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Central Europe’s Republics of Fans

Central European liberals who focus on defending democracy may manage to unify opposition forces, but will not succeed in reaching the supporters of populist parties. After all, voters living outside big cities expect liberals to defend not only democracy, but their interests, too.

SOFIA – In Ferenc Karinthy’s dystopian 1970 novel Metropole, a talented Hungarian linguist arrives at the airport in Budapest but then goes through the wrong gate, gets on the wrong plane, and lands in a city where no one can understand him, even though he speaks an impressive array of languages. Today, the unfortunate protagonist might find echoes of this tale in Central Europe, which has become one of the most politically confusing parts of the continent.

Although numerous opinion polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks value democracy and the rule of law, the region has not reversed the illiberal turn it took earlier this decade. In 2015, Adam Michnik, the Polish anti-communist dissident and editor of the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza, could say of the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s parliamentary election victory that, “sometimes a beautiful woman loses her mind and goes to bed with a bastard.” But PiS’s repeat success in the October 2019 election suggests that the woman may have decided to marry him.

Why do voters who routinely profess a commitment to democracy also support political leaders who subvert it? And why do liberals’ attempts to position themselves as guardians of democracy fail to bring them electoral success? These are precisely the questions that Milan Svolik, a political science professor at Yale, asked in the July 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy.