Strategies Against Aspiring Autocrats
The Hungarian opposition pursued a complicated electoral strategy against Viktor Orbán and Fidesz in the 2022 Hungarian parliamentary elections. They tried to unify the opposition into a single political party to overtake Fidesz in single member district competitions. The problem was this strategy required the unification of various left-wing parties with a party on the far right, Jobbik. The strategy backfired. Fidesz still won its two-thirds majority in parliament. Meanwhile, the left saw their presence in parliament diluted as many of their votes went to elect candidates from Jobbik. It was a worst case scenario for the left in Hungary.
Hungary’s electoral experience is a cautionary tale for many countries. It’s natural to assume the best way to defeat an aspiring autocrat is through an overwhelming majority. However, a big tent is not just difficult to achieve, but also difficult to maintain. Moreover, the big tent approach is in many ways a capitulation to personalistic politics. It reorients the dominant political cleavage away from programmatic issues and focuses exclusively on the divisiveness of the charismatic leader. Unfortunately, populist leaders frustrate traditional left-right political cleavages. Aspiring autocrats like Orbán, Bolsonaro, and Erdoğan come across as moderates on important issues like redistribution and social welfare. It’s on the subject of democracy and civil liberties where they take a more radical stand.
Authoritarian leaders will bring about a gradual political realignment the longer they remain in power. Some moderate Republicans in the US have changed political allegiances during the Trump era. However, many will not. The best strategy is to encourage the formation of a party on the autocrat’s flank. Hungary ceded this ground when they formed a unified opposition. Others should not make the same mistake. The best strategy is to box populists into the uncomfortable middle and watch them squirm.