sovereigntism and populism. The breakaway from Direction caused some personal acrimony between Pellegrini and Fico, which they resolved only last year when electoral results made it necessary for the two parties to form a new majority together. In exchange, Pellegrini first became Speaker of the National Council, and then the government’s presidential candidate.

Pellegrini’s victory aligns the presidency with the executive. Although a Slovak president’s duties are largely ceremonial, the fact that they are directly elected by the country’s citizens lends them a certain institutional prestige, as well as significant weight within the broader political conversation. Such was the case for Zuzana Čaputová, who in her final months as president fully opposed the new government. Fico will certainly be glad that the new president is an ally, someone who will not attempt to obstruct his work. Fico himself has been keen to present this election as a kind of referendum on the first months of his government, which have included a controversial judiciary reform, complicated dealings with the media, and public protests.

These results seem to have been above all influenced by foreign affairs. In the two weeks separating the first round of the elections from the second, Pellegrini launched several harsh attacks against Korčok, calling him a warmonger for his openness to sending weapons to Ukraine and accusing him of wanting to send Slovak soldiers to fight for Kiev. Neither thing would be within the Slovakian president’s remit.


Fear of involvement in the war in Ukraine may have motivated many people to vote

Pellegrini’s stance with regards to Ukraine more closely aligns Slovakia with Hungary. Indeed, Viktor Orbán may be seen as another victor of this election. The Hungarian prime minister openly supported Pellegrini, in a bid to sway the country’s significant Hungarian minority. The Hungarian Alliance party, which represents this minority, backed Pellegrini after its own candidate, Krisztián Forró, lost in the first round. Slovakia’s newfound closeness to Hungary lends greater influence to the latter within the V4 regional forum as well as within Europe more broadly.

Certainly, the Kremlin also rejoices in its new ally. Russia has been accused of targeting Slovakia with a years-long campaign of misinformation to benefit populist and nationalist parties. A few days before the election, investigative magazine VSquare revealed that in the run-up to the 2020 elections Pellegrini himself had asked the Hungarian government to help persuade the Kremlin to help him win. The Moscow-Budapest-Bratislava Triangle may emerge as a significant force in the region.


Poland: A Draw
On the same weekend in April, the Polish electorate voted for its mayors, as well as for its representatives at the levels of towns, provinces, and regions. The final results almost perfectly replicate the October election. Conservative party Law and Justice (PiS) remains the most popular party, with 34.2 percent of the vote. The party currently in government, Civic Coalition (KO), won 30.6 percent of the vote, and the centrists of Third Way won 14.2 percent. Konfederacja, an extreme-right party, came in fourth with 7.2 percent. The only party that suffered a notable loss was left-wing Lewica, which obtained 6.3 percent of the vote, compared to about 8 percent in October.

This result may be read in a number of different ways. PiS may rejoice at its confirmed popularity, which contradicts rumors of its decline. Its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, is already eyeing the upcoming European elections in June and next year’s presidential elections, confident that he will be in power again soon. However, even though the three government coalition parties (KO, Third Way and Lewica) ran separately, together they obtained over 50 percent of the vote, which is not insignificant.

In particular, Civic Coalition, the party of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, won the majority of the vote in 9 voivodates (regions) out of 16. If we add the votes that went to Third Way and Lewica, then the government coalition won in 11 voivodates out of 16. Still, Tusk’s party remains the strongest at the mayoral level, decisively winning in Danzig, Katowice and Warsaw. Notably, Warsaw saw the re-election one of the most prominent members of Civic Coalition, Rafał Trzaskowski, who may run in the upcoming presidential elections.

By contrast, Krakow and Braslaw are headed for runoffs. In both cases, the PiS will not be running. Yet another confirmation of the split between rural areas and urban centers.

Ultimately, however, the most interesting aspect of this election is the turnout. Only 51.9 percent of the electorate voted. This is a far cry from the 74.4 percent that went to the polls six months ago. For the governing coalition, whose victory at the previous election seem to result from a higher turnout, particularly among the young, this must ring an alarm bell. It is important to think about why many stayed home this time. One reason may be dissatisfaction toward the government’s approach to a key issue, the law on abortion access. The Sejm will discuss a few different proposals in the coming days, but there are already significant disagreements on the matter between the three coalition parties. They need to find a solution soon, certainly before the European elections in June.



Cover photo: Presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini (L) and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico (R) speak to journalists after the announcement of Pellegrini’s victory in the second round of the Slovak presidential elections, April 6, 2024 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Vladimir Simicek / AFP.)

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