Czechs defeat a populist and offer a roadmap for the overthrow of strongmen
ROZDROJOVICE, Czech Republic – Marie Malenova, a Czech pensioner in a decent, affluent village in South Moravia, had not voted since 1989, the year her country held its first free elections after more than four decades of communist rule.
However, last Friday she decided to vote again, an event so unusual that her disbelieving family recorded her change of heart and took photos of her putting her ballot in a large white box in the meetinghouse.
She said she disliked the people she voted for, a coalition of previously divided center-right parties, and described them as “a lesser evil among all of our many thieves.” But at least they had a simple and clear message: We can beat Andrej Babis, the populist Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, who is worth billions.
“I wanted a change,” said Ms. Malenova, “and I wanted something that Babis could beat.”
Over the past decade, populists like Mr Babis have often appeared politically invincible and have come to power in Central and Eastern Europe as part of a global trend of strong leaders who despise democratic norms. But on Saturday the seemingly unbeatable Mr Babis was defeated as opposition parties put ideological differences aside and banded together to oust a leader they fear has undermined the country’s democracy.
Your success could have a big impact in the region and beyond. In Hungary and Poland, where nationalist leaders have damaged democratic institutions and tried to undermine the European Union, opposition leaders are mobilizing, trying to forge unified fronts and ousting populist leaders in the upcoming elections.
“Populism can be beaten,” said Otto Eibl, head of the political science department at Masaryk University in Brno, the capital of South Moravia. “The first step in beating a populist leader is to suppress individual egos and compromise to bring about change.”
The biggest showdown could come in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promoted himself as Europe’s flag bearer for “illiberal democracy” while his Fidesz party has consistently abolished democratic controls and pressured independent media and judiciary. Mr Orban has staked out right-wing political positions – including hostility to immigration, the European Union, and LGBTQ rights (though proving adept at adopting a left-wing welfare policy) – those of his allies in Poland, the current law, were imitated and justice party.
In recent years, advocates of liberal democracy have become puzzled in their efforts to regain power against nationalist leaders trained in creating fear and portraying themselves as saviors. Faced with well-oiled and well-funded political machines like Mr Orban’s Fidesz party or Mr Babis’ Ano party, opposition forces have been notoriously divided – until now.
This weekend, six Hungarian parties will compete in a week-long opposition primary race, the first of its kind, to shrink the list of potential candidates in each constituency against Mr Orban’s party. The coalition includes groups ranging from nationalist conservatives to leftists who disagree on most matters but share a passionate desire to fire Mr Orban.
In Poland, Donald Tusk, a former Prime Minister and President of the European Council, returned to Poland this summer to gather the largest opposition party and people who often do not vote, and to win the support of a wide variety of other opposition groups.
The calls for opposition unity were also evident in Russia, where parliamentary elections last month were neither free nor fair. Allies of the imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny had tried to convince voters to rally for a single opposition candidate in each constituency, whether they liked the candidate or not, in the name of trying to win a single seat and replace President Vladimir V. . to break Putin’s complete stranglehold on power.
It didn’t work – in part because most genuine opposition candidates were prevented from voting, but also because Putin’s government pressured companies to remove a “smart voting” app that the opposition used to coordinate their campaign.
Like Putin, Europe’s populist leaders claim to defend traditional Christian values against decadent liberals, but unlike Putin, they have to hold real elections. Until recently, they were helped by the fact that the opposition parties split votes, which meant that few of those parties had any great chance of beating highly organized governing parties.
These ruling parties have also gained significant control over the media in their countries. In the Czech Republic, Mr. Babis owns a media holding company with newspapers, internet portals and other news agencies. In Hungary, Mr. Orban has placed state television and many private media outlets under the control of loyal allies or business associates.
Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Research Group in Budapest, described Hungary as “the most widely covered state with the most centralized media environment” in Europe. However, he said the new mobilization of the Hungarian opposition parties could change the political dynamic there.
“They have good news: if you fight against populists, it can be different,” said Kreko.
That was largely the issue in the Czech elections. While Mr Babis is considered less extreme than Mr Orban, he has alienated many people in the Czech Republic. They see him as a tyrant whose wealth and corporate ties have given him undue power.
Marie Jilkova, a successful anti-Babis candidate in South Moravia from one of the two party coalitions that had come together to oppose the prime minister, said that it was the only one for us to join forces around Mr Babis and his party machine to oppose the way to survive – there was no alternative. “
Their own party, the Christian Democrats, differs from the more centrist parties in their coalition on issues like abortion and gay marriage, so they said, “We agreed that we would not talk about these things during the campaign.”
Faced with a united bloc of center-right opponents, Mr Babis and his Ano party waved to the right and railed against immigration and the European Union. He invited Mr. Orban to fight him.
Since he first entered politics almost a decade ago, Mr Babis has been inundated with questions about his financial affairs and those of his conglomerate Agrofert. A week before the election, documents emerged as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ Pandora Papers project showing how he smuggled more than $ 20 million through offshore shell firms to buy real estate in France in 2009.
Experts disagree on whether the reveal had a significant impact on the race, but the revelations clearly shook Mr Babis.
“He really wanted to find problems that frighten people and convince them that only he can save them,” said Ms. Jilkova in an interview in Brno. “Fortunately it didn’t work.”
Nationwide, the opposition coalitions won a clear majority with 108 out of 200 seats in parliament.
In Rozdrojovice, where Ms. Malenova cast her first vote since 1989, Ms. Jilkova’s coalition benefited from a high turnout and won 37.3 percent of the vote, a big leap from the individual parties that stood separately four years ago.
Petr Jerousek, who runs a wine shop and pub in Rozdrojovice, said that his customers usually didn’t talk much about politics, but given the choice between Mr Babis and his enemies, “they were sometimes very excited in their discussion. ”
Mr. Jerousek was delighted with the final result on late Saturday. “Finally people have opened their eyes,” he says. “You have enough.”
Petr Stransky, a former police officer who now drives a city bus, was discouraged. “I don’t like clutter and I want things to be clear in society,” he said, lamenting Mr Babis’ defeat by saying that it was unfair for opposition parties to band together.
“When we fought in the school yard as children, it was always one against one. Five children who fought against you were cowards. It was clear who would win, ”he said. “That choice was the same. It wasn’t fair. “
The village’s mayor, Daniel Strasky, said he wanted to see Mr Babis leave, but he did not vote because he represents an alliance between his own party, the mayors and other local dignitaries, and the pirates, a ferocious, opposed group popular with young voters.
But, he added, the loveless electoral marriage was probably worth it because it helped defeat Mr Babis, whose handouts to retirees, young train travelers and other budget-busting measures violated the mayor’s belief in financial discipline.
Strasky was also dismayed by the prime minister’s tirades against immigration, especially because a family from Vietnam runs the village’s only grocery store.
“I and everyone else in the village are so happy that they are here,” said the mayor. “Nobody else would ever run this place.”
Benjamin Novak contributed the reporting from Budapest and Petra Korlaar from Rozdrojovice.