Europe Visegrad group faces pandemic toll due to populism
As soon as the global scale of the coronavirus pandemic began to become evident early last year, the obvious corollary became inescapable: COVID-19 is said to have far-reaching political impact around the world. One of the places where the political ramifications of the crisis – or, more precisely, the consequences of its mismanagement by the authorities – are increasingly pronounced is Central Europe, a region which in recent years has steadily drifted in an authoritarian and illiberal direction.
While a steady erosion of democratic practices has manifested itself in much of the world over the past 15 years, the trend in Central Europe is particularly daunting given the willingness with which the region embraced democracy after the end. of the cold war. But more recently, populist leaders have drawn support from their nationalist, anti-immigrant and often illiberal views, and have used the power gained through the elections to undermine many of the freedoms that made these elections possible. In several of these countries, they have systematically undermined the independence of the judiciary and seized control of the media, as part of the process of strengthening their grip on power.
However, when the pandemic hit, the populist measures had a different impact. They have helped to increase the death toll.
The four central European countries in the Visegrad group – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – have experienced much higher death rates than the rest of Europe. This is in part due to their politicization of the pandemic response, characterized by an approach that often resorts to populist attempts to please the crowd at the expense of good public health measures.
The political impact of this strategy will be tested as voters go to the polls in the years to come, but there are signs that the pandemic could help opposition parties and coalitions succeed in the campaign. fight against authoritarian populism.
There is no guarantee of knowing where public opinion will stand in the elections in each country, and multiple factors are at play in addition to the health crisis. But today’s opinion polls and trends in recent months suggest there are reasons for populists to lose some sleep.
In Hungary, where the death rate is almost twice that of the European Union, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has long enjoyed a strong lead in opinion polls. Now, a newly united opposition is neck and neck with the ruling party.
Orban controversially attempted to use the pandemic to grants himself almost unlimited powers. But he then handled the pandemic so poorly, reopening the country at the worst possible time, that major medical journals discussed whether his answer was “deadlier than the virus”.
With legislative elections slated for next year, the opposition is regrouping after three consecutive defeats against Fidesz since 2010. The new bloc, whose members run from left to right in the political spectrum, has yet to choose who will be its flag bearer. With such a range of views in the bloc, the choice is risky, as each potential candidate could alienate other parts of the alliance. A favorite is Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, who won his election two years ago in a wave of mayoral victories for liberal politicians.
The pandemic has already exposed one of the main weaknesses of the populists: their penchant for implementing flawed policies for political ends.
In Poland, where political leaders have sometimes ignored expert advice on what they likely thought were politically beneficial decisions, the landscape also appears to be changing.
TV celebrity Szymon Holownia offers an alternative to the two main parties voters chose between in recent elections, the ruling Law and Justice party and the opposition Civic Platform. Holowina, a Roman Catholic, builds the Poland 2050 movement, more to the right than the center-left civic platform, but more committed to democracy than the conservative Law and Justice, or PiS. Since Poland 2050 registered as a party last month, polls show it is already overtaking Civic Platform, with PiS declining.
The polls are equally dismal for the Czech Republic’s ANO 2011, the populist vehicle of Prime Minister Andrej Babis. A year ago, ANO 2011, or Yes 2011 in Czech, was comfortably in the lead, around 20 points ahead of its closest rival. But the past 12 months have seen a steady decline for Babis, a tycoon turned politician, accompanied by a steady increase for his most serious rival, the bipartisan alliance between the Czech Pirate Party, or Pirati, and mayors and independents. , or STAN. Together, Pirati and STAN have more support than ANO.
There are many forces at play in the Czech Republic, as elsewhere, but Babis’ mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis has contributed to the country’s development. much higher death toll of almost 3,000 per millioncompared to just over 1,500 per million for the EU combined.
The impact of the pandemic was already evident last fall, in an election for a third of the seats in the upper house of parliament, in which the ANO’s coalition with the left-wing Social Democrats was beaten. ANO won only one seat, while the Social Democrats lost the 10 seats they had at stake.
While mismanagement of the pandemic creates problems for populists in three of the four Visegrad countries, it also poses problems for the only country where efforts to strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption were starting to progress.
In Slovakia, Visegrad’s fourth country, the pandemic has changed the country’s politics. The February 2020 elections, just as the pandemic hit Europe, resulted in a reformist government under the leadership of Prime Minister Igor Matovic of the Ordinary People’s Party. Matovic’s anti-corruption platform took advantage of the surprise election in 2019 of President Zuzana Caputova, an environmental activist. But his tenure as prime minister was derailed by his handling of the pandemic.
Matovic’s loss was his grandiose announcement that he had secretly agreed to purchase millions of doses of Russia’s Sputnik coronavirus vaccine, which has yet to be approved by European regulators. The ill-conceived plan and its selfish deployment – announced at the airport as the doses were administered – only underscored the failures of Slovakia’s pandemic response, creating an opening for Matovic’s political rivals. He lost the post of Prime Minister and became Minister of Finance, but the Reform coalition remains in power.
The pandemic is not over and its ultimate political impact is far from assured. But he has already revealed one of the major weaknesses of populists: their penchant for implementing flawed policies for political ends. If the coronavirus helps turn the tide of authoritarianism back, it will at least offer a silver lining to what has been a tragedy of historic proportions.
Frida Ghitis is a global affairs columnist. A former producer and CNN correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and the Washington Post. Its WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghite.