Solution to divide-and-conquer strongmen: Unity

Ohad Zwigenberg/Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) reacts during a press conference with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (right) at the Government Press Office in Jerusalem, Nov. 6, 2021. Mr. Bennett's broad coalition brought together several rival parties.
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Populist strongmen often maintain their grip on power not so much by restricting or arresting their opponents as by dividing them.

Now, from Hungary to Brazil, opposition leaders are forming coalitions to fight upcoming elections on common platforms, in hopes they will find strength in unity.

Why We Wrote This

Populist strongmen often hold on to power by dividing their political opponents. Now, from Turkey to eastern Europe to Brazil, they are facing challenges from newly united democratic adversaries.

That sort of tactic worked last summer in Israel, where a very disparate group of parties united to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister for over a decade. And this week, a new government was being formed in the Czech Republic, backed by a pair of opposition alliances that between them had won a majority in recent elections.

Out went Andrej Babiš, the billionaire populist premier who is facing corruption charges at home and abroad.

This strategy is also being tested in Hungary, where self-proclaimed “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orbán faces elections next year, and in Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dominated politics for nearly two decades.

Perhaps the most closely watched test for populism will come next year in Brazil, when President Jair Bolsonaro goes to the polls. He is likely to face a challenge from leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

And what has Lula been doing in recent weeks? Conferring with allies and rivals, on both left and right, so as to build a coalition.

In more tranquil geopolitical times, last week’s news would barely have raised an eyebrow: A sitting government won parliamentary approval for the country’s annual budget.

Yet for the government in question – the unlikely coalition of mismatched parties that recently unseated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after more than a decade – it was a significant milestone.

And it had implications beyond Israel. Because opposition parties in a number of other countries where democratic governance has been eroded by strongman populist rulers are also studying the former Israeli opposition’s playbook.

Why We Wrote This

Populist strongmen often hold on to power by dividing their political opponents. Now, from Turkey to eastern Europe to Brazil, they are facing challenges from newly united democratic adversaries.

It’s too early to say the tide has turned. But with election tests on the horizon in a number of European states – and in South America’s largest country, Brazil – opposition challengers are crafting strategies drawing on Israel’s experience. They are setting aside policy differences in a bid to build broad fronts opposing the divisiveness, authoritarianism, narrow nationalism, and, in some cases, personal corruption of entrenched populist incumbents.

This week, that approach chalked up another success, in the Czech Republic.

The president directed that a new government be formed, backed by a pair of opposition alliances that secured an overall majority in elections last month, ending the rule of billionaire populist Andrej Babiš. Facing corruption charges both at home and abroad, he had taken a hard-line stand on immigration and vowed to “make the Czech Republic great again.”

Darko Bandic/AP
Petr Fiala, leader of the Czech Republic's center-right Together coalition, flashes the V sign as he reacts to the results of last month's parliamentary election. Czech President Milos Zeman has asked Mr. Fiala to form a new government.

A few hundred miles to the south in Hungary, opposition politicians have just launched an alliance to challenge the self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He has used his 11 years in power to tighten constraints on judicial and media independence, while stoking anti-immigrant and antisemitic rhetoric and intolerance toward minority groups.

A half-dozen groups from across the political spectrum held a joint primary vote last month to choose a candidate to lead the fight against Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz party in parliamentary elections next spring. Their choice was rooted in political pragmatism. It was not one of Mr. Orbán’s longtime critics from the left, but a small-town mayor named Péter Márki-Zay, a devoutly Catholic conservative who has pledged to restore democratic institutions and repair Hungary’s increasingly frayed relations with the European Union.

The populist strongman leading Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been in power even longer than Mr. Orbán and need not face the voters until the summer of 2023. But he, too, now faces the prospect of a united front.

Six major opposition parties have begun assembling a broad alliance, whose aim is not just to unseat Mr. Erdoğan – who has used broad anti-terror laws to hobble the judiciary and jail critics – but to restore Turkey’s parliamentary democracy.

Perhaps the most closely watched electoral test for populist politics will be in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro – a flamboyant right-wing ideologue whose attacks on the news media and dismissive approach to the pandemic have drawn comparisons to Donald Trump – faces the voters a year from now.

His likely, though still undeclared, challenger is former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

A center-left politician who rose through the labor union movement, Lula ruled as something of a populist himself. But in increasingly open moves to mount a comeback run against Mr. Bolsonaro, he and his supporters have been seeking to forge the kind of broad opposition strategy taking shape across the Atlantic.

In a series of meetings with politicians last month, he conferred not only with longtime allies of his Workers Party, but with centrist and right-of-center figures as well, framing the contest against Mr. Bolsonaro as a fight to ensure a “humane” and democratic presidency.

Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/Reuters
A protester chants slogans through a megaphone during an opposition demonstration in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, calling for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's impeachment. Efforts are underway to form a broad coalition to support a challenger to Mr. Bolsonaro a year from now.

None of this, however, means the ruling populists are destined for defeat. All have shown a talent for galvanizing grassroots enthusiasm and support, and they still have the levers of state to pull, and influential media allies to carry their messages.

Last week’s budget vote in Israel, in fact, underscored the scale of the task faced by even a united coalition. Now leader of the opposition, Mr. Netanyahu led a strident effort in parliament to vote down the budget, and force new elections.

It was a stiff test of the staying power of the mosaic of parties – right of center and left, Jewish and Arab – that had combined to usher him out of power. And the alliance held.

In forging unity coalitions elsewhere, opposition leaders will be aware of the difficulty of the political battles ahead.

But, ironically, they seem to be counting on a potential edge that they’ve long ceded to the populists. Strongmen have often maintained their grip on power not so much by restricting or arresting their opponents, as by dividing them.

In opting instead for unity, those opponents are hoping that they may have found populism’s Achilles’ heel.

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