sierakowski39_VLADIMIR SIMICEKAFPGetty Images_zuzana caputova Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images

How to Beat a Populist

The progressive reformer Zuzana Čaputová’s victory in Slovakia's presidential election suggests that populists' biggest strength is a weak opposition. If her winning formula is adopted elsewhere, populist forces' recent gains in Western democracies could be reversed.

WARSAW – 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 Čaputová’s landslide victory over a populist candidate this weekend 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, for example, the post-communist Socialists and the post-fascist Jobbik party have long shown more contempt for each other than for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. 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 Orbán’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 February 25, 2018, an independent candidate with broad support from all of the opposition parties won the mayoralty of Hódmezővásárhely, 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% of the vote, and Orbán 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% of the vote, compared to nearly 20% for the mainstream Democratic Party and less than 15% for former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia.

Hence, as matters stand, 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.

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As for Slovakia, the left-wing populist party Smer-SD and its leader, former Prime Minister Robert Fico, have finally been defeated after almost two decades in power. But with over 20% 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 Čaputová’s own Progressive Slovakia, a relatively new party that currently enjoys just 3% support.

Leading a political party in Slovakia is no great feat in itself. The conservative We Are Family party, led by a man who has fathered nine children with eight women, won 6.6% of the vote in the last parliamentary election. Moreover, around 25% of the electorate consistently supports the extreme right, which itself is divided between Marian Kotleba (“Our Slovakia”) and the movement around the far-right jurist Štefan Harabin.

Still, Čaputová’s victory has lent momentum to opponents of populism elsewhere, not least in the Czech Republic, where her campaign was supported by Tomáš Halík, 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 happy and peaceful country could afford a little madness, so they handed a plurality of votes to Andrej Babiš, a scandal-plagued billionaire of Slovak origin whom many have described as a “Czech Trump.”

The Czech presidency is currently occupied by Miloš Zeman, a Social Democrat-turned-nationalist with a soft spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zeman and Babiš both act as though they are competing for the title of Europe’s most embarrassing politician. Zeman, for example, 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. For his part, Babiš allegedly had his own son kidnapped and sought to commit him to a psychiatric hospital in Russian-occupied Crimea to prevent him from testifying about his father’s corrupt business dealings.

So, if Polish politics is currently mimicking the cinema of moral anxiety of the 1970s, our southern neighbors are in the midst of an absurdist comedy. For now, however, the fractured opposition – comprising the center-right Civic Democratic Party, the techno-liberal Pirate Party, the far-right anti-immigrant Freedom Party (led by the half-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura), and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia – has failed to carry through votes of no confidence in the prime minister.

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% support, which means it could beat the PiS in the parliamentary election 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 – on the 30th anniversary of the fall of communism, no less. It would be only fitting for Poles to trigger a wave of democratic renewal across Eastern Europe, just as they did in 1989.

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