Global Agenda Non-Military Security

Euro-elections exposed to populism and disinformation

Peter Dubóczi

Slovak voter turnout in the past (four) Euro-elections has always been the lowest among all member states. Current polls predict a more robust interest in this year’s elections. However, part of the Slovak electorate is mobilised by disinformation and other objectionable content. This may lead to the fact that, even after many years, a welcome higher voter turnout may be a double-edged sword.

Mobilising voters through disinformation and dubious narratives is particularly inherent to parties that are either trying to save their future (the Republika party and the Slovak National Party) or continue to build on the successful wave of previous elections at the national level (SMER-SSD). The pre-election communication of these parties is linked mainly by the narratives they use – apart from appeals to nationalism or false calls for peace, the individual candidates rely on the time-tested demonisation of Brussels and Western values.

The European Union is distant to a large part of the Slovak population. Brussels is, therefore, an ideal target for attacks, while at the same time, it is easy to project an image of an external enemy. What one does not know is easier to be frightened by. A number of factors contribute to this – the long-standing two-faced rhetoric of politicians (who blame the EU at home and cooperate abroad), the low level of belonging to a European identity, and the lesser recognition of EU activities and institutions. The rhetoric of the candidates, which we discuss below, does not seek to remedy these problems. On the contrary, it pragmatically deepens them.

Participation vs. vulnerabilities

In 2014, 13.05% of voters in Slovakia took part in the European elections. This was a record-low figure. Five years ago, turnout was almost 23%. Despite this, it remained the lowest of all EU member states. Several polls predict an all-time high turnout of Slovak voters on 8 June 2024.

The growing interest in the Euro-elections is an EU-wide trend. One of the reasons is the current geopolitical situation. In February and March, up to 62% of Slovaks expressed a likely interest in voting in the elections to the European Parliament (EP) in June. A recent survey by the Central European Digital Media Observatory (CEDMO) reports similar figures. According to its results, 39% of respondents in Slovakia would definitely take part in the European elections, and another 23% would rather say yes.

Despite optimistic expectations, we can conservatively estimate the turnout of Slovak voters in the EP elections to be around 30%. Thus, this will still be the election in which Slovaks express the least interest, which is also reflected in the weight of the votes. This is stronger than in the case of other elections, which makes it more attractive for political entities that suffered losses in the parliamentary elections. To give an example, polling agencies estimate the far-right Republika Srpska to have between seven and 11% of the vote in the Euro-election surveys.

The atmosphere in which Slovakia finds itself after the campaigns for the parliamentary and presidential elections may also play into the hands of the ruling coalition. The electorate of SMER-SSD, Hlas-SD and SNS seems to be a bit more mobilised. Paradoxically, it may also include supporters who are Eurosceptic or even outright anti-Western.

For a long time, we have been focusing on the participation figures when evaluating the European elections in Slovakia. However, quantity may be far from being more important than the resilience and awareness of the electorate. Today, voters may be subject to non-factual information and manipulation in their decision-making by candidates who, paradoxically, want to win an EP seat despite their continuous rejection of the EU’s core ideas.

This vulnerability of Slovak voters is also indirectly pointed out by this year’s study by the Slovak Academy of Sciences, which focused on the issue of conspiracy theories. The results are clear: Slovak respondents approve of anti-Western conspiracy theories the most among the V4 countries. At the same time, their adherents are mainly aligned with the political left and conservatism, which can be (and is) grist for the mill of the Slovak disinformation ecosystem.

According to the latest Globsec Trends survey, up to 29% of Slovaks perceive their values or identity threatened by the EU. According to 66%, the EU dictates what we should do without Slovakia being able to influence it. This is also a result of the disinformation narratives that the EU has been facing for a long time. These are often in line with Russian propaganda and are spread in Slovakia by politicians, among others.

Mobilisation through fear, lies and populism

The formula, which is also used by several candidates in Slovakia in the run-up to the European elections, is simple and relies on creating an “us vs. them” dynamic. The primary message to voters is that the EU is trying to hurt them. It is a bogeyman; it is something different from us, and nothing good awaits us. How to overturn this?

