It’s all up and down with democracy these days as right-wing populists, some bordering on fascism, come and go. The most prominent case, of course, was our great neighbour to the south electing Donald Trump and then trading him in for one of the best and most progressive presidents in a long time, Joe Biden. But Trump hasn’t gone very far and is now the leading contender for the presidential election in 2024.
We saw something very similar in Brazil with the election of the Trump-admiring Jair Bolsonaro running the country for a term and then being rejected in 2022. As with Trump, his supporters rioted after his defeat, attacking state institutions, and are now being criminally tried.
Bolsonaro won’t be contesting the next election as Brazil’s highest electoral court voted to bar him from public office until 2030 over his conduct during the elections. He continues to face a number of criminal investigations that could put him behind bars. We can only hope a similar fate awaits Trump. Brazil replaced their populist with a left-wing progressive, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Another South American nation, Argentina, just elected its own right-wing populist, Javier Milei. Milei, who refers to politicians as a “parasitic caste,” has threatened to abolish a host of government ministries and introduce severe spending cuts. He was elected, as demagogues often are, including Donald Trump, because of serious discontent with the status quo (Argentinian inflation rose to over 100 percent this year). He has moderated in his first months in office, so he may not turn out to be all that Trumpish.
Other examples of illiberal leaders include Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and, increasingly, India’s Narendra Modi.
Illiberalism has achieved most of its fame in Eastern Europe as former Communist nations attempt to recover from generations of oppression and stagnation. First among their leaders is Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who proudly describes his country as an “illiberal state.” He has consolidated his power by curtailing press freedom and weakening judicial independence while shamelessly funnelling European Union funding to his friends and family.
But it’s not all gloom among the former satellites. Recently Poland, which had been exhibiting increasing illiberalism along the lines of Hungary, made a sharp U-turn. For the past eight years, the country has been under the rule of the nationalist, hard right-wing Law and Justice Party. In an October election, Law and Justice was turfed out and replaced by a moderate coalition government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Tusk served as Poland’s prime minister previously before becoming a senior European Union (EU) official in Brussels.
He has made a number of things clear about his new government. It will have an assertive foreign policy anchored in close ties to the United States and the European Union, and will be fully involved “with Ukraine in this cruel conflict with the Russian aggressor.”
It will repair strained relations with the European Union, unlocking nearly $60 billion in funding frozen under the previous government. It will be back at the centre of European policy-making. Tusk’s close relations with many EU officials from his time as president of the European council will stand him in good stead.
In a recent speech to Parliament, Mr. Tusk pledged to defend “European political values of democracy, the rule of law, media independence and freedom of speech.”
Bringing Poland back into the fold of liberal democracy is of no small importance. It is the largest and most populous of the Soviet Union’s satellites. Score a big win for the good guys.