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Before last October’s parliamentary election in Poland, hopes were high that the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which had spent the previous eight years building an “illiberal democracy,” would be defeated. But few expected that more than 74% of voters would show up at the polls – the highest turnout in the country since the fall of communism in 1989 – to deliver victory to a pro-democratic coalition of opposition parties.

According to former Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Rostowski, the mobilization came just in time, because “the longer authoritarians are in power, the more likely they are to stay in power by implementing policies and procedures to make it less likely that ordinary people will challenge their authority.” But PiS – and its “soon-to-be-deposed little ‘Big Man,’” Jarosław Kaczyński – has seen its authority to use violence or force “evaporate,” even before the formal transfer of power takes place.

But whereas Polish opposition parties “united around a common cause,” writes Soňa Muzikárová, a former senior adviser to Slovakia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, “Slovakian centrists failed to connect with rural voters, older voters, and those disillusioned with the status quo.” This allowed the left-populist party Smer-Social Democracy to eke out a narrow victory in parliamentary elections and return to power Robert Fico, whose previous government was riddled with corruption and ties to organized crime.

Europe has another populist problem. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom party rocketed to victory in last month’s general election. For Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, this experience demonstrates that the “allure of populist authoritarianism” grows “when governments fail to deliver moderate and sensible responses to immigration,” as well as “in periods of economic stress, particularly when democratic governments are unable to improve living standards.”

But Ian Buruma sees a different lesson in Wilders’ victory. Like many ultra-nationalists, Wilders is an outsider, whose grandparents “left the Dutch East Indies under a cloud of financial malfeasance.” These “Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters,” Buruma explains. “Wilders may not be a fascist, but his obsession with sovereignty, national belonging, and cultural and religious purity has a long lineage among outsiders.”

All of this holds lessons for the United States. For starters, MIT’s Daron Acemoglu argues, preventing Donald Trump – a “twice-impeached former president who now faces four separate indictments for serious crimes” – from returning to the White House will require the Democrats to start “reconnecting with working-class voters and supporting their long-neglected interests.” The stakes are high, Acemoglu says, because a “second Trump presidency would be a much greater threat to democracy than the first.”

But the University of Chicago’s Eric Posner suggests that we should not exaggerate the threat Trump poses. He “was not a fascist when he was president, and he would not become a dictator if elected again,” owing to the “power of constitutional and bureaucratic hurdles” and a “dearth of sympathetic right-wing radicals.” A “second Trump term won’t be pretty,” but “anarchy is more likely than tyranny.”

Featured in this Big Picture

  1. Jacek RostowskiJacek Rostowski
  2. Soňa MuzikárováSoňa Muzikárová
  3. Chris PattenChris Patten
  4. Ian BurumaIan Buruma
  5. Daron AcemogluDaron Acemoglu
  6. Eric PosnerEric Posner

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