By electing precisely those candidates who spread this fear on the platform of the war in Ukraine (war vs. peace), the sovereignty of Slovakia (sovereignty vs. dictate), or some kind of value clash (traditional values vs. Western, decadent, liberal, progressive values). The modus operandi of such disinformation actors in Slovakia is straightforward – to create the illusion of a threat from Brussels, to mobilise voters to participate in elections through fear and to continue the rhetoric of so-called united patriotic forces coming to the aid of the interests of the ordinary population.

Just look at how SMER-SSD, the far-right Republika and Slovak National Party (SNS), have been communicating in recent weeks. The parties are linked by strong anti-EU sentiment, national populism and a pro-Russian vision of the geopolitical situation. The pillars of the rhetoric are shaped in particular by Prime Minister Robert Fico, who has long pitted the interests of Slovakia and the EU against each other, continuously accusing the EU of supporting the mutual killing of Slavs and warmongering in Ukraine. He contrasts this with the so-called sovereign foreign policy of Slovakia, which he presents as a pioneer of peace in Europe.

False calls for peace and a slightly harsher glorification of Russia are presented by the SMER-SSD’s number two candidate, Ľuboš Blaha, who wants to “fight against creeping fascism” in Brussels. On another occasion, he claims that “Western European nations should grovel and thank the Russians for their liberation”. Such statements feed on the sediments of Soviet propaganda, which the Kremlin uses to this day, trying to portray Russia as a perennial fighter against Nazism. At the same time, they falsely argue the essence of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which Moscow is absolved of with the help of the rhetoric of Slovak government officials.

In the eyes of some SMER-SSD candidates, Russia is a friend of Slovakia – in recent months, they have been appealing in particular to the historical role of the Red Army (liberation during World War II). Quite paradoxically, this is done especially by those who today refuse to militarily help the occupied Ukraine. What is more, these candidates hide behind this deviation from Western unity, their latest transgressions against the rule of law and democracy.

They manipulatively present the threat of stopping EU funds as the EU’s reaction to the sovereign foreign policy of Slovakia, which is supposed to fight against the warmongering of Brussels in this alternative reality. It can be expected that coalition parties will similarly interpret the skirmishes they may get into with the EU over the draft law on NGOs.

Ľuboš Blaha’s rhetoric, which inspires others on the SMER-SSD candidates list (e.g. Monika Beňová, Erik Kaliňák or Katarína Roth Neveďalová), could attract voters who would not normally be interested in the Euro elections. Alternatively, the scenario from the parliamentary elections could be repeated, where SMER-SSD would win over a part of the far-right Republika’s electorate with its relatable claims.

The Euro-elections are crucial for the Republika party following last year’s failure in parliamentary elections. Milan Uhrík has been actively involved in the election campaign for a long time, and in recent weeks, he has been gradually joined by other co-candidates – from Milan Mazúrek to Anna Belousovová, to Lívia Pavlíková (moderator of KulturBlog). In terms of rhetoric, the far-right movement does not differ much from SMER-SDD.

Like Fico, they speculate about the future of the EU, in which there will be less freedom and democracy but more oppression of small member states. In addition to downplaying green policies and scaremongering about the so-called Brussels dictate, the Republika’s candidates focus on manipulatively creating an image of an insecure, ineffective and decadent EU that is supposed to rob Slovakia of its sovereignty.

Fear and uncertain situations need their heroes and solutions – for the Republika party, these are the patriots (or rather nationalists); for SMER-SSD, it is the sovereign Slovak state interest. SNS, on the other hand, sticks to the narrative with which it attacks the democratic opposition – unlike the liberals, Slovakia will not betray Brussels. The nationalists would rather betray Slovak democracy and the rule of law.

Slovakia is no anomaly. To illustrate, the French party of Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) is polling over 30%, and the German AfD is estimated to have around 18% of the vote. It is still to be seen how the recent scandals of some of its members, who are alleged to be on the payroll of Russia and China, will affect the preferences of the German far-right.

The rise in the influence of populists, whether far-left or far-right, in the European Parliament, is,, therefore,, a pan-European concern and trend. Today, it is no longer a question of whether the EU is sufficiently prepared ahead of the elections. Rather, the focus should be on whether it is resilient and ready for what may come after the elections, not least thanks to the new composition of the EP.

Photo credit: by djedzura from Getty Images/Canva.com

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