The two most recent attempts to defeat populists in power in Hungary and Turkey failed. Moreover, the populist coalition won the election in Italy. The populists are growing in strength in many countries. It is no longer impossible to envisage that democracy and rule of law are under assault and are being weakened by the populist leaders.
The German regional elections held in two Länder (Hesse and Bavaria states) saw a comeback of the far-right Alliance for Germany (AfD). In the recent elections of Türkiye, a six-party opposition alliance failed to unseat the popular right-wing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Normally a third electoral victory gives the authoritarian leaders long enough time to capture the democratic institutions, subdue the judiciary, staff the public administration with loyalists, muzzle the independent media and stamp their opponents as unpatriotic.
Perhaps the only exception was Brazil elections, where the leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidential election by a whisker in 2022, defeating the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Lula secured 50.8 percent of the vote compared with 49.2 percent for Bolsonaro.
“There are a number of institutional constraints there that limit Bolsonaro’s ability to act, and therefore I classify his government as radical right, not extreme right, in the ideological family of the populist radical right,” “Bolsonaro, on the other hand, we can classify as a right-wing extremist leader because he has been an apologist for the most violent period of Brazil’s military dictatorship and does not accept the rules of the game of democracy” David Magalhaes, a professor of international relations at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, makes a distinction between outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro and his government.
The latest example of the comeback of populists is Slovakia, where the populist leader of the Direction – Social Democracy (SMER) Party, Robert Fico, has made a political comeback despite a poor record of governance riddled with scandals during his reign from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018. Fico campaigned on a populist platform of halting military assistance to Ukraine, opposing Kyiv’s quest for membership of NATO and EU, stopping migrants and putting Slovaks first.
Liberals do not get much response from electorate these days to cheer them up, but the latest news from Poland surprisingly cheers them. Poles turned out in large numbers on Oct. 15 to vote down the populist-nationalist Law and Justice party that has run the country for the last eight years. They gave a solid mandate to an opposition coalition headed by Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and a former head of the European Council too. The opposition coalition won 248 seats in the 460-member Sejm, the lower house, and 66 of 100 seats in the Senate, the upper house.
It was a very unfair contest, with Law and Justice Party being pumped up by the state-owned media and massively financed by state-owned companies. In spite of the dice are loaded against the opposition coalition, this is the first time in Europe’s modern history that populists are defeated in a democratic election.
Even though liberal democracy is under pressure in several countries and the jingoist appeals of populist leaders resonate with many voters, the case of Poland demonstrates that the populist leaders are not invincible.
The united fight by the opposition parties misfired in Hungary and Turkey. The state-owned media there successfully portrayed the opposition blocks as motley groups of frustrated people and the ruling parties as reliable defenders of national values. In contrast, the three opposition parties ran separately in Poland. The Polish voters knew the opposition parties would cooperate with each other in government formation, and they had a choice of voting for a party consistent with their views. This also had some tactical advantages. The state-owned media of Poland could not focus their fire on a single opposition block.
There was also mass mobilisation of people by the opposition parties ahead of the elections, by way of pro-democracy demonstrations to celebrate the anniversary of Poland’s first semi-free elections held in 1989. The liberal opposition leaders in Poland also demonstrated civil courage and worked hard.
It also helped them to have a united opposition front behind a clear leader, Tusk, a personality of international standing who has the stature to take on the populists.
Both Tusk and Holownia of the centrist Third Way Party travelled extensively for months, reaching out to the most remote parts of the country. They participated and spoke at open events in areas often visibly hostile to the opposition parties. And a televised ‘debate’ on the state-owned TVP, which was biased and moderated by Law and Justice Party loyalists, backfired on the ruling party. Clearly Prime Minister Morawiecki representing the Law and Justice Party, underperformed in the debate with Donald Franciszek Tusk of the Civic Platform Party and Szymon Holownia of the Third Way Party, as well as the Left Party’s representative.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Poland 58th in the world for media freedom. Abortion rights were drastically scaled back through a 2021 Polish law, only being allowed in exceptional cases of rape and incest. LGBTQIA+ rights have also been frowned upon. Polish society is deeply polarised. To its credit, ruling Law and Justice Party has been a strong supporter of Ukraine and absorbed about one million refugees from Ukraine since Russia’s invasion.
It was a narrow win for the liberal opposition parties, with 35% of Polish voters still voting for the ruling Law and Justice Party and another 7% voting for the far-right Confederation. However, the first-time voters in Poland and the women made the difference, delivering a majority to the pro-democratic parties.
Poland shows the way. In spite of the ruling populists having a complete control of the state-owned media and capture of state institutions, the pro-democratic opposition win demonstrates that there is nothing inevitable about the advancement of right-wing populism. It kindles a ray of hope for the liberals in the rest of the democracies.
As Jeremy Bentham, the 19th century English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer famously said, “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance”.
[Photo by European People’s Party, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired senior corporate professional.