December 07, 2021

Refining the Anti-Populist Playbook

By Carisa Nietsche

Czech voters delivered an upset in their country’s parliamentary election in October, choosing a coalition of mainly center-right opposition parties over the movement led by the populist former prime minister, Andrej Babiš. With the new coalition naming Petr Fiala as the new prime minister, the outcome adds to a growing playbook of strategies for competing against illiberal populists in Central Europe and Turkey.

During Babiš’s tenure as prime minister, he presided over a decline in democracy in the Czech Republic and was embroiled in several corruption scandals. Though Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have fueled more significant democratic declines in their respective countries, Babiš relied on some of their methods, including efforts to take over the state administration and undermine the independence of news media.

Anti-democratic leaders learn from one another to refine their approach to dismantling democracy. To defeat them, democratic opposition parties should draw five lessons from recent elections in the Czech Republic and elsewhere.

Although the worldwide populist surge is far from over, liberal democratic forces in Central Europe and Turkey have shown that they can reverse this backwards march. By learning from each other, opposition parties will stand a much better chance of defeating demagogues and safeguarding democracy.

First, unity is crucial. In the Czech election, the opposition parties that comprise the new government formed two ideologically broad electoral blocs. Hungary, where a fragmented opposition has failed to mount an effective challenge to Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party since 2010, has long offered a cautionary counterpoint. But six opposition parties have joined forces in their bid to oust Fidesz in next year’s parliamentary election, and recently nominated provincial mayor Péter Márki-Zay as their candidate to challenge Orbán.

A second priority is to address local issues. For example, some analysts attribute Hillary Clinton’s 2016 US presidential election defeat by Donald Trump in part to the Democratic Party’s failure to nurture grassroots support in key states such as Wisconsin.

Contrast that with Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski’s unexpectedly strong showing in Poland’s 2020 presidential election. Although Trzaskowski narrowly lost to the incumbent Andrzej Duda of the illiberal ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, he showed how a supposed “urban elite” politician can connect with rural voters.

Read the full article from Project Syndicate.

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