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The Survival of Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

Following parliamentary elections in Poland and local elections in Hungary, populist autocrats in both countries remain in power, where they will continue to undermine democratic institutions. Even so, relative victories for opposition forces in both countries show that the region's "illiberal democrats" are not unbeatable.

WARSAW – Is populism in Central and Eastern Europe finally losing its momentum? In Poland, opposition parties won the Senate, and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s share of the vote slipped to 43.7%, from 45.5% in European Parliament elections this past May. And in Hungary’s local elections, the opposition retook power in Budapest and won mayoral races in ten other cities.

The question now is whether these results augur a broader political shift in the region. The PiS’s retention of power in the Sejm – the lower and more powerful chamber of Poland’s parliament – is undeniably a significant success. But the party’s strongman leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, was clearly expecting a better result. The PiS’s loss of the Senate means that it can no longer ram through controversial legislation without any real debate (though its 235 votes in the Sejm will still allow it to override Senate vetoes).

The Polish opposition now has a chance to prove itself. Overall, opposition parties received 900,000 more votes than PiS’s combined total. That means a narrow majority of the electorate is on the opposition’s side, and could deliver a victory for a common opposition candidate in the presidential election next spring. There is no obvious choice for that role, however. Donald Tusk, the outgoing European Parliament president who formerly served as Poland’s prime minister, has been all but forgotten, judging by his weak showing in opinion polls. Nonetheless, the opposition still has time to get organized.