Populist leaders in Eastern Europe face a small problem: unpopularity
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – A right-wing populist wave in Eastern Europe, stirred up by Donald J. Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, did not crash following his defeat last November. But it has come up against a serious obstacle: its leaders are not very popular.
After winning the election by preying on widely hated elites, it turns out that the right-wing populists of Europe’s formerly communist eastern flank are themselves not very popular. Much of this is due to unpopular coronavirus lockdowns and, like other leaders, regardless of their political complexion, their stumbling responses to the health crisis. But they are also under the pressure of increasing fatigue with their division tactics.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is opposed by an unusually united opposition. In Poland, the deeply conservative government has made a sharp left turn in economic policy to regain support. And in Slovenia, the far-right party in power of Prime Minister in love with Trump is catastrophically collapsing in the polls.
Slovenian leader Janez Jansa, who made international headlines congratulating Mr. Trump on his “victory” in November and is a self-proclaimed scourge of liberal elites, or what he calls communists, is perhaps the most at risk of the unpopularity of the region. populists.
That has since plunged to 26% and Mr Jansa is so unpopular that the Allies are stepping down from the ship. The street protests against him drew up to tens of thousands, a huge turnout in a normally placid Alpine nation with a population of just two million.
Mr Jansa staggered, barely surviving a vote of no confidence in parliament and a recent attempt to impeach opposition lawmakers and defectors from his coalition.
But he has been so weakened “that he has no power to do anything else” than curse his enemies on Twitter, said Ziga Turk, a university professor and minister in a previous government led by Mr Jansa. , who left the ruling party in 2019.
An admirer of Hungarian Mr. Orban, Mr. Jansa sought to bring the news media into line, as the nationalist governments of Hungary and Poland have largely succeeded in doing, at least with television.
But the only TV channel that consistently backs it up, Nova24TV, a bombastic company partly funded by Hungary, has so few viewers – less than one percent of TV audiences most of the time – that it does not even appear in the rankings.
Slavoj Zizek, famous philosopher and self-proclaimed “moderately conservative Marxist” – one of the few well-known Slovenes outside the country, along with Melania Trump – said it was too early to dismiss leaders like Mr. Jansa, Mr. Orban . and Jaroslaw Kaczynski from Poland, whose three countries he described as a “new axis of evil”.
Nationalist populists, he said, have rarely won popularity contests. Their most important asset, he said, has been the dismay of their opponents, many of whom the philosopher sees as too focused on “excessive moralism” and issues that do not interest most voters instead of address economic concerns.
“The helplessness of the left is terrifying,” Zizek said.
That nationalist populism remains a force is demonstrated by Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader. Her party performed poorly in the regional elections this weekend, but opinion polls indicate that she could still be a serious candidate in the French presidential election next year. It did so by softening its image of populist brandon, by abandoning the overt racial bait and its previous and very unpopular opposition to the European Union and its common currency, the euro.
Never having held high office, Ms Le Pen also avoided the pitfalls faced by populists in Eastern and Central Europe who led governments during the pandemic.
Hungary, self-proclaimed flag bearer of “illiberal democracy” in Europe under Mr. Orban, had the highest death rate per capita of Covid-19 after Peru.
Poland and Slovenia fared better, but their ruling right-wing parties, Law and Justice and Mr Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party, both faced public anger over their handling of the pandemic. .
The greatest danger to leaders like Mr. Jansa and Mr. Orban, however, are the signs that their bickering opponents are finally pulling themselves together. In Hungary, a range of diverse and previously conflicting opposition parties have united to compete with Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party in next year’s elections. If they stick together, according to the polls, they could win.
In Slovenia, Jansa rallied a loyal base of around 25% of the electorate but was “even more successful in mobilizing his many opponents,” said Luka Lisjak Gabrijelcic, Slovenian historian and disillusioned former supporter. “His base supports him but a lot of people really hate him.”
This includes the Speaker of Parliament, Igor Zorcic, who recently left Mr Jansa’s coalition. “I don’t want my country to follow Hungary’s model,” he said.
Mr Gabrijelcic said he quit Mr Jansa’s party because he “got too mean”, moving away from what he saw as a healthy response to center-left orthodoxy for become a refuge for paranoid and nationalist hate diggers.
Across the region, he added, “The whole wave has lost momentum. “
Mr Trump’s defeat added to his unease, as well as the recent overthrow of longtime leader of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose pugnacious tactics have long been admired by nationalist leaders in Europe, despite the anti-Semitism that infects parts of their base.
Mr Trump’s presidency was never the trigger for the populist wave in Europe, whose leaders were present and winning votes for years before the New York real estate developer announced his candidacy.
But Mr. Trump gave cover and confidence to like-minded European politicians, justifying their verbal excesses and placing their struggles in small, inward-looking countries in what seemed like an irresistible global movement.
The danger now that Mr Trump is gone, said Ivan Krastev, an expert on Eastern and Central Europe at the Institute for the Humanities in Vienna, is that the “confident populism” of leaders like Mr Jansa and Mr Orban will transform. into a more dangerous “apocalyptic populism” of the kind that has gripped segments of the right in the United States.
But America’s political convulsions, he added, are less relevant to Eastern Europe than Mr. Netanyahu’s fall in Israel, a country he described as “the real dream of European nationalists “- an” ethnic democracy “with a strong economy, military capability and an ability to resist external pressures. The “negative coalition against Netanyahu,” he said, deeply shocked right-wing populist leaders in Europe “because Israel was their role model.”
Mr Turk, the former Slovenian minister, said the liberals had exaggerated the threat posed by Europe’s nationalist tilt, but the polarization was very real. “The hatred is even more extreme than in the United States,” he lamented.
Eager to present a picture of calm respectability for Europe’s cantankerous illiberal movement, Orban in April convened a meeting in Budapest of like-minded leaders determined to create a “European renaissance based on Christian values”.
Only two people showed up: Matteo Salvini, a declining far-right star in Italy who left government in 2019, and embattled Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Intended to signal the strength of the right-wing populist insurgency in Europe, the Budapest conclave “was rather a desperate step to hide that they are in decline,” said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a research group from Budapest.
Faced with the prospect of losing next year’s election, Mr. Orban focused on strengthening his base with issues such as LGBTQ rights and migration, just as the Law and Justice party has. made in Poland last year during his successful presidential campaign.
In Poland, the Law and Justice party has since taken a different course, apparently deciding that it needs more than cultural and historical divisive issues to win future elections.
In May, he passed measures traditionally associated with the left, such as higher taxes on the rich and lower levies on the less well-off, and support for homebuyers. This came after his popularity rating fell from around 55% last summer to just over 30% in May, partly because of the pandemic but also because of anger, especially in large cities, faced with the tightening of already strict laws against abortion.
When it comes to alienating voters, however, no one rivals Mr Jansa of Slovenia, who has made little effort to get beyond his most staunch supporters, calling critics communist. and stoking enmities dating back to World War II.
Damir Crncec, the former head of the Slovenian intelligence agency and once a staunch supporter, said he was mystified by Mr Jansa’s penchant for unpopularity. “Everyone here is looking for a justification: how can you win in politics if you constantly fight with everyone? ” He asked.