ROZDROJOVICE, Czech Republic – Maria Malenova, a Czech pensioner from a tidy, prosperous village in South Moravia, has not voted since 1989, when her country held its first free elections after more than four decades of communist rule.
Last Friday, however, she decided to vote again, an event so unusual that her unbelieving family recorded her change in their views by photographing her placing her ballot in a large white box in the town hall.
She said she didn’t like the people she voted for, a coalition of previously divided center-right parties, describing them as “the lesser evil among all our many thieves.” But they at least had a simple and clear message: we can defeat Andrei Babis, the Czech populist, billionaire prime minister.
“I wanted a change,” Ms. Malenova said, “and I wanted something that could defeat Babish.”
Over the past decade, populists such as Mr. Babis have often appeared politically invincible, ascending to power in Central and Eastern Europe as part of a global trend of strong leaders who despise democratic norms. But on Saturday, the seemingly invincible Mr. Babiš was defeated as opposition parties shelved ideological divisions and banded together to oust a leader they fear has destroyed the country’s democracy.
Their success can have profound implications in the region and beyond. In Hungary and Poland, where nationalist leaders have wreaked havoc on democratic institutions and sought to undermine the European Union, opposition leaders are mobilizing to create united fronts and oust populist leaders in the upcoming elections.
“Populism can be defeated,” said Otto Able, head of the Department of Political Science at Masaryk University in Brno, the capital of South Moravia. “The first step in defeating a populist leader is to suppress the individual ego and compromise for change.”
The biggest skirmish may take place in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban positions himself as the European standard-bearer of “illiberal democracy”, while his party, Fidesz, has steadily abandoned democratic checks, putting pressure on independent media and the judiciary. Mr Orban has taken a right-wing political stance – including hostility towards immigration, the European Union, and LGBTQ rights (if he has also proven his ability to pursue left-wing welfare policies) – which his allies in Poland have emulated by regulating the law. and the Justice party.
In recent years, proponents of liberal democracy have been baffled in their efforts to return to power against nationalist leaders who have a knack for fanning fear and posing as saviors. Faced with well-oiled and well-funded political machines such as Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party or Mr. Babis’s, Ano’s party, opposition forces have so far been notoriously divided.
This weekend, six Hungarian parties will wrap up the opposition’s weeklong primary race, the first of its kind to narrow down the list of potential contenders in each constituency to oppose Mr. Orban’s party. The coalition includes groups ranging from nationalist conservatives to the left, who disagree on most issues, but share a fervent desire to get rid of Mr. Orban.
In Poland, Donald Tusk, a former prime minister and former president of the European Council, has tried to rally the main opposition party and people who often do not vote, and has also tried to enlist the support of many other opposition groups.
Calls for opposition unity were also evident in Russia, where last month’s parliamentary elections were neither free nor fair. Allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny have tried to persuade voters to rally around a single opposition candidate in each constituency, whether they like the candidate or not, in an effort to secure a single seat and crush President Vladimir V. Putin’s full grip on power.
It didn’t work – partly because most of the real opposition candidates didn’t vote, but also because the Putin government forced companies to remove the smart voting app that the opposition used to coordinate its 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, which meant that few of these parties had much of a chance to defeat the highly organized ruling parties.
These ruling parties have also gained significant control over the media in their countries. In the Czech Republic, Mr. Babiš owns a media holding with newspapers, internet portals and other news agencies. In Hungary, Mr. Orban has placed state television and most of the private media outlets under the control of his loyal allies or business friends.
Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital research group in Budapest, described Hungary as “the most conquered state with the most centralized media environment” in Europe. However, he said that a new mobilization of opposition parties in Hungary could change the political dynamics in that country.
“They have a good message: if you are fighting populists, things could be different,” said Mr. Creco.
In the Czech elections, this was mainly the topic. Although Mr. Babiš is considered less radical than Mr. Orban, he alienated many people in the Czech Republic. They see him as a bully, whose wealth and corporate connections have endowed him with excessive power.
Maria Zhilkova, a successful candidate against Babiš in South Moravia from one of two coalitions of parties that have banded together to oppose the prime minister, said that uniting to confront Mr. Babiš and his party machine “was the only way for us to survive – no alternatives It was “.
Her own party, the Christian Democrats, differs on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage from the more centrist parties in her coalition, so she said, “we agreed not to talk about these things during the campaign.”
Faced with a united bloc of center-right opponents, Mr. Babis and his Ano party have turned right to oppose immigration and the European Union. He invited Mr. Orban to campaign with him.
Ever since he first entered politics nearly a decade ago, Mr. Babis has been inundated with questions about his financial affairs and the affairs of his conglomerate Agrofert. A week before the election, the Pandora Papers of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released documents showing how in 2009 he shuffled more than $ 20 million through offshore shell companies to buy real estate in France.
Experts disagree as to whether the revelation had a significant impact on the race, but the revelations clearly alarmed Mr. Babis.
“He was desperate to find problems that could scare people and convince them that only he can save them,” Ms Zhilkova said in an interview in Brno. “Luckily it didn’t work.”
Nationally, opposition coalitions won 108 out of 200 parliamentary seats — a clear majority.
In Rozdrojovitsy, where Ms Malenova has cast her first vote since 1989, her coalition has benefited from a high turnout and won 37.3 percent of the vote, a big jump from its member parties when they ran for separately four years ago.
Petr Jerusek, who runs a wine business and owns a pub in Rozdrojovice, said his clients usually don’t talk too much about politics, but when faced with a choice between Mr. Babis and his opponents, “they sometimes got very excited about their discussions. “
Mr Jerusek was delighted with the final results late Saturday night. “People have finally opened their eyes,” he said. “They’ve had enough.”
Piotr Stranski, a former police officer who now drives a city bus, was suppressed. “I don’t like disorder and I want the society to be clear,” he said, lamenting Mr. Babis’s defeat for what he said was an unjust amalgamation of opposition parties.
Village Mayor Daniel Straski said that although he wanted Mr. Babish to leave, he did not vote because he objected to an alliance between his own party, which represents mayors and other local dignitaries, and the Pirates, an energetic group popular among young voters.
But, he added, the loveless electoral marriage was probably worth it because he helped defeat Mr. Babis, whose handouts to retirees, young railroad travelers and other budget cuts offended the mayor’s faith in financial discipline.
Mr Straski was also upset by the prime minister’s anti-immigration tirades, especially as a Vietnamese family runs the village’s only grocery store.
“I and all the villagers are very happy that they are here,” the mayor said. “No one else will ever run this store.”
Benjamin Novak provided reports from Budapest and Petra Korlaar from Rozdrojovice.