While most eyes are fixed on Iran and China, the competition between the liberal international order and the populist demagogues who threaten it has taken an unexpected turn. In a seemingly unlikely region, a rear-guard action has quietly begun to challenge the “populist surge.”
With Britain seemingly on the verge of Brexit and Donald Trump something of a global albatross, some analysts have written off liberalism. But others have kept faith that liberalism remains strong, and that they still expect a “backlash to the backlash” to emerge in Western Europe.
They may be right. Intriguing developments are taking place, but not necessarily in the West. Instead — surprisingly — they are to be found in Central and Eastern Europe.
The region’s countries became part of the liberal order only after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in 1989; they have been generally considered to be partial to Russia, with a strong propensity for incubating populism that undermines democracy.
But in recent months they have become ground zero for what is beginning to look like a comeback for liberal forces, at least within the region. More than 10 different countries have voted out populists, undergone serious protests, or taken strong stands against Russia.
The reigning orthodoxy is that it’s only a matter of time until far-right populist parties begin winning elections in country after country. But the evidence from across Central Europe runs counter to that: Liberal leaders and activists have begun to push back against populism.
The most interesting case is Slovakia, where the polls leading up to this spring’s election showed a pair of populist candidates in the lead. But in the end a less bombastic Western-oriented political novice eked out an impressive victory. The victor, Zuzana Caputova, took advantage of anti-populist sentiment spurred by the murder of a crusading anti-corruption journalist.
Likewise in Poland, local elections and major mayoral races over the past two years have been won by liberal candidates, rather than Poland’s populist governing party. While in Bulgaria, in 2017, Bulgarians voted out a populist Russia-centric government and brought back to power a pro-NATO and pro-European Union former prime minister, Boiko Borisov.
What’s more, Ms. Caputova’s rise and solid block of support — both noteworthy for such a deeply conservative country — are inspiring opposition leaders in other countries. In the Czech Republic, for example, hundreds of thousands of protesters have been marching against their prime minister, Andrej Babis, a former businessman with alarmingly demagogic leanings who has been accused of corruption.
Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Georgia have also experienced significant anti-populist protests in the past two years. Hungarians turned out in large numbers this spring to protest against the most well-known populist head of government in Europe, Viktor Orban, who has a reputation for undermining democracy through his corruption, economic mismanagement and clamping down on the media. The Romanian people recently celebrated the jailing of Liviu Dragnea, the country’s most powerful politician and head of the ruling Social Democratic Party, which had defied the European Commission and made repeated efforts to shield politicians from the law.
After protests in Moldova, a liberal opposition party has entered government, albeit alongside the Russia-leaning Socialist party. And Georgians have been in the streets of Tbilisi in large protests against their quasi-populist government, which had allowed a Russian member of Parliament to give a speech inside a government building.
Central European countries have also taken strong stands or direct actions against Russia. Greece expelled Russian diplomats in response to Russian interference in the naming of North Macedonia. In 2016, Montenegro arrested a range of violent coup plotters who were backed by Russia. This year, 14 of them were convicted and sentenced to prison.
These anti-populist trends have occurred in the face of heavy Russian interference in the form of cyber warfare and in some cases the direct intervention of Federal Security Service agents. Russia also interfered in the European Parliament elections in May, which polls and pundits had predicted would bring a populist takeover. However, not only did numerous populists — like Germany’s A.F.D. party — perform less well than expected, but they are also far from being able to form a majority.
Western Europe itself has not been entirely devoid of liberal results. In Denmark, a rare national victory went to the Social Democrats over right-leaning populists last month. Populists have also been kept out of recent governments formed in Finland, Sweden and Estonia. (The Estonian prime minister has since brought a minority populist party into his governing coalition, but opinion polls indicate that the experiment is not working out very well.)
Spain’s Socialist Party routed the populists with ease, and the right-leaning young Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz, after losing a vote of confidence that cost him his role as chancellor, appears well positioned to fight for a new term in coming elections, having jettisoned the populist contingent from his coalition. And last weekend, Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party performed surprisingly poorly in an election that brought to power a traditional center-right party and prime minister.
Yet the question remains: Is a discernible trend at work here? Either way, logic may well be on the liberals’ side. First, populist leaders tend to be poor at governing, particularly in the area of economic policy. Second, the more Russia continues to rattle its sabers and make European countries feel insecure, the more places like Poland will avoid becoming too populist. Third, while electorates in Europe have been withdrawing their support from traditional center-left and center-right parties, liberal, green and other parties offer decidedly anti-populist policies.
We may need more time to ascertain whether a larger global “backlash to the backlash” trend is afoot. But in Central Europe the evidence is clear. Major protests have also recently sprung up in Turkey, Algeria, Sudan, Kazakhstan, Venezuela and, most notably, Hong Kong. Though the trend already appears to have crested in the West, the battle against populism has been joined by regrouped liberal forces. The vaunted liberal international order, however damaged, remains intact to a significant degree.
Jeffrey A. Stacey served as a State Department official in the Obama administration and is the author of Integrating Europe.