Refining the anti-populist playbook

Czech voters delivered an upset in their country’s parliamentary election in October, choosing a coalition of mainly centre-right opposition parties over the movement led by the populist former prime minister, Andrej Babis. With the new coalition naming Petr Fiala as the new prime minister, the outcome adds to a growing playbook of strategies for competing against illiberal populists in Central Europe and Turkey.

During Babis’s tenure as prime minister, he presided over a decline in democracy in the Czech Republic and was embroiled in several corruption scandals. Though Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have fuelled more significant democratic declines in their respective countries, Babis relied on some of their methods, including efforts to take over the state administration and undermine the independence of news media.

Anti-democratic leaders learn from one another to refine their approach to dismantling democracy. To defeat them, democratic opposition parties should draw five lessons from recent elections in the Czech Republic and elsewhere.

First, unity is crucial. In the Czech election, the opposition parties that comprise the new government formed two ideologically broad electoral blocs. Hungary, where a fragmented opposition has failed to mount an effective challenge to Orban and his ruling Fidesz party since 2010, has long offered a cautionary counterpoint. But six opposition parties have joined forces in their bid to oust Fidesz in next year’s parliamentary election, and recently nominated provincial mayor Peter Marki-Zay as their candidate to challenge Orban.

A second priority is to address local issues. For example, some analysts attribute Hillary Clinton’s 2016 US presidential election defeat by Donald Trump in part to the Democratic Party’s failure to nurture grassroots support in key states such as Wisconsin.

Contrast that with Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski’s unexpectedly strong showing in Poland’s 2020 presidential election. Although Trzaskowski narrowly lost to the incumbent Andrzej Duda of the illiberal ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, he showed how a supposed ‘urban elite’ politician can connect with rural voters. Trzaskowski campaigned across Poland, including in the PiS’s village and rural strongholds, often with a well-tailored local message. In Skierniewice, a small city in central Poland that had recently been struck by drought, Trzaskowski focused on local water issues, which he linked to his broader climate agenda.

Trzaskowski acknowledged in a 2019 interview that PiS had a stronger ground game in previous elections, and that its ‘Poland in ruins’ message resonated with voters outside major cities who felt that former Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s 2007–2014 Civic Platform (PO) government had not listened to their concerns. In an attempt to win back their support, Trzaskowski distanced himself from some of the PO’s previous unpopular measures and strove to show small-town and rural voters that he was not selling a return to the previous status quo. Although Trzaskowski’s campaign fell narrowly short of victory, it made progress rallying a beleaguered opposition and winning a broader base of voters.

Third, anti-populists should provide an affirmative vision, as opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu did in defeating the candidate of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election. Imamoglu’s positive and upbeat campaign—with its clarion call of ‘radical love’, a direct response to the AKP’s divide-and-rule strategy—was essential to his success.

Another affirmative opposition tactic is to ‘own’ issues. The Greens, for example, used this strategy in the 2019 European Parliament elections to secure a record number of seats. They largely owned environmental, social-justice and rule-of-law issues, and advanced a policy agenda that reflected a positive vision of green leadership in Europe.

Fourth, opposition candidates should avoid culture wars. Populist attitudes are activated by political context: linking identity and partisanship can make cultural issues more salient and create fertile conditions for populist views to flourish. Throughout his 2020 campaign, for example, Duda sought to roll back LGBTQ rights, touted anti-Semitic views and fuelled anti-German feeling in an attempt to stoke populist sentiment.

Importantly, Trzaskowski did not adopt the language of the right. Research shows that when liberal candidates use their populist opponents’ framing, they allow the populist to shape, and likely win, the debate. Likewise, mainstream candidates who mimic populist rhetoric are more likely to lose.

Instead of taking Duda’s bait, Trzaskowski stayed on message with a vision for Poland that could appeal to a wide spectrum of voters. His response even led Duda to modify his nativist agenda in order to court moderate voters. Particularly in rural areas, where Duda had expected cultural issues to be most potent, Trzaskowski’s focus on local concerns helped him avoid divisive culture clashes.

Lastly, democratic opponents of illiberalism need to appeal to fundamental values in order to build public understanding and support. In the recent Czech election, the opposition coalitions referred to themselves primarily as ‘democratic’, reflecting many voters’ concerns that the Babis government had moved the country in a decidedly undemocratic direction.

Similarly, in the 2019 Slovak presidential election, Zuzana Caputova defeated her populist opponents by emphasising inclusivity. When the far-right candidate Marian Kotleba claimed that homosexuality threatened Christian values, Caputova appealed in response to fundamental Christian tenets of compassion and love. In general, a message about defending democracy and basic rights can often be more appealing than a slate of nuts-and-bolts reforms.

The populist surge is far from over. Illiberal incumbents in many countries are scrambling to cement their grips on power, while populist movements elsewhere continue to gain ground. But liberal democratic forces have shown that they can reverse this backwards march. By learning from each other, opposition parties will stand a much better chance of defeating demagogues and safeguarding democracy.