Democracy Is Still Under Siege, Despite Orbán and Netanyahu’s Election Defeats

While the Hungarian leader suffered a rare defeat in Sunday’s key municipal elections, Poland’s ruling nationalist party cemented its position in power — increasing its vote by 6 percent

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán walking out of a voting booth during Hungary's local elections in Budapest, Hungary, October 13, 2019.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán walking out of a voting booth during Hungary's local elections in Budapest, Hungary, October 13, 2019. Credit: BERNADETT SZABO/REUTERS

It has looked in recent years that the tidal wave of right-wing populism in Europe may have being losing some of its force.

In France, the centrist Emmanuel Macron swept to power in 2017. In this year’s elections for the European Parliament, the centrist parties retained their majority while the far right failed to make significant inroads. More recently, the attempt by Lega leader Matteo Salvini to call a snap election in Italy — which he believed would make him prime minister — failed and his nationalist party is now out of government, replaced by the centrist Democratic Party and previous Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s new Italia Viva platform.

Even in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán’s Christian-populist Fidesz party seems entrenched in power for decades to come, there was a glimmer of good news Sunday night when a joint platform of opposition parties succeeded in winning the municipal elections in Budapest and 10 other cities.

It was reminiscent of the blow suffered earlier this year by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-conservative Justice and Development Party, which lost control of Ankara, Istanbul and other major cities in the spring.

But then a few hours later came the results from the Polish parliamentary election, confirming that the nationalist Law and Justice party had won another term, adding 6 percent to its vote and ensuring a majority of seats in the Sejm. And now, for the first time in the Polish parliament, there will also be members of the far-right Confederation party, which has an openly anti-Semitic and homophobic platform.

Poland's Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaking after the exit poll results revealed his party had strengthened its grip on parliament, Warsaw, October 13, 2019.Credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS

The Law and Justice party was actually hoping to do better and has lost its majority in the upper house (Senate). This will make it more difficult for it to pass legislation, but it will not prevent its plans.

The revisionist history laws, the opposition to any restitution of Jewish property, xenophobia, gay-bashing under the guise of “family values” and rank Islamophobia — despite the tiny size of Poland’s Muslim community — have all proven popular with at least half the Polish voting public (the Confederation party won nearly 7 percent of the vote).

The reelected government can be expected to renew its attempt to neutralize the independent judicial system after repeated clashes during its first term with the Court of Justice of the European Union, which ruled that the new laws were in contravention of EU treaties.

The victory of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s party in Poland is a stark reminder that the struggle for democracy’s future is far from over, and that it is being fought simultaneously on many national battlefields.

While most international attention is currently on the increasingly toxic political atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic surrounding the impeachment process of President Donald Trump, the impending U.S. presidential election and the never-ending saga of Brexit, smaller European countries are already mired in more intense conflicts.

A woman voting in the Polish parliamentary election in Warsaw, October 13, 2019. Credit: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

But in each country, the same pillars of democracy are under fire. Trump’s supporters in the United States may have produced a video of him shooting and killing journalists, but in Hungary, Poland and Turkey, a free and combative press is largely a thing of the past. Whether by throwing journalists in prison (Turkey), government takeover of television channels (Poland) or commercial manipulation (Hungary), the media has been brought to heel.

The next step is emasculation of the independent courts — already completed in Turkey, and well underway in Poland and Hungary — and then the delegitimization of election results that go against the ruling party.

So far, only Erdogan has had the effrontery to actually cancel a result, as he did in Istanbul with the mayoral election — and that blew up in his face in the rerun when the opposition candidate was elected again but with an even larger majority.

But it is the direction of every “illiberal democracy.” Even in Britain, ministers in the ruling Conservative Party are talking of curbing the powers of the Supreme Court, while opposition leader (and Labour Party head) Jeremy Corbyn supports regulating the press.

Israel has been through a similar campaign by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters to subvert the media, the courts and even the Central Elections Committee — for now, thankfully, without any real success. But these will be the battles fought in many democracies in the years to come, and any sense of complacency following one election that went against the populists is dangerous.