Refinement of the anti-populist playbook | The strategist
Czech voters caused a stir in their country’s parliamentary elections in October and elected a coalition of mainly center-right opposition parties to oppose the movement of former populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis. With the new coalition’s appointment of Petr Fiala as the new Prime Minister, the result adds to a growing strategy game to compete against illiberal populists in Central Europe and Turkey.
During his tenure as prime minister, Babis led a democratic decline in the Czech Republic and was implicated in several corruption scandals. Although Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fueled major democratic decline in their respective countries, Babis relied on some of their methods, including efforts to take over state administration and undermine the independence of the news media.
Anti-democratic leaders learn from one another in order to refine their approach to demolishing democracy. To defeat them, opposition democratic parties should learn five lessons from the recent elections in the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
First, unity is crucial. In the Czech elections, the opposition parties of the new government formed two ideologically broad electoral blocs. Hungary, where a fragmented opposition has not effectively challenged Orban and his ruling Fidesz party since 2010, has long set a cautionary counterpoint. However, six opposition parties have teamed up to oust Fidesz in next year’s general election, and recently nominated Provincial Mayor Peter Marki-Zay as their candidate to challenge Orban.
A second priority is to address local issues. For example, some analysts attribute Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election in part to Democrats’ failure to foster grassroots support in key states like Wisconsin.
Compare that with the unexpectedly strong appearance of Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski in the 2020 presidential elections in Poland. Although Trzaskowski narrowly lost to the incumbent Andrzej Duda of the illiberal ruling party Law and Justice (PiS), he showed how an alleged “urban elite” politician can come into contact with rural voters. Trzaskowski advertised all over Poland, including in the villages and rural strongholds of the PiS, often with a targeted local message. In Skierniewice, a small town in central Poland that was recently hit by a drought, Trzaskowski focused on local water issues, which he linked to his broader climate agenda.
Trzaskowski admitted in a 2019 interview that the PiS had a stronger ground game in previous elections and that their message of “Poland in ruins” resonated with voters outside of the big cities who believed the Civic Platform (PO) government of the Former Prime Minister Donald Tusk from 2007 to 2014 did not listen to their concerns. To win back their support, Trzaskowski distanced himself from some of the PO’s earlier unpopular actions, trying to show voters in small towns and rural areas that he was not selling a return to the previous status quo. Though Trzaskowski’s campaign narrowly missed victory, it made progress in rallying a beleaguered opposition and gaining a wider electoral base.
Third, anti-populists should put forward a positive vision, as opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu did when he defeated Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate in Istanbul’s 2019 mayoral elections. Imamoglu’s positive and optimistic campaign – with its cry of “radical love,” a direct response to the AKP’s divide-and-rule strategy – was critical to its success.
Another affirmative opposition tactic is “owning” problems. For example, the Greens secured a record number of seats in the 2019 European elections with this strategy. Owning largely environmental, social and rule of law issues, they put forward a political agenda that reflected a positive vision of green leadership in Europe.
Fourth, opposition candidates should avoid culture wars. Populist attitudes are activated by the political context: the connection between identity and partisanship can emphasize cultural issues and create fertile conditions for populist views to flourish. For example, throughout his 2020 campaign, Duda attempted to take back LGBTQ rights, propagating anti-Semitic views and stirring up anti-German sentiments in order to stir up populist sentiments.
It is important that Trzaskowski did not adopt the language of the right. Research shows that when liberal candidates use the framing of their populist opponents, it allows the populist to shape the debate and likely to win it. Likewise, mainstream candidates who emulate populist rhetoric are more likely to lose.
Instead of swallowing Duda’s bait, Trzaskowski stuck to the embassy with a vision for Poland that could appeal to a wide range of voters. His reaction even led Duda to change his nativist agenda to woo moderate voters. Especially in rural areas where Duda had expected cultural issues to be the strongest, Trzaskowski’s focus on local issues helped avoid divisive cultural conflicts.
Ultimately, democratic opponents of illiberalism must rely on fundamental values in order to build public understanding and support. In the recent Czech elections, the opposition coalitions identified themselves primarily as “democratic”, reflecting the concern of many voters that the Babis government had moved the country in a decidedly undemocratic direction.
Similarly, in the 2019 Slovak presidential election, Zuzana Caputova defeated her populist opponents by emphasizing inclusivity. When right-wing extremist candidate Marian Kotleba claimed that homosexuality threatened Christian values, Caputova appealed to basic Christian principles of compassion and love. In general, a message in defense of democracy and fundamental rights can often be more engaging than a series of reforms.
The populist upswing is far from over. In many countries, illiberal rulers are trying to consolidate their power, while populist movements continue to gain ground elsewhere. But liberal democratic forces have shown that they can reverse this regression. By learning from one another, opposition parties have a much better chance of defeating demagogues and protecting democracy.