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Is Central Europe’s Populist Wave Crashing?

Voters and leaders in Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Austria may have found populism’s weaknesses.
October 15, 2021
Is Central Europe’s Populist Wave Crashing?
Leader of the ANO movement, Andrej Babis holds a press conference at ANO headquarters after the polling stations of Czech elections closed in Prague, Czech Republic on October 9, 2021. Prime Minister Andrej Babis's centrist party has narrowly lost the Czech Republic's parliamentary election. With the votes from 99.7% of the ballot stations counted, the Czech Statistics Office said Together, a liberal-conservative three-party coalition, captured 27.7% of the vote, beating Babis's ANO (Yes) party, which won 27.2%. (Photo by Lukas Kabon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Has Central Europe’s populist wave crashed? Although populist politicians have been riding high in recent years, this week, two prominent populist prime ministers suddenly fell from power. The billionaire populist who revolutionized Czech politics, Andrej Babiš, lost his bid for reelection on October 8 and 9 after the Pandora Papers revealed that he used a series of secretive shell companies to buy luxury real estate in France. In neighboring Austria, the populist-leaning Sebastian Kurz abruptly announced that he was stepping down on October 9 after prosecutors raided his offices in a bribery probe. Suddenly, two key Central European populists were gone.

And just as suddenly, analysts began to question whether Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the self-styled guru of Europe’s national populist right and future CPAC host, might not survive a tough re-election battle in 2022 against a newly united opposition. Orbán joined Babiš on the campaign trail in the last days of September, touting their populist alliance, to no effect. Meanwhile, in Germany, the far right AfD party experienced disappointing results in September’s parliamentary elections, losing 11 of their 93 Bundestag seats.

It’s too soon to say that populist leaders are receding as suddenly as they rushed into power in many Central European capitals, but the populist wave has hit some shoals. A combination of corruption scandals, united opposition, and recovering European economies seem to be causing more voters to return to the political center.

Populists rose to power in Central Europe after the global financial crisis, which hit that region hard. As the United States began its slow but steady recovery in 2010, the Eurozone debt crisis prolonged the economic pain and uncertainty on the continent. While other developing regions escaped relatively unscathed, Central European economies did not. Popular hopes and expectations of a prosperous future after communism were dashed—again. Orbán rode a wave of popular discontent into office in 2010 in Hungary when the previous government revealed that it lied about the state of the economy.

Babiš, in the Czech Republic, persuaded many voters, especially in less successful outlying regions and small towns, that as a billionaire with a popular touch and a skepticism of elites in the capital, he would look after their interests and not succumb to the corruption that seems endemic to the region. Yet this promise was not fulfilled. The European Union accused him of funneling EU funds to his own personal businesses. And the Pandora Papers provided evidence of tax avoidance, lying, and manipulation right before the election.

Though coalition negotiations are still not completed, and the whole process seems to be on life support while president Milos Zeman lies in the intensive care unit after a post-election collapse, it seems clear that the real victor in the Czech elections was the center-right Spolu (Together) coalition, centered around the Civic Democratic Party that emerged out of the anti-communist opposition. Many Czech voters this time turned to the traditional center-right.

Similarly, in Germany, mainstream center-left and center-right parties fared unexpectedly well. While the center-left Social Democrats have lost a lot of support to the Greens over time, in this election, the Social Democrats were able to re-establish themselves as the second largest party and are expected to lead a coalition with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats into government.

While in previous elections, voters punished mainstream parties that seemed to sell out the interests of majority nationals in favor of immigrants, neglecting people and regions that felt left behind by globalization, this time that anger seems to have subsided, just a bit. While Babiš sought to drum up anti-immigrant support, most voters just wanted him out.

In both the Czech Republic and Hungary, the opposition has learned to unite to face the challenge of authoritarian populism. The Czech election was dominated by coalitions over traditional parties. Coming in just behind Spolu in the vote count was the coalition of Pirates and Mayors—the good-government “Pirates” party and the subsidiarity-focused Mayors and Independents party—both united by the desire to toss Babiš out. In Hungary, the opposition has united in a single coalition to contest Orbán’s rule, including all the major parties from the far-right Jobbik to the left Socialists, and everything in between. Lesson learned: To get rid of populists and protect democracy, a full court press is required.

With the economy improving, some voters may be tiring of the extremist rhetoric of the populist parties as well. In Europe, the appeal of a party that attacks the European Union may wear thin if the EU, with its many economic benefits, actually falls apart or cuts off funds. It doesn’t help when populist leaders prove to be just as corrupt, if not more so, than the “elites” they were fighting. Central Europe may have turned the populist tide. With considerable lessons to be learned by other polities fighting populism.

Mitchell A. Orenstein

Mitchell A. Orenstein is a professor and chair of the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.