There have never been more populist governments in place than today. Until now, populists have not been voted out of power in any Western country.
Even though the president of Slovakia has only symbolic power, anti-corruption campaigner Zuzana Caputova’s landslide victory over a populist candidate could signal a change in populists’ ability to make the political weather in Europe. At the same time, the apparent victory of TV comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election suggests that the populist wave may not have crested yet.
Populists are capable of being defeated, but only under one condition: a unified opposition. Unfortunately, political divisions most often persist among opposition parties -- to the benefit of populist forces. That was the case in Poland as long as the country was unable to buck that trend, and it remains the case in every EU country governed by populists: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy.
In Hungary, the post-communist Socialists and the post-fascist Jobbik Party have long shown more contempt for each other than for Prime Minister Viktor Orban. When they finally started cooperating after years of devastating defeats, it was too little, too late. The country’s independent media have since been silenced, and Orban’s power over the state confers such a significant advantage to his own party, Fidesz, that the country’s elections are no longer deemed fair by independent observers.
Still, it is worth remembering that on Feb. 25, 2018, an independent candidate with broad support from all of the opposition parties became mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, a Fidesz stronghold. Had the opposition parties not descended into infighting during the run-up to parliamentary elections last April, Fidesz may not have captured nearly 50 percent of the vote, and Orban might not have been given the means to consolidate power.
In Italy, there are actually left-right divides within both the ruling coalition and the opposition. To form a government last year, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) had to come to terms with the nationalist League Party. Together, they won some 50 percent of the vote, compared to nearly 20 percent for the mainstream Democratic Party and less than 15 percent for former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia.
Hence, Italy’s populists have no one to lose to. But while M5S captured the largest share of the vote in the election last March, the League has since surpassed it in polls and regional elections. This is in keeping with a broader trend: while right-wing populists have remained in favor once in power, their left-wing counterparts have stumbled.
As for Slovakia, the left-wing populist party Smer-SD has finally been defeated after almost two decades in power. But with over 20 percent support, Smer-SD remains the country’s single strongest party. Meanwhile, there are at least ten opposition parties with a shot at entering parliament in the next election, including Caputova’s own Progressive Slovakia, a relatively new party that currently enjoys just 3 percent support.
Caputova’s victory has lent momentum to opponents of populism elsewhere, not least in the Czech Republic, where her campaign was supported by Tomas Halik, a prominent Catholic priest and philosopher, and Karel Schwarzenberg, a former Czech minister of foreign affairs. In the October 2017 general election, Czech voters apparently decided that their country could afford a little madness, so they handed a plurality of votes to Andrej Babis, a scandal-plagued billionaire of Slovak origin whom many have described as a “Czech Trump.”
The Czech presidency is occupied by Milos Zeman, a Social Democrat-turned-nationalist with a soft spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zeman and Babis both act as though they are competing for the title of Europe’s most embarrassing politician. Zeman once held a ceremonial burning of a giant pair of red underwear that had previously been used by the artist collective Ztohoven to mock him. Babis allegedly had his own son kidnapped and sought to commit him to a psychiatric hospital in Crimea to prevent him from testifying about his father’s corrupt business dealings.
Finally, in Poland, opposition parties have united against the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party government. This is a notable achievement, given that the Polish opposition is divided between Civic Platform, the agrarian Polish People’s Party and the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance, the neoliberal Modern party, the leftist Polish Initiative, and the Greens. According to the latest polls, this so-called European Coalition has around 38-42 percent support, which means it could beat the PiS in October.
Much will depend on what happens in next month’s European Parliament elections. But uniting has proved to be easier for Poles than for anyone else in Europe. That means Poland could become the first EU country to overthrow a populist government. It would be only fitting for Poles to trigger a wave of democratic renewal across Eastern Europe, just as they did in 1989.
Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. -- Ed.