Central Europe was supposed to be one of the great success stories of capitalism and democracy. As a trip to Prague has reminded me over the last few days, there is a lot of truth to this optimistic story. The coffee shop in which I am writing these lines has bare walls and naked lightbulbs that wouldn’t seem out of place in Bushwick. It is filled with young men in flowing scarves and young women in monochrome outfits who would be just a tad too fashionable for Berkeley. When I turn my head a little to look out of the window, I see a beautiful, thriving city.
By all appearances, Czechs should count their lucky stars. After decades of Soviet domination in which the economies of Central Europe performed dismally and any criticism of the regime was violently quashed, countries like Poland and Hungary, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia made the best of their newfound freedoms. Over the course of a few short decades, the size of their economies multiplied. A strong civil society featuring renowned universities and vibrant associations sprung up. Voters used their newfound powers to elect democratic governments—and throw them out once they lost their appeal. Political scientists started to argue that democracy in much of Central Europe was quickly becoming “consolidated”: Having reached all of the milestones of a stable system, the future of democracy in these countries seemed assured.
Appearances, however, have a pesky tendency to deceive. Despite the immense progress their country has made, the mood among most Czechs is increasingly bitter. Though the country is affluent, they are convinced that the political establishment has failed them. Though most of the foreigners you see in the streets of Prague are here to spend money on beer, souvenirs, and museum tickets, Czechs are intensely preoccupied with the supposed threat posed by migrants and terrorists. And though the country’s political class has, on the whole, served it reasonably well, voters are now lending their support to a larger-than-life billionaire who promises to smash the system.
A cross between Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, Andrej Babiš, a candidate for prime minister in upcoming parliamentary elections, owns a lot of the country’s media, revels in being politically incorrect, and strongly opposes immigration. He also uses his political power for private gain: When he served as the country’s finance minister, he exerted a large degree of influence over European Union funding programs, which just happened to benefit many of his enterprises.
Like Trump and Berlusconi, Babiš at first seemed unlikely to find success in politics. But then he used his shamelessness and his media assets to dominate the conversation and vilify his opponents. With elections less than two weeks away, his ANO, or “YES,” movement is now enjoying a commanding lead in the polls. Though it may not gain an absolute majority in the Czech Parliament, it is likely to crush the opposition, taking up to twice as many seats as the runner-up.
YES is not the only noxious movement that is doing well. There is also the right-wing extremist SPD, the left-wing extremist KSCM, and the populist Pirate Party. If you add up the vote of all these anti-establishment parties, forces that are deeply critical of representative democracy are likely to win an overall majority in the Czech Republic. This means that Babiš can choose from a wide variety of possible coalition partners that might not be too fussy if he tried to dismantle parts of the democratic system—as he almost certainly would, if only to escape the corruption charges that are hanging over his head.
If Babiš does become prime minister, he could change the country in fundamental ways. Unlike proto-populists like Vaclav Klaus, a euroskeptic conservative who once held the country’s presidency, a largely ceremonial post, Babiš is highly hostile to independent institutions in Prague as well as Brussels. And unlike populists who came to power with a plurality of the vote in other countries, his ability to influence the political slant of the main state broadcaster will, in conjunction with his private holdings, give him a near-monopoly over the country’s mass media. Though Babiš would undoubtedly face determined opposition from large segments of the population, it may prove rather more difficult to check his thirst for power than observers enthralled by Prague’s chic cafes believe.
In other words, the Czech Republic seems poised to join a growing club of Central European nations in which the very survival of democracy is now in doubt. Like in Poland and Hungary, in Slovakia and Macedonia, the state media may slowly turn into a propaganda tool for its strongman leader; the judiciary slowly start to rubber-stamp government decisions; and independent associations as well as critical NGOs slowly face increasingly insurmountable obstacles. Within a few years, yet another country that once seemed on the sure path toward liberal democracy will be in danger of turning into a dictatorship with a thin electoral veneer.
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There is, of course, something paradoxical about a billionaire’s ability to ride the wave of popular discontent with a status quo from which he has profited so handsomely. In fact, like so many other populists—including our own Donald Trump—Babiš is a consummate insider who loves to pretend that he is a maltreated outsider. When one of the newspapers he owns announced his decision to run for prime minister, it didn’t just splash a giant picture of him on its front page; to symbolize his supposed silencing by the regime, it added two huge pieces of tape across his mouth.
But while the populist claim to be in league with the common people retains a lot of its political potency, it rings more and more hollow by the day. It’s not just that populists in virtually every country where they have taken power have ultimately used their new positions to enrich themselves and do favors for their well-connected friends. (Sound familiar?) It’s also that they are no longer the niche movements they purport to be.
At this point, authoritarian populists are in power in a large part of the world: They are reshaping the political system in India and the United States, in Turkey and the Philippines. In a huge swath of Central and Eastern Europe, they dominate outright. A few weeks from now, it will likely be possible to drive all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Aegean without ever leaving what we might call the “populist belt”: Populists already dominate the governments of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece.* If Babiš wins in the Czech Republic, and a coalition between the conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party takes power in Austria, the populist realm will cover a vast contiguous landmass in the heart of Europe.
This scary transformation is thoroughly disheartening in its own right. Central Europe’s liberation from Soviet domination has been one of the great, inspiring victories for human freedom in the twentieth century. Now, many of the same countries that finally found the power to determine their own fate some three decades ago are voluntarily surrendering it to a homebred flavor of suppression. In a young century already rich in ironies, freedom’s suicide in Central Europe deserves pride of place. But at the same time, the threat to liberal democracy in Central Europe also holds two lessons that are of great relevance well beyond the region, including the United States.
First, political scientists have long been far too optimistic about the ultimate fate of democracy. They were dangerously mistaken when they concluded that democracy in countries like Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic had consolidated. They were dangerously naïve in thinking that Polish democracy could weather the election of a populist like Lech Kaczynski or that Hungarian democracy would weather the election of a populist like Viktor Orban. And this means that they may also be dangerously wrong in thinking that the United States is almost sure to weather a continued onslaught by Trump (or the more competent populists who may one day succeed him).
Second, and just as importantly, the comfortable assumption that no true ideological alternative to liberal democracy would emerge over time has turned out to be wrong. While authoritarian countries like Iran or China have long been expanding their influence, they never represented a true ideological threat to the democratic heartland: Islamist theocracy was never likely to conquer Iowa. State capitalism under the guise of communism was unlikely to win many adherents in South Dakota.
But this has now changed. The populist governments of Central Europe have not only proven surprisingly effective in keeping the allegiance of their citizens. Increasingly, they are also succeeding in a much scarier feat: They now serve as a role model for aspiring authoritarians across the globe.
The rise of the illiberal international is only just beginning. So is the long and arduous fight against it.
*Correction, Oct. 10, 2017: This article originally misstated that populist governments could soon dominate countries from the North Sea to the Aegean. It should have been from the Baltic Sea to the Aegean. (Return.)