Eastern European populist leaders face a small problem: unpopularity


Ljubljana, Slovenia – The wave of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe, lifted by Donald J. Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, has not fallen off as a result of his defeat last November. But it hit a serious obstacle: its leaders are very unpopular.

Having won elections by provoking them against widely disliked elites, it turns out that the right-wing populists on the communist eastern wing of Europe were not much admired. This is due in large part to unpopular lockdowns due to the coronavirus, and like other leaders regardless of their political complexion, their faltering responses to the health crisis. But they are also under pressure from growing fatigue from their divisive tactics.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban faces uncharacteristically united opposition. In Poland, the deeply conservative government made a sudden leftward shift in economic policy to restore support. And in Slovenia, the ruling far-right party headed by the Trump-loving prime minister is falling disastrously in the polls.

Slovenia’s leader, Janez Jansa, who made international headlines by congratulating Mr. Trump on his “victory” in November and seen as a disaster for liberalism, or what he calls communist elites, is perhaps most at risk of the region’s unpopularity. populists.

That has since fallen to 26 percent, and Mr. Jansa is so unpopular that allies are jumping ship. Street protests against him have drawn up to tens of thousands of people, and a huge turnout in the normally quiet Alpine country of just two million people.

Mr Jansa has faltered, narrowly surviving a vote of no-confidence in Parliament and a recent attempt to impeach him by opposition lawmakers and defectors from his coalition.

said Ziga Türk, a university professor and government minister in a previous government headed by Mr Jansa, who resigned from the ruling party in 2019.

Mr. Jansa was an admirer of Orbán in Hungary, and he sought to bring the news media back in, and the nationalist governments of Hungary and Poland have been largely successful in doing so, at least with television.

But the only TV station that supports it consistently, a stylized group funded in part by Hungary called Nova24TV, has so few viewers – less than one percent of the TV audience most days – that it doesn’t appear on the rating charts.

Slavoj Zizek, a famous philosopher and self-proclaimed “moderately conservative Marxist” – one of the few Slovenes known outside the country, along with Melania Trump – said it was too early to write off leaders such as Mr. Jansa, Mr. Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, whose three countries he described as ” The new axis of evil.

He said that patriotic populists rarely win popularity contests. Most important, he said, is the chaos of their opponents, many of whom, in the philosopher’s view, focus too much on “excessive morals” and issues that do not concern most voters rather than addressing economic concerns.

“The left’s impotence is terrifying,” said Mr. Cicek.

That national populism is still a force that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right, has shown. Her party underperformed in the weekend’s regional elections, but opinion polls suggest she could still be a strong contender in next year’s French presidential election. She has done so by smoothing her image as a populist rioter, abandoning the overt seduction of race and her former and unpopular opposition to the European Union and its single currency, the euro.

Never holding a high position, Ms. Le Pen also avoided the pitfalls faced by populists in eastern and central Europe who have been running governments during the pandemic.

Hungary, which billed itself as the standard bearer of “illiberal democracy” under Orbán, had the highest level in the world. per capita death rate of Covid-19 after Peru.

Poland and Slovenia fared better, but their right-wing ruling parties, Law and Justice, and Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party, faced public anger over their handling of the pandemic.

The biggest danger facing leaders like Mr. Jansa and Mr. Urban, however, are the signs that their feisty opponents are finally starting to work together. In Hungary, a diverse and feuding group of opposition parties have united to compete against Orban’s ruling Fidesz party in next year’s elections. If they stick together, according to polls, they could win.

In Slovenia, Mr. Jansa mobilized a loyal base of about 25 percent of the electorate, but was “more successful in rallying his many opponents,” said Luka Lesjak Gabrielcic, a 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 Zorsic, who was recently bailed out of Mr Jansa’s coalition. He said, “I don’t want to follow my Hungarian model.”

Mr Gabrijlcic said he quit Mr Jansa’s party because it had “got too bad”, moving away from what he saw as a healthy response to old center-left orthodoxy to become a haven for the paranoid and patriotic hate-mongers.

“The whole wave has lost its momentum,” he added across the region.

Trump’s defeat has only added to its suffering, along with the recent ouster of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose pugnacious tactics have long been admired by nationalist leaders in Europe, despite the anti-Semitism plaguing parts of their base.

The Trump presidency has never set off a wave of populism in Europe, whose leaders have been around and won their votes for years before the New York real estate developer announced his candidacy.

But Mr. Trump gave cover and confidence to like-minded politicians in Europe, justifying their verbal excesses and placing their struggle in small, inward-looking countries in what appeared to be an irresistible global movement.

Now that Mr Trump is gone, the danger is that the “confident populism” of leaders like Mr. Jansa and Mr. Orban is turning into the more dangerous “appalling populism” of the kind that has taken hold, said Ivan Krastev, an expert on Eastern and Central Europe at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. On sectors of the right in the United States.

But he added that America’s political turmoil has less to do with Eastern Europe than Mr. Netanyahu’s fall in Israel, a country he described as the “true dream of European nationalists” – an “ethnic democracy” with a strong economy, capable military and the ability to resist external pressure. He said that the “negative alliance against Netanyahu” shocked right-wing populist leaders in Europe “because Israel was their model.”

Mr Türk, a former Slovenian minister, said liberals had overestimated the danger posed by European nationalism, but the polarization was very real. “The hate is more extreme than it is in the United States,” he lamented.

Eager to present an image of quiet respect for Europe’s sinister illiberal movement, in April Mr. Orban hosted a meeting in Budapest of like-minded leaders committed to creating a “European Renaissance based on Christian values”.

Only two people appeared: Matteo Salvini, the fading far-right star in Italy who toppled the government in 2019, and embattled Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki.

It was meant to point out the strength of the right-wing populist insurgency in Europe, said Peter Kriko, director of the Politics Capital, a research group in Budapest, as “a desperate move to disguise that they are in retreat”.

Facing the prospect of losing next year’s election, Orban has focused on accelerating his base on issues such as LGBT rights and immigration, just as Poland’s Law and Justice Party did last year during its successful presidential campaign.

In Poland, the PiS has since taken another path, seemingly deciding it needs more than divisive cultural and historical issues to win future elections.

In May, it adopted measures traditionally associated with the left such as higher taxes on the rich, lower levies on the least wealthy, and support for homebuyers. It came after her popularity ratings fell from around 55 percent last summer to just over 30 percent in May, due in part to the pandemic but also out of anger, particularly in big cities, at the tightening of already strict laws against abortion.

However, when it comes to alienating voters, no one can rival Mr. Jansa of Slovenia, who has made scant efforts to reach out to his most loyal supporters, deeming critics communist and fomenting animosities that date back to World War II.

Damir Krinsik, the former head of the Slovenian intelligence agency and once an outspoken supporter, said he was baffled by Mr Jansa’s penchant for unpopularity. “Everyone here is looking for a rationale: How can you win in politics if you are constantly fighting with everyone else?” Asked.

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