ROZDROJOVICE, Czech Republic – Marie Malenova, a Czech retiree in a tidy and prosperous village in South Moravia, had not voted since 1989, the year her country held its first free elections after more than four decades of Communist regime.
Last Friday, however, she decided to vote again, an event so unusual that her disbelieving family recorded her change of mind, taking pictures of her slipping her ballot into a large white box at the party room.
She said she didn’t like the people she voted for, a coalition of previously divided center-right parties, describing them as “the least evil among all our many thieves.” But at least they had a simple and clear message: we can beat Andrej Babis, the populist prime minister and billionaire of the Czech Republic.
“I wanted a change,” Ms. Malenova said, “and wanted something that could beat Babis.”
Over the past decade, populists like Mr Babis have often appeared politically invincible, rising to power across central and eastern Europe as part of a global trend of strong leaders disregarding democratic norms. But on Saturday, the seemingly unbeatable Mr Babis was beaten because opposition parties put ideological differences aside and came together to oust a leader they fear has eroded the country’s democracy.
Their success could have major repercussions in the region and beyond. In Hungary and Poland, where nationalist leaders have undermined democratic institutions and sought to undermine the European Union, opposition leaders are mobilizing, trying to forge unified fronts and oust populist leaders in the coming years. elections.
“Populism is beatable,” said Otto Eibl, head of the political science department at Masaryk University in Brno, the capital of South Moravia. “The first step in defeating a populist leader is to suppress individual egos and compromise for the sake of bringing about change.”
The biggest confrontation could take place in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has presented himself as the European standard bearer of “illiberal democracy”, while his Fidesz party has gradually removed democratic controls, crushing independent media and Justice. Mr Orban has championed right-wing political positions – including hostility to immigration, the European Union and LGBTQ rights (if she also proves adept at adopting left-wing social policies) – which have been imitated by its allies in Poland, the law in power. and the justice party.
In recent years, the champions of liberal democracy have been confused in their efforts to fight their way to power against nationalist leaders adept at stoking fear and presenting themselves as saviors. Faced with well-oiled and well-funded political machines, like Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party or Mr. Babis’s Ano party, the opposition forces have been notoriously divided – until now.
This weekend, six Hungarian parties will complete a week-long opposition primary race, the first of its kind, to narrow the list of potential candidates in each constituency to oppose Mr Orban’s party. The coalition includes groups ranging from nationalist conservatives to leftists, who disagree on most things but share a strong desire to get rid of Mr. Orban.
In Poland, Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister and former President of the European Council, tried to rally the main opposition party and people who often do not vote, and also tried to garner support from a plethora of other opposition groups.
Calls for opposition to unity were also evident in Russia, where parliamentary elections held last month were neither free nor fair. Allies of jailed opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny had tried to persuade voters to side with just one opposition candidate in each constituency, whether they liked him or not, in the name of trying to win one seat and break President Vladimir V Putin’s total stranglehold on power.
It did not work, in part because most of the real opposition candidates were left out of the ballot, but also because Mr Putin’s government pressured companies to remove an application of “Smart vote” that the opposition used to coordinate their campaign.
Like Mr Putin, Europe’s populist leaders claim to defend traditional Christian values against decadent liberals, but unlike Mr Putin, they must hold real elections. Until recently, they were helped by the fact that the opposition parties split the vote, meaning that few of these parties had much chance of beating the highly organized ruling parties.
The ruling parties have also acquired significant control over the media in their countries. In the Czech Republic, Mr. Babis owns a media holding company with newspapers, internet portals and other media. In Hungary, Mr. Orban has placed state television and much of the private media under the control of loyal allies or business buddies.
Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a research group in Budapest, described Hungary as “the most captured state with the most centralized media environment” in Europe. Still, he said the new mobilization of Hungarian opposition parties could change the political dynamic there.
“They have a good message: if you fight against the populists, things can be different,” Kreko said.
In the Czech elections, that was largely the theme. While Mr. Babis is considered less extreme than Mr. Orban, he has alienated many people in the Czech Republic. They see him as a tyrant whose wealth and commercial ties have given him inordinate power.
Marie Jilkova, a successful anti-Babis candidate in South Moravia from one of two party coalitions that have come together to oppose the prime minister, said that coming together to confront Mr Babis and his party machine ” was, for us, the only way to survive – there was no alternative.
His own party, the Christian Democrats, differs on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage from the more centrist parties in his coalition.
Faced with a united block of center-right opponents, Mr. Babis and his Ano party have turned to the right, insulting immigration and the European Union. He invited Mr. Orban to campaign with him.
Since entering politics nearly a decade ago, Mr Babis has been inundated with questions about his financial affairs and those of his conglomerate, Agrofert. A week before the election, documents surfaced as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ Pandora Papers project, showing how it spent more than $ 20 million through offshore shell companies in 2009 to purchase property. in France.
Experts disagree on whether the disclosure had a significant effect on the race, but the revelations clearly rocked Mr Babis.
“He was desperate to find problems that would frighten people and convince them that only he could save them,” Ms. Jilkova said in an interview in Brno. “Fortunately, it didn’t work.”
Nationally, opposition coalitions won 108 of the 200 seats in parliament, a clear majority.
In Rozdrojovice, where Ms Malenova voted for the first time since 1989, her coalition enjoyed a high turnout and won 37.3% of the vote, a huge jump from what her member parties achieved when ‘they showed up separately four years ago.
Petr Jerousek, who runs a wine business and owns a pub in Rozdrojovice, said his clients usually didn’t talk much about politics, but, faced with a choice between Mr Babis and his enemies, “they were sometimes very excited in their business. discussion. “
Mr Jerousek was delighted with the final results on Saturday night. “People have finally opened their eyes,” he said. “They have had enough. “
Petr Stransky, a former policeman who now drives a city bus, was disheartened. “I don’t like chaos and I like things to be clear in society,” he said, lamenting Mr. Babis’ defeat in the face of what he called an unfair grouping of political parties. ‘opposition.
Village mayor Daniel Strasky said that if he wanted to see Mr Babis leave, he did not vote because he opposed an alliance between his own party, which represents mayors and others. local dignitaries, and the Pirates, a turbulent group popular with young voters.
But, he added, the loveless electoral marriage was probably worth it as it helped defeat Mr Babis, including donations to retirees, young train travelers and other budget-cutting measures. offended the mayor’s belief in financial discipline.
Mr Strasky was also upset by the Prime Minister’s anti-immigration tirades, especially because a Vietnamese family runs the village’s only grocery store.
“Me and everyone in the village are so happy to be here,” the mayor said. “No one else would ever run this store.”
Benjamin novak contributed to reports from Budapest and Petra Korlaar from Rozdrojovice.