•      Sat Jul 20 2024

Can National Reconciliation Defeat Populism?

VIENNA/WARSAW – Pro-Russian populist Robert Fico’s strong showing in Slovakia’s election could lead to another fracture in the Western-led coalition to counter Vladimir Putin’s imperialism. Already, cracks have been emerging in the erstwhile close alliance between Ukraine and Poland in the run-up to the Polish elections on October 15. With Hungary ruled by Viktor Orbán, a reliable Putin ally, US President Joe Biden may soon need to contend not only with Donald Trump’s camp of pro-Russian Republicans, but also with the governments of three of Ukraine’s four NATO neighbors going rogue in favor of the Kremlin.

Authoritarian populists make for unreliable allies. But instead of turning a blind eye to populist shenanigans, as the Biden administration has been doing with Poland, or risking important relationships by assuming an uncompromising stance, the US should spearhead efforts to help mend flawed democracies in allied countries through processes of national reconciliation and creative power sharing.

While Hungary’s position toward Ukraine has been consistently hostile, Slovakia’s support has, until now, been substantial, with the country donating its entire fleet of retired Soviet-era fighter jets, as well as air defense systems, to its eastern neighbor. Should Fico form the next government, Slovak policy may resemble the recent cascade of anti-Ukrainian moves from Poland’s populist government, which have included embargoing Ukraine’s grain and ending donations of Polish military equipment.

These reversals may seem shocking, but they are not surprising. Authoritarian nationalist movements such as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) are known to subordinate even the most solemn international obligations to their immediate political objectives. The exhausting saga of Turkish and Hungarian vetoes of the Finnish and Swedish NATO bids is a case in point.

The conventional wisdom in the United States is that the proper response is to focus on the bigger picture. Poland, after all, has emerged as a pivotal node in the effort to support Ukraine and strengthen NATO’s deterrence capabilities. Poland accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees and donated much of its Soviet-era weaponry while announcing massive increases in military spending, reaching as much as 5% of the country’s GDP – more than double NATO’s target. Polish airports and ports are critical to the logistics of supporting Ukraine’s resistance.

But that conventional view makes sense only against the admittedly unattractive alternative of severing or significantly downgrading ties with illiberal allied governments. In other words, giving friendly authoritarians a blank check seems necessary if open confrontation with them is the only other option. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo: “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

Fortunately, there is another way. Most populist regimes reflect deep political polarization of their country’s society. It is the rift between conservative and progressive Turks, Hindu and minority Indians, ethnonationalist and internationalist Hungarians, or pro-Western and pan-Slavic Slovaks that leads voters to conclude that the only way to protect their interests is to impose their will through undemocratic means.

Poland is emblematic of this dynamic. Eight years into its populist government, voters are deeply divided, with right-wing and progressive parties splitting the electorate almost evenly, according to most opinion polls. As in the US, this also reflects a geographical asymmetry. The right’s bastion is Poland’s deeply Catholic, conservative Southeast, while opposition voters are concentrated in the more pro-Western, progressive Northwest.

In fact, PiS’s recent relative weakness in its strongholds reflects the few instances when, during its time in power, it chose not to follow cynical political calculations. As a result, PiS is now being outflanked from the right by the Confederation party, which lambastes the government for its support of Ukraine. In a classic cycle of political polarization, this electoral threat makes PiS respond by adopting even more extreme policies, including the current spat with Ukraine’s government.

But this logic of polarization can be reversed, by responding to the roots, not just the symptoms, of our democratic crisis. Along with a group of more than a hundred scholars and activists representing political views from left to the conservative right, we have proposed – in a book that became a non-fiction bestseller in Poland – a comprehensive constitutional settlement that responds to Poland’s democratic malaise. Rather than simply defeating the right, our proposal envisions a political settlement based on the principles of power sharing and far-reaching decentralization.

It is in America’s interest to support this and other efforts to foster political settlements and stability in the countries that are now its critical allies, and the Biden administration has powerful tools to help make it happen. For example, it is an open secret that Polish President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, is eyeing an international leadership role after the end of his second term in 2025. Biden could condition support for Duda’s aspirations on credible work toward national reconciliation with the country’s progressive forces.

Just one success in a US-sponsored effort to foster political coexistence could inspire similar projects among other US allies with troubled democracies. Eventually, Americans may benefit from such successes, too. After all, the passivity of US diplomats in resolving dangerous political polarization within allied countries mirrors the Biden administration’s failure to engage conservatives at home in the wake of Trump’s 2020 electoral defeat.

Our work in Poland shows that national reconciliation involves tough compromises on issues such as education, multiculturalism, or the role of religion in public life. The US would be wise to support and study such political settlements in allied countries, where the opportunity cost is small, given the baseline scenario of precipitous democratic decline. If these initiatives bring positive results abroad, they may one day succeed at home.

Maciej Kisilowski is Associate Professor of Law and Strategy at Central European University in Vienna. Anna Wojciuk is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Warsaw.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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