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17th Oct 2021

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Weakening of EU's democratic right should worry everyone

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The political right in the EU has had a bad week.

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigned amid a criminal investigation into possible abuse of public funds to publish favourable opinion polls in a newspaper.

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  • Clearly demarcating the red line to extremism is something we can all do

Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš lost parliamentary elections.

And in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is losing hope to form a government after its poor showing in federal elections.

This looks like good news for democracy.

Given all that is publicly known, Kurz was right to resign. The fact Austrian prosecutors were able to investigate top-level politicians was also a good indicator of functioning rule of law.

Babiš is embroiled in a conflict of interest case on EU funds and his private business empire. An EU audit identified systematic financial irregularities and demanded that companies related to him pay back EU money.

And as far as Germany's CDU is concerned, after 16 years in government it may be a good time for the party to renew itself in opposition.

And yet all this good news leaves me uneasy about Europe's democratic future.

Why? Because it could signal a further weakening of the democratic right.

Conservatives hoping to establish the case for a modern conservatism that avoids political extremism saw Kurz as as a poster-boy for the cause. Now he looks more like the slick operator obsessed with his own image that his critics always said he was.

At the same time, the end of German chancellor Angela Merkel's government means that the European Parliament's biggest political group, the European People's Party, will no longer host a ruling party from any of the bigger EU member states.

A credible, values-based democratic right would be an important player in fighting the extreme, anti-democratic right.

It is therefore a worry that it is losing strength.

Not obvious

To many on the left this is not obvious. They celebrate when a party on the right loses support.

There is nothing wrong with that. Every party wants to win elections and see its opponents weakened. But beyond this desire, one should not lose sight of the fate of broader democracy.

Political fortunes swing back and forth and democracy is built on pluralism. Today's winners are tomorrow's losers.

And so all democratic forces should have an interest in their opponents' trajectory. If they slip into extremism, it becomes everybody's problem.

US Democrats may have secretly smiled at the choice of the seemingly unelectable Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee in May 2016.

But the smile was gone when he was elected president six months later. In the US, the fear is that the next election will be a choice between a radicalised, anti-democratic Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

In France, presidential elections risk settling into an uncomfortable stand-off between a democracy-friendly candidate and an extremist opponent.

In Poland, national elections are now about defeating a ruling party that does not accept the democratic rules of the game, rather than a choice about a specific policy direction.

Where anti-democratic forces become dominant players, elections de facto become referenda on democracy rather than pluralistic choices of political direction.

Wherever possible, we should prevent that from happening. And to do so, we need to have a sense of proportion.

Conservative parties will enact conservative policies, that is not a scandal. They can be fought, but they should not be exaggerated into mortal dangers to democracy.

We should be aware also that in eastern EU member states, where extremist parties like the Polish PiS or Hungarian Fidesz are in government, democratic conservatives are among their most important opponents.

Democratic parties of any orientation need to be clear about who is a political opponent and who is a systemic challenger, an enemy of democracy as such.

When that is clear - and in many EU countries it is - they need to do something counterintuitive. They should vigorously argue with their democratic opponents and offer clear choices. Polarisation is good when it takes place in the democratic spectrum.

As I have argued here before, the German elections this year were positively polarised.

There were many controversies among democratic parties, which diverted attention from the extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The latter was kept from setting the agenda and becoming the principal point of focus of these elections. As a result, the party started to look boring and lost support.

Red line

Vigorous controversy is good, but fundamental questioning should be reserved for extremist parties and politicians.

Where such parties rule, democratic parties must come together to challenge them, as they have done in Hungary.

Clearly demarcating the red line to extremism is something we can all do.

The rest is up to democratic conservatives - namely to update what conservatism or Christian-Democracy means in the 21st century.

We need the democratic right to be a convincing force that can weaken right-wing extremists, rather than a spent force that will be overwhelmed by them.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

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

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