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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.

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