Buoyed by Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, the right-wing populist wave in Eastern Europe has not retreated after the US president’s defeat last November. But it has come up against a serious obstacle: its leaders are not very popular.
After winning the elections thanks to criticism from the largely disowned elites, it appears that the right-wing populists of the ex-communist Eastern European flank do not enjoy great public sympathy. Much of this is due to the unpopular lockdowns decreed to fight the coronavirus and, as with other leaders regardless of their political stance, their fragile responses to the health crisis. But populist leaders are also under pressure due to the growing fatigue caused by their divisive tactics.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán faces united opposition, which is not typical. In Poland, the deeply conservative government has taken a sharp left turn in its economic policy in an attempt to regain support. And in Slovenia, the prime minister’s right-wing ruling party that loves Trump so much has fallen catastrophically in the polls.
Slovenian leader Janez Jansa, who made international headlines congratulating Trump on his ‘victory’ in November and who describes himself as a bane of liberal elites, whom he calls communists, is perhaps the most precarious unpopular populist of the region.
Reinforced by nationalist pledges to ban asylum seekers from the Middle East and “ensure the survival of the Slovenian nation”, Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic Party won a majority of votes in an election in 2018. A new party-led coalition government has received a hint of approval. 65% last year.
That number has since fallen to 26 percent, and Jansa is so unpopular that her allies have abandoned her boat. The street protests against him have drawn tens of thousands of people – a huge number in a normally placid Alpine country with a population of just 2 million.
Jansa is moving forward, but faltering, after barely surviving a vote of no confidence in parliament and a recent impeachment attempt by lawmakers and opposition politicians who abandoned their coalition.
But he came out of it so weakened that he “no longer has the power to do anything” but to insult his opponents on Twitter, said university professor Ziga Turk, minister of a previous government led by Jansa who left the ruling party in 2019.
An admirer of the Hungarian Orbán, Jansa tries to crack down on the media, as the Hungarian and Polish nationalist governments have managed to do, at least in the case of television.
But the only TV channel that consistently supports it, a bomb and partially funded by Hungary called Nova24TV, has such a small audience – less than 1% most of the time – that it doesn’t even make the rankings.
Famous philosopher and self-proclaimed “moderately conservative Marxist” Slavoj Zizek – aside from Melania Trump, is one of the few Slovenians known outside the country – said it was too early to sack leaders like Jansa, Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski from Poland, whose country described as a “new axis of evil”.
For Zizek, nationalist populist leaders rarely win popularity contests. Its greatest asset would have been the disorganization of its opponents, whom the philosopher considers too focused on “excessive moralism” and questions that do not interest most voters rather than seeking to solve economic problems.
“The helplessness of the left is appalling,” Zizek said.
That nationalist populism continues to be a force is demonstrated by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Her party did badly in the French regional elections this weekend, but opinion polls indicate that she could be a strong candidate in the 2022 presidential election. She did so by softening her image as incendiary populist by renouncing open incitement to racism and its previous and unpopular opposition to the European Union and its common currency, the euro.
Never having held high political office, Le Pen has so far also managed to avoid the pitfalls faced by populists from Central and Eastern Europe who have led governments during the pandemic.
Hungary, under the aegis of Orbán, the self-proclaimed European flag bearer of so-called ‘illiberal democracy’, has the highest per capita death rate from Covid in the world, just behind Peru.
Poland and Slovenia are doing a little better, but their ruling right-wing parties, the Law and Justice Party and the Slovenian Democratic Party, respectively, are being rejected by the population for their treatment of the pandemic.
But the greatest danger looming over leaders like Jansa and Orban is a sign that their divided adversaries are finally joining forces. In Hungary, a range of diverse and previously disagreeable opposition parties have banded together to face the ruling Fidesz d’Orbán party in the elections to be held in 2022. If they stick together, they could well come out victorious. according to polls.
In Slovenia, Jansa mobilizes a loyal base of around 25% of the electorate, but has “been even more successful in mobilizing her many opponents,” said Luka Lisjak Gabrijelcic, a Slovenian historian and now disillusioned former supporter. “His base supports him, but a lot of people really hate him.”
These people include the Speaker of Parliament Igor Zorcic, who recently left the Jansa coalition. “I don’t want my country to follow the Hungarian model,” he commented.
Gabrijelcic said he left Jansa’s party because it had become “too hostile”, moving away from what he saw as a healthy response to worn and transforming center-left orthodoxy. rather into a bastion of paranoid and hateful nationalist voices.
Across the region, he added, “the whole wave has lost momentum.”
Turk, the former Slovenian minister, said the liberals had exaggerated the danger posed by the nationalist turn in Europe, but the polarization was very real. “The hatred is even more extreme than in the United States,” he lamented.