Has Europe found an antidote to authoritarianism?

I’m not sure if they ever really were, but all politics aren’t local anymore. Ideas now jump borders; political tactics spread through the Internet; so do words and phrases, even in translation. A few years ago, one of the founders of Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right political party, told me he had been inspired by attending a rally organized by the Freedom Party, the far-right political party across the border in Austria. Nowadays, he could watch that same rally on YouTube without leaving his house.

For the past couple of years, the rapid movement of political ideas and tactics has benefited illiberal democrats, across the West and around the world. A bevy of crises — migration in Europe, war in Syria, Islamist terrorism — and nervous financial markets have contributed to genuine insecurity. Social media have magnified anxiety, stoking strong emotions — envy, hatred, suspicion — with enormous speed. Automated bots and troll armies are used to fight elections and manipulate opinions everywhere from the United States to the Philippines and all across Europe.

The result has been increasing support for leaders who offer simple solutions — “I alone can fix it”; “arrest the drug dealers”; “expel the foreigners”; “build a wall” — as well as statist economics. “Cult of personality,” a phrase invented in a different time and a different place, is suddenly in use in a dozen democracies, all around the world. Some have gained followers, including Donald Trump in the United States, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France. Some have won elections, and a few, once in power, have deployed tactics more common to dictatorships than democracies. A crackdown on independent politicians, journalists and thinkers is underway in Turkey. In Hungary, moguls close to Viktor Orban’s Fidesz have bought much of the media and last week probably helped shut down the country’s last committed opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag, immediately after it published several articles critical of the ruling party. In Poland, the Law and Justice government has turned state television into a direct and unsubtle arm of party propaganda.

In each case, the divisions, exhaustion and political weakness of “liberal,” pro-democracy or pro-European politicians also explain the success of these new parties. But can they begin to learn from one another, too?

Across Europe, new parties — socially liberal, pro-European and anti-populist — are forming or re-forming to counter the illiberal wave. Like their opponents, they are not “right” or “left,” but rather advertise themselves as rational and effective, opposed to the xenophobia or populism of their opponents, and representative of groups, not charismatic individuals. In Spain, Ciudadanos (the name means “citizens”) has won support by campaigning against regional nationalism under the slogan “Catalonia is my homeland, Spain is my country and Europe is our future.” In Poland, a campaign against nepotism has won higher ratings for Nowoczesna (the name means “modern”).

The past two weeks have represented a turning point of sorts. In Hungary, leaders of the split opposition united to boycott a referendum designed to bolster support for the ruling party and stoke xenophobia. A dubiously worded ballot question, a vast state-run advertising campaign — the government hired more than a quarter of the billboards in the entire country — and stories of refugee rape and murder on state-controlled news sought to persuade Hungarians to vote against sheltering a few thousand refugees from the Syrian civil war. No state money at all was provided to those who campaigned in favor, but on Oct. 2 the majority of Hungarians heeded opposition calls to stay home: “A misleading, untruthful question does not deserve an answer,” wrote Viktor Szigetvari, chairman of Egyutt (the name means “together”). The government “won,” and by a large margin — but low turnout rendered the result invalid.

Non-party citizens movements have also begun to unify people in ways that cross old political lines. The day after the Hungarian referendum, tens of thousands of Polish women wore black and joined street demonstrations in more than a dozen towns and cities across Poland, protesting a law that would have jailed women who had abortions. Many participants said they opposed abortion but disliked the harshness of the proposed measure even more. Almost immediately, the government withdrew it.

It’s too early to crow about a “liberal wave,” let alone an international movement that deserves real attention. But a political realignment is taking place; events in one country will go on affecting those in others. Hungarians, perhaps inspired by success in Poland, went to the streets to protest the newspaper closure. Admirers of Ciudadanos in London talk wistfully about creating something similar in Britain. If Trump is defeated — and particularly if he is defeated decisively — that will inspire even more. Authoritarianism retains its universal appeal, but so do the antidotes.

Scroll to Top