Scenes of chaos in the British Parliament. Surprising twists at the top of Italian politics. The recent opposition gains in Turkey. Pro-democracy protests in unlikely places. Shock election results and surprising political mobilizations.
The events in a growing list of countries may seem unrelated, but their near-simultaneous occurrence suggests something important is afoot.
After losing ground for a decade, is democracy making a comeback?
For years, populist, right-wing demagogues have been undercutting democracy in country after country, sowing chaos and stoking political polarization. They rose through old-fashioned fearmongering and political manipulation, modernized for our times with social media strategies and considerable assistance from the Kremlin. But the victors are having trouble holding on to their gains.
Lobbing bombs (and conspiracy theories) from the outside, it turns out, is easier than governing.
Though it may be too early to declare an official end to the rise of authoritarian populists, it’s clear that at the very least their surge has been slowed, possibly stopped. The wave may have broken.
And not a moment too soon. The nonpartisan Freedom House says last year it recorded “the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom” — and old-school dictators such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping aren’t the only culprits. Populist demagogues undercut the fact-based media, the independence of the judiciary and other forms of freedom that have the power to impinge on their authoritarian designs.
Perhaps democracy activists are getting better at fighting back — or maybe too many people have had enough. What we see in country after country is a growing will to challenge demagogues and fight for democracy.
Over the past few days in London, we’ve seen British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffer an unprecedented string of defeats as he seeks to drive the country out of the European Union even if it means speeding off a cliff. That has happened in large part because members of his Conservative Party (in contrast to U.S. Republicans) decided to stand up to his assaults on democratic norms.
In Italy, the nationalist Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right, anti-immigrant League, thought he could rise to prime minister by ending the governing coalition he served as deputy prime minister. His former partners in the Five Star Movement unexpectedly outmaneuvered him when they joined with the center-left Democratic Party and kicked him out of the government.
When voters went to the polls in two states in eastern Germany last weekend, many feared that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) could emerge victorious. The AfD did well, to be sure, but the worst fears didn’t come to pass. Voters kept the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a leading defender of democracy and the European Union, on top.
Over the summer, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried every trick in the book — and some new ones — after his preferred candidates lost municipal elections in the country’s biggest cities. In Istanbul, the biggest of them all, Erdogan — who has hollowed out Turkish democracy — managed to have the election annulled and re-held. But then his candidate lost again, by a much wider margin, and now the democratic opposition is resurgent and energized, running key power bases, including both Istanbul (Erdogan’s hometown) and the capital, Ankara.
In the past few months, we’ve seen right-wing populists lose ground in several other European countries.
In Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz lost power after breaking with his junior coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), following a series of embarrassing revelations involving the FPO. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant Party of Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders didn’t win a single seat in European Parliament elections in May, and the nationalist Forum for Democracy (FvD) is no longer the biggest party in the Dutch senate. In March, supporters of democracy and the European Union in Slovakia handed a decisive victory to the indomitable Zuzana Caputova, the country’s first female president. The populists and the far right, which had both been making ominous gains, suffered a drubbing.
For people under authoritarian regimes, advocating for democracy might seem like a fool’s errand (and a dangerous one at that). But that hasn’t stopped demonstrators in Moscow and Hong Kong from taking to the streets to do just that, week after week.
The fear and anger that propelled Europe’s far right have eased. The TV footage of waves of Syrian refugees, alternating with gruesome images of Islamic State terrorists decapitating Westerners, has ebbed. The worst of the financial crisis is finally over.
Like a hurricane losing force over cooler waters, the energy is draining out of nationalist rage.
Even in the United States, the polls consistently show President Trump, the American counterpart to Salvini, Johnson and other nationalist populists, consistently trailing his major challengers in the 2020 election.
It’s too early to say that Trump is destined to lose, or if any of the far-right leaders struggling today might regain the upper hand. And it’s too soon to declare that the pendulum is swinging back toward a revival of democracy.
What is clear is that the far right is not unstoppable. Eventually, we may look back and declare that this was, in fact, the historic inflection point where the people managed to save democracy.