Tuesday

11th May 2021

Opinion

The Covid bell tolls for eastern Europe's populists

  • Czech prime minister Andrej Babis' approval ratings have sunk as fast as second wave infection rates have gone up - and he is not the only one (Photo: Consilium)

Recurrent conflict with Brussels, populism and high levels of corruption have turned Central and Eastern European (CEE) states into the bete noire of EU politics.

But despite their governments' sins, populists have held on to power in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and until recently, Slovakia.

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The electorate has been willing to forgive these sins in return for growth rates above the EU average and minimal unemployment, ushering traditional political parties into the wilderness of parliamentary opposition.

The pandemic has now swung the pendulum of political consensus away from the populists, eroding their approval ratings ahead of key parliamentary elections in 2021 and 2022. But to capitalise on this, traditional political parties will have to restyle themselves as "anti-populists".

Pandemic: bad for everyone, worse for populists

Like with much else, coronavirus has had a transformative impact on CEE politics, highlighting weaknesses in populist governance and messaging.

This is most obvious in the Czech Republic, which handled the first wave of pandemic well, but subsequent mismanagement has propelled it to the second highest infection case in Europe, only behind Montenegro.

Czech prime minister Andrej Babis' approval ratings have sunk as fast as second wave infection rates have gone up, and his party, ANO, looks set to be overtaken by the opposition in opinion polls for the first time since 2013.

While non-populist governments have also demonstrated their fair share of mismanagement during the pandemic, such incompetence at times of crisis is more damaging for populists than traditional politicians.

This is because populists' appeals to common sense, get-things-done approach to government is a key tactic in how they set themselves apart from the 'out-of-touch' establishment.

Indeed, in the US, Donald Trump's mismanagement of the crisis is also understood to have severely harmed his re-election chances.

Moreover, the crisis has undermined populist governments' strongest assets - economic performance.

With severe recessions hitting every EU state in 2021, it will be harder for populists to point at the sluggish growth of their western neighbours in an illustration of their own superiority.

In fact, the pandemic has underlined the economic value of the EU. Even the staunchly eurosceptic Polish and Hungarian governments were forced to compromise with Brussels over new provisions to safeguard EU values in their countries to qualify for desperately needed emergency funding.

For governments who have long-berated the EU's meddling in domestic affairs, this was a bitter pill.

One long term effect of the populist surge in the mid 2010s appears to have been the decline of the traditional political party. Traditional politicians in CEE learnt this the hard way, struggling to make any dents in the electoral performance of populist "movements".

But traditional parties have become smarter. Across CEE, they have grouped together to form anti-populist broad-tent 'movements'. In this way, they are using the populists' own tactics, styling themselves as ordinary citizens' initiatives taking on the establishment.

This strategy has already reaped fruit in Slovakia, where the aptly named Ordinary People swept into power in 2020.

Similarly in Poland's 2019 elections, the populist Law and Justice saw its grip on power weakened after the pro-EU parties formed an electoral coalition.

Appointment with voters looms

In the Czech Republic and Hungary, anti-populist electoral alliances are outperforming ruling parties. Elections in late 2021 in the Czech Republic and 2022 in Hungary may therefore prove a watershed moment for these newly-minted anti-populist groups.

But there is a key weakness in their design.

Coalitions must rest on shared policy priorities. In the case of anti-populist electoral alliances composed of right and left-wing parties, such as in Hungary, there is little to keep them together save for their opposition to prime minister Viktor Orban. If he is defeated in 2022, the coalition will likely turn into an uncomfortable, temporary marriage, akin to the US-Soviet anti-Nazi alliance.

The populist wave therefore looks to be ebbing, and will likely be defeated by anti-populist movements who have taken several leaves out of the populist playbook.

But the inevitable fragility of these new governments means that they are unlikely to stick around for long, and a new political configuration will still need to be set.

For central and eastern Europe, this is only the end of the beginning.

Author bio

Filip Rambousek is an eastern Europe-focused political risk analyst and consultant, who previously worked in the European Parliament for former Czech MEP Jaromir Stetina.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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