7 min read
Subcurrents of European Political Change: The Cases of Slovakia, Poland, and Germany

Ilan Hulkower

The electoral victory of Robert Fico, his social democratic party, and similar minded parties in Slovakia’s September 30th parliamentary election carries with it the prospect of a larger political shift in the country. Mr. Fico who previously held the post of the premiership twice, from 2006 to 2010 and 2012 to 2016, ran his election campaign on a Ukraine and European Union (EU) skeptic platform. Fico now seeks to form a coalition government with other parties, which he is very likely to achieve. Given that the outgoing Slovak government has now joined the chorus of domestic and foreign voices that are skeptical of the benefits of providing aid to Ukraine. By the outgoing government’s action of freezing state military aid to Ukraine, Fico’s promise of not one more bullet to the foreign conflict appears to be a feasible one.

The victory of this Slovak populist effectively doubles the Ukraine-skeptic camp in the European Union by joining the previously isolated Hungarian position. Slovakia may be the first in a long train of European countries to fully reflect the shifting political currents in the continent. This political shift is not confined strictly to the effects of Russo-Ukrainian war or its aftershocks, but the exacerbation of trends and attitudes that in many cases predate that terrible conflict. Political shifts in Poland, Netherlands, and Germany are particularly demonstrative examples of this phenomenon.

It is in Poland where the most dramatic change is taking place within the government itself in advance of its October 15th parliamentary election. The ruling party, Law and Justice, was once a staunch advocate for Ukraine. Yet, more recently there are strong signs that the government of Poland is changing its mind. For instance, Poland, in defiance of pressure and lobbying by the European Union, refused to suspend their ban of Ukrainian grain in an effort to protect their own market.

The situation further escalated when Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki last month tweeted, “We no longer transfer weapons to Ukraine because we are now arming Poland.” The Polish government clarified that this statement applied to future weapons and not what Poland already pledged to Ukraine. The president of Poland then further clarified that his country might be willing to continue to supply Ukraine with older generation weapons to fight the Russians.

This is important because Poland is Ukraine’s sixth largest military donor. The Law and Justice’s election platform appears to consist of increasing appeals to Euroscepticism mixed with a host of economic and anti-Ukrainian immigrant sentiment that has taken hold in Poland. Indeed, the Ukrainians make up the largest immigrant group in Poland with many of them coming to the country in large waves starting in 2014. It has not helped that historically these two groups have been hostile to each other and have bitter memories of either Polish rule or massacres of Poles at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists in the 1940s. 

This strategy may be working as the polls show the ruling party ahead of its closest rival by 4-7 points. Of note is the polling success by the Confederation party that has taken a position further to the right of the Law and Justice party. The Confederation party was polling at 15 percent of the vote in the summer and may, if polling is accurate, become the third largest party.

This has further driven Law and Justice rightward to appeal to voters. Yet, for all this, it remains to be seen whether the two right wing parties’ strategy will pay off on October 15th or whether the right-wing bloc will stumble short of a parliamentary majority. Economic problems, declining trust in conservative institutions like the church, and the long-term social liberalization of the Polish public may yet present too formidable an obstacle for the continuation of the government. Win or lose, the Polish right will remain a strong political force after the election.

The Netherlands has witnessed a political upheaval by the Farmer-Citizen Movement’s (in Dutch, the BBB) big win in the 2023 provincial and senatorial elections. The party managed to win 16 seats in the national senatorial body and became, in the course of one election, the largest political party in the chamber during the highest turnout election in 36 years. The electoral success of the BBB put the ruling government’s mandate in the Dutch senate in serious jeopardy due to their loss of seats. Christian Democratic Appeal’s leader Wopke Hoekstra told the press that his party, a part of the governing coalition, had suffered “a landslide” defeat that was “an extremely bitter pill” to swallow.

The electoral defeat for the government may have played a role in Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s announcement that he would serve until the next general election and then retire, after serving as The Netherland’s leader since 2010. The farmer’s revolt was primarily sparked due to the government’s crackdown against their own agricultural economy in order to meet the European Union’s climate policies back in 2019. This was a major change in a country which is the second largest food exporter by value after the United States. Nevertheless, the Dutch government enforced this new policy of buying up, closing down, and limiting farms vigorously.

Caroline van der Plas, the founder of the BBB, wisely made inroads beyond just the farming community as she has branched out beyond protestation against the new nitrogen laws to criticizing governmental interference into people’s lives generally. She accuses the government of being a distant disinterested entity that is out to manage people even without their consent. The government’s agenda all too often, Plas alleged, is not in line with people’s actual needs. She said in September 2023 that people were worried about whether their children could afford to buy a home and the rising cost of living, neither of which the government was really addressing.

This strategy by the BBB proved fruitful as data from Kantar Public’s analysis of the Dutch vote in the 2023 elections found that the base of their party’s support came from lower-educated and lower-income Dutch citizens. Kantar Public noted that this base was from a broad walk of life beyond just the farming community. They found the party got large parts of both the conservative, liberal, and socialist vote to defect to them. The party’s popular touch has reportedly declined in the polls from their height in April of 22 percent of the vote to 8 percent as of October 9.

However, as BBB’s polling fortunes have fallen, another newly created party, the New Social Contract party, has risen to the top of the polling average. The party is led by Pieter Omtzigt, a popular Member of Parliament (MP), who has been described as “the centrist, anti-establishment candidate.” While MP Omtzigt previously rejected joining the BBB for his run,  if the polling is correct he has certainly stolen much of their populist thunder. What Dutch politics reveals in the polling is that voters want a change of course and are shifting to outside parties to make their voices heard. 

This shift in public attitudes towards outsider parties can be seen even in Germany, the heart of the EU. Survey shows that the vast majority of the German population have expressed the view that they want a change of government over the current one led by Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz they voted for back in 2021. Popular discontent at the government over presiding at the onset of a persistent recession and of a wave of deindustrialization has much to do with this shift. The Russo-Ukrainian War has upset decades of German policy of Ostpolitik toward Russia that has enabled the country’s industrial base to profit from cheap Russian energy.

This policy of importing cheap Russian energy is no more. However, the lack of cheap alternative energy sources has been the main driver behind the current wave of German deindustrialization. Ukraine-skeptic sentiment has for its part capitalized on the declining economic conditions experienced in Germany.

This frustration has contributed to a surge of popular support for the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has been ostracized by the mainstream parties over allegations of antisemitism and racism within the AfD. The average polling of the AfD as of October 11th of this year is at 22 percent of public support. This would make the party the second largest in Germany. The largest party, according to the same polls, would be the CDU/CSU, the mainstream conservative party, which would get 28 percent of the vote.

Whereas the popular support for the AfD have hereto been mostly concentrated in the former East Germany, the party has witnessed polling breakthroughs in western Germany as well. This shifting support is not only hypothetical either. The AfD won a mayorship in a German town in the east and performed well in western states in various elections in 2023.

All of these examples point toward a shift in both political discourse and in popular attitudes across many European countries. Such public shifts are broadly in favor of populist and outsider parties due to socio-economic problems that have been mostly heightened after the onset of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Even within Germany, the economic engine of Europe and the heart of the EU, such shifts have been occurring. In a number of instances, these shifts have been sufficient to enable these parties to gain political power. To be sure, this is not to argue that a linear progression of outsider parties sweeping all before them in election after election and wiping out establishment parties is a guaranteed matter in an election or two. The argument is that should trends continue these parties appear to be maturing politically and on the cusp of mainstream public acceptance.

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