A Russia-friendly populist party finished first in a crowded field on Sunday in Slovakia’s parliamentary elections, a vote that many in Europe have seen as a bellwether of support for the war in Ukraine.
The party led by Robert Fico, a pugnacious former prime minister who has vowed to stop aid to Kyiv, held almost 23 percent of the votes, with nearly all districts tallied, while a liberal party that wants to maintain robust support in the fight against Russia trailed with about 18 percent.
Neither of the top two finishers — Mr. Fico’s populist and nominally left-wing Smer and the liberal Progressive Slovakia — was close to winning a majority, leaving the shape of the next government and its policy toward Ukraine dependent on the performance of smaller parties with widely differing views on Russia and on the ability to form a coalition.
A far-right party even more hostile to helping Ukraine than Mr. Fico’s failed to make it into Parliament, making it difficult for anti-Ukraine forces to form a government.
Faced with a plethora of choices between communists and far-right nationalists, Slovakia, a small Central European nation that borders Ukraine, voted on Saturday in a general election freighted with outsize consequences about the West’s support for Ukraine.
Twenty-five parties from across the political spectrum put up candidates for Parliament, but the first- and second-place finishers offered diametrically opposed positions on Ukraine.
Exit polls early Sunday indicated that Progressive Slovakia — which wants to continue support for Ukraine and is led by Michal Simecka, a former journalist and liberal member of the European Parliament — had finished just ahead of Mr. Fico’s party.
Early official results, mostly from rural areas, put Mr. Fico in the lead, but his opponents believed that a final tally including votes from more liberal-leaning cities like Bratislava, the capital, would be in their favor.
The advantage stayed with Mr. Fico, a former prime minister forced from office in 2018 amid huge protests over the murder of a journalist investigating government corruption. The result sealed a remarkable comeback for a disgraced politician detested by substantial parts of the population and who had been widely counted out after his party fared poorly in the last election in 2020.
Voice, the social democratic party of Peter Pellegrini, an estranged former ally of Mr. Fico, got nearly 15 percent of the vote, putting it in the position of being a possible kingmaker.
Despite near-constant political upheaval since the last election in 2020, Slovakia, a member of the European Union and NATO, had been a particularly robust and steady supporter of Ukraine in its war with Russia, welcoming refugees and providing millions of dollars’ worth of mostly Soviet-era weapons. It was the first country to provide Ukraine with fighter jets and air defense missiles.
Given Mr. Fico’s vociferous opposition to aiding the Ukrainians, the election was closely watched across Europe as an indicator of mainstream consensus on the war.
But Slovakia’s election, for most voters, was not primarily about Ukraine, said Dominika Hajdu, an analyst with Globsec, a research group based in Bratislava. “It was more about values, conservatism versus liberalism” and bread-and-butter issues, like food and fuel prices.
As in many other European countries, Slovakia has a proportional voting system that helps smaller parties win seats, so long as they get 5 percent of the vote, and that makes the shape of the government dependent on which smaller parties meet the threshold. Five appear to have done that in addition to the top two finishers.
Mr. Pellegrini of Voice campaigned on promises to strengthen the state and lower grocery prices. He shares many of the anti-immigrant views of Mr. Fico, his former boss, and of the far-right nationalist party Republika, which fell short of the vote threshold needed to enter Parliament. But unlike Mr. Fico and the far right, Mr. Pellegrini has shown no interest in halting support for Ukraine. There is much bad blood between Mr. Fico and Mr. Pellegrini, a former protégé who became a bitter rival after he formed his own party.
Mr. Fico’s party, Smer, led in the polls throughout much of the campaign. He served for more than a decade as Slovakia’s prime minister until he stepped down in 2018.
Mr. Fico was succeeded as prime minister by Mr. Pellegrini, his lieutenant in Smer who founded the rival party, Voice, after breaking away.
Progressive Slovakia narrowly failed to win seats in the last election but improved its performance on Saturday, appearing to have benefited from its distance from Mr. Fico and the often squabbling center-right politicians who have run the country for the last three years in a series of unstable coalitions.
Previously, the only E.U. member to speak out forcefully against aiding Ukraine was Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an increasingly authoritarian leader whose constant clashes with his nominal partners in NATO and the E.U. on a range of issues have made his country a noisy outlier with limited influence.
Slovakia, governed since 2020 by a series of mainstream, if fractious and very unstable, coalition governments, played an important and early part in rallying Europe’s support to Ukraine and cannot be as easily ignored as Hungary, which officials in Brussels and other major European capitals have come to see as an inveterate troublemaker.
The failure of any party to win anything near a majority on Saturday opened the way to laborious back-room haggling over the composition of a new coalition government.
Mr. Fico vowed during the campaign to “not send a single cartridge” of ammunition to Ukraine if elected and staked out increasingly pro-Russian views, a position amplified by a galaxy of small but influential Moscow-friendly news media outlets in Slovakia and pro-Russian voices on social media.
The vice president of the European Union’s executive arm in Brussels, Vera Jourova, a Czech politician responsible for digital policy, called last week on digital platforms like Facebook and TikTok to do more to blunt what she described as Russia’s “multimillion-euro weapon of mass manipulation” ahead of elections in Slovakia, and in Poland in mid-October.
The Slovak vote, she said, was a “test case” for Russia’s ability to influence voters’ choices through online disinformation.
Slovakia has deep pools of genuine sympathy for Russia stretching back to the 19th century, when an early Slovak nationalist politician and writer, Ludovit Stur, despairing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s grip on the region, looked to Russia, a fellow Slavic nation, for help. He suggested that land inhabited by Slovaks be absorbed by the Russian Empire.
Russia has worked hard to strengthen these historical sympathies through pro-Russian media outlets and groups like Brat za Brata, or Brother for Brother, a belligerent motorcycle gang affiliated with the Kremlin-sponsored Night Wolves bikers’ group in Russia, which has an influential presence on social media.
A Globsec survey in March of public opinion across Eastern and Central Europe found that 51 percent of Slovaks believed either Ukraine or the West to be “primarily responsible” for the war. The figure is much lower in other Eastern European countries.
Any shift away from support for Ukraine would be unlikely to reduce the flow of arms significantly, given that Slovakia has already given most of what it can spare. Still, it could help bring into the mainstream calls for an end to support, or at least a reduction, which are so far limited to Europe’s political fringes.
The slow progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive against entrenched Russian positions in Ukraine’s south has dampened expectations of a quick victory and amplified voices in France and other major European countries opposed to an open-ended commitment to arming Ukraine.
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