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Migration ‘used to mobilize voters’ ahead of elections in Slovakia and Poland

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Migration has become a hot topic in Slovakia and Poland in the run-up to elections on September 30 and October 15, with politicians raising the hotly debated topic to galvanize voters and governments reintroducing border controls in the region.

An increase in illegal migration along the Balkan route to Slovakia Local politicians have called for increased border control in recent weeks. This is ahead of the knife’s edge legislative elections on September 30, during which two-time Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his populist pro-Russian SMER-SD party hope to make a comeback.

Poland also saw the re-emergence of migration as a burning issue in the run-up to the October 15 legislative elections. The ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is leading a tight election against the center-right Civic Coalition (KO) party, has made migration a central theme of its campaign in a bid to consolidate votes.

“For some more right-wing parties, migration has always been a no-go,” says Alena Kudzko, vice president for policy and programming at the GLOBSEC think tank in Bratislava. However, in recent weeks, more centrist parties have started campaigning on migration in the hope of a last-minute surge in votes, she adds.

The speeches were similar across the board, with “many politicians saying ‘we should protect Slovakia;’ migration is not safe for Slovaks,” says Kudzko. Hoping to ride the wave of anti-immigration sentiment prevalent in Slovak society, even the pro-European social democratic party HLAS-SD published billboards proclaiming “Stop Illegal Immigration” just a few weeks ago. before the elections.

A reintroduction of border controls in the region

An increase in illegal immigration on the Balkan route to Central Europe has also prompted some Slovak politicians to call for tighter border controls.

Slovakia has seen a wave of migrants in recent months, many of them from Afghanistan and Syria. During the first eight months of 2023, the country recorded around 24,500 migrants entered illegally – mostly from Serbia via Hungary.

The growing number of illegal migrants crossing its borders has prompted neighboring Poland enter checks on vehicles crossing the Slovak border on September 25. This followed the Czech Republic and Austria. border controls reintroduced with Slovakia last year to stem the flow of immigrants.

Some politicians blame the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for the sudden influx as part of an effort to boost his anti-migrant compatriot Fico’s chances of returning to power on September 30. Many migrants currently in Slovakia have had no difficulty entering the country from Hungary, and Orban has reportedly released more than 1,400 people convicted of human trafficking from prison.

Fico regularly highlighted the rise in illegal immigration during the election campaign. “We want to remind the Slovak government that it has all the options – legislative, technical and human – to relaunch controls at the Slovak-Hungarian borders,” he said during a press conference broadcast on Facebook.

The Slovak interim government led by Prime Minister Ludovít Odor said it was impossible to seal the 650 km border with Hungary. It sent up to 500 troops to help police patrol border areas and took steps to quickly register migrants.

Migration has been classified in a recent survey as the third item on a list of voters’ concerns, with 15% of voters saying they are concerned about illegal immigration. “Politicians are trying to appeal to this concerned part of the population who are demanding a much tougher stance on migration,” Kudzko said.

Parties campaigning for tighter migration policies know that this issue is even higher on their supporters’ agenda. Between 20 and 30 percent of voters in SMER-SD and the far-right parties SNS and Republika said migration was Slovakia’s biggest problem – a much higher percentage than the entire population.

But Kudzko believes that the illegal immigration situation in Slovakia has been exaggerated in the run-up to the elections. “The truth is, most people don’t stay. Transit countries, like Slovakia, know that they just need to get migrants through,” she says, while comparing the situation with that of Poland, where migrants who managed to cross the Polish-Belarusian border often continued on their way to Germany.

“A fear of migration” in Poland

In Poland, a battle is playing out between PiS and the Civic Platform for future control of Parliament, with migration being “used to arouse emotion and mobilize voters”, according to Andrzej Bobinski, political analyst at Polityka Insight.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on September 29 that Poland would maintain its veto on a European Union migration pact as the bloc seeks an agreement on sharing responsibility for asylum seekers who reach Europe in outside official border crossings.

Polish leaders, expressing opposition to the European Union’s plan to relocate migrants and asylum seekers within the bloc, have frequently argued that they have already filled their quota of migrants in welcoming around a million Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war.

A feeling tired with the war in Ukraine also taking hold. The far-right party Confederation (Confederation), says Poland is not getting the gratitude it deserves for arming Ukraine and accepting its refugees.

The emergence of the Confederation has put pressure on the Polish political establishment, to the extent that PiS may have to accept the latter as a coalition partner to stay in power.

Several factors could work in favor of the party in power on election day. “The migrant crisis on the border with Belarus in (2021)… caused a big scare in Poland. Pis built a wall and continues to organize events like press conferences around the wall every day,” says Bobinski.

The ruling party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski also frequently uses photos from recent events in Lampedusa. Earlier this month, some 8,500 migrants arrived on the small Italian fishing island in the space of a few days, overwhelming the tourist destination.

“People don’t change their minds, they will either vote for PiS or for KO. The only thing both parties can do is mobilize their voters who belong to very polarized camps,” explains Bobinski.

Yet, “whatever happens in the end, for many people, deep down in the soul, there is the fear of migration,” Bobinski concludes.

(With AFP)

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