Marie Malenova, a Czech retiree from a prosperous village in South Moravia, has not voted since 1989, when the country held its first free elections after more than 40 years of Communist rule.
She, however, decided to vote again, an event so unusual that her incredulous family registered the change of opinion with photos of her casting her vote in the large white urn in the city’s civic center.
Malenova said he didn’t much like the people he voted for, a formerly divided coalition of center-right parties, describing them as “a lesser evil among our many thieves.”
But at least they had a clear message: we can beat Andrej Babis, the populist prime minister and Czech billionaire. “I wanted a change,” Malenova said, “and something that could defeat Babis.”
Over the past decade, populists have often seemed politically invincible, rising to power across Central and Eastern Europe as part of a global trend of strong leaders who flout democratic norms. But the seemingly unbeatable Babis was defeated as opposition parties pushed aside ideological differences and banded together to oust a prime minister they fear has eroded the country’s democracy.
Its success could have major repercussions in the region and beyond. In Hungary and Poland, where nationalist leaders have damaged democratic institutions and are trying to undermine the European Union, oppositionists are mobilizing, trying to forge united fronts to oust populist leaders in upcoming elections.
“Populism can be beaten,” says Otto Eibl, director of the political science department at Masaryk University in Brno, capital of South Moravia. purpose of producing a change.”
The biggest clash could be in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has promoted himself as the standard-bearer of “illiberal democracy” in Europe, while his party, Fidesz, has steadily removed democratic controls and smothered independent media and the judiciary. .
Orbán has adopted right-wing political positions, such as hostility to immigration, the European Union and LGBT+ rights (although he is adept and has adopted left-wing social policies), which were imitated by his allies in Poland, from the Law and Justice (PiS) party. ), who leads the government.
In recent years, defenders of liberal democracy have been stunned in their efforts to regain power from nationalist leaders adept at instilling fear and presenting themselves as saviors.
Faced with well-oiled and financed political machines like Orbán’s Fidesz or Babis’s Ano, the opposition forces have been notoriously divided—until now.
This weekend, six Hungarian opposition parties will complete a six-week primary, the first of its kind, to form the list of potential candidates in each electoral district to oppose Orbán’s party. The coalition includes groups ranging from nationalist conservatives to leftists who disagree on most things but share a burning desire to get rid of the prime minister.
In Poland, Donald Tusk, former prime minister and former president of the Council of Europe, has tried to unite the main opposition party and people who do not usually vote in an attempt to attract the support of a range of other opposition groups. Calls for opposition unity were also evident in Russia, where parliamentary elections held last month were neither free nor fair.
Allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalni tried to convince voters to unite around 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 break the total grip of power by President Vladimir Putin.
It didn’t work — partly because most opposition candidates were kept off the electoral roll, but also because the Putin administration pressured companies to remove a “smart vote” app the opposition was using to coordinate its campaign.
Like Putin, European populist leaders claim to be defending traditional Christian values against decadent liberals, but unlike the Russian leader, they have yet to hold elections.
Until recently, they were helped by the fact that opposition parties split the vote, leaving few of them much likely to beat highly organized ruling parties.
These governing parties also acquired significant media control. In the Czech Republic, Babis owns a media company with newspapers, websites and other news channels. In Hungary, Orban placed state TV and much of the private media under the control of business allies or partners.
Peter Kreko, director of political research group Political Capital in Budapest, described Hungary as “the most dominated state, with the most centralized media environment” in Europe. But he said the new mobilization of opposition parties could change the political dynamic there. “They have a good message: if you fight the populists, things could be different.”
China, Middle Land
In the Czech elections, this was the main theme. Although Babis is considered less radical than Orbán, he alienated many people in the Czech Republic. They see him as a bully whose wealth and business connections have given him unusual power.
Marie Jikova, successful anti-Babis candidate in South Moravia, part of one of the two opposition coalitions, said facing the prime minister together “was the only way to survive — there was no alternative”.
Her party, the Christian Democrats, differs from the more centrist legends of her coalition on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, so “we agreed not to talk about these issues during the campaign,” she said. Faced with a united bloc of centre-right rivals, Babis and his Ano party have shifted to the right, fighting immigration and the EU. Babis invited Orbán to campaign with him.
“He was desperate to find themes that scared people, convincing them that only he could save them,” Jikova said in an interview in Brno. “Fortunately, it didn’t work.”
Nationally, opposition alliances won 108 of the 200 seats in parliament, a clear majority. In Rozdrojovice, where Malenova voted for the first time since 1989, his coalition benefited from a high turnout and won 37.3% of the vote, a big leap from what its component parties achieved when they ran separately four years ago.
Petr Jerousek, who runs a wine company and has a bar in Rozdrojovice, said his customers usually don’t talk much about politics, but given the choice between Babis and their enemies, “sometimes they get really excited about the discussion.” Jerousek was ecstatic with the final results on Saturday. “People have finally opened their eyes,” he said. “They are fed up.”