Europe’s right-wing forces suffer blow in two crucial elections

Analysis: Results in France and Slovenia show threat of populism not as strong as feared

The results of two crucial elections this weekend in France and Slovenia are a blow to a camp of right-wing forces with authoritarian tendencies that once looked set to deadlock the European Union.

All eyes were on Emmanuel Macron's re-election as French president and his defeat of far-right challenger Marine Le Pen. Perhaps less attention was paid to Slovenia, where a green-liberal party that campaigned for environmental policies and for the rule of law surged ahead to beat the party of populist prime minister Janez Jansa.

This result is worthy of note. Jansa distinguished himself in November 2020 by congratulating Donald Trump for a "triumph" in the US election, and suggesting that mainstream media were attempting to deny him victory, backing conspiratorial claims about a vote that was actually won by US president Joe Biden.

During his reign the Slovenian leader was accused of attempting to undermine the courts and independent watchdogs, and was known for using his social media platforms to berate and smear journalists by name, unleashing a tide of hate from his supporters in response to critical reporting.

For the last two years Jansa was emblematic of fears that the authoritarian tendencies of Viktor Orbán – who has tightened his grip on power while dismantling media freedom and blurring the lines between his party and the state – were spreading beyond Hungary.

In fact their ranks have decreased.

An endorsement by Orbán failed to save the populist billionaire Andrej Babiš from being ousted as prime minister amid an EU subsidy fraud scandal in Czech parliamentary elections in October.

The same weekend another Orbán ally, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, resigned amid a corruption investigation and has since left politics altogether.

Despite their likemindedness, the alliance between the Hungarian and Polish leadership is now under serious strain

In Bulgaria, strongman Boyko Borissov was forced to resign a year ago after weeks of anti-corruption protests, and last month was detained by police amid a large-scale investigation into the potential abuse of EU funds. He has denied wrongdoing.

For years, the most important alliance for Orbán has been with Poland, the two backing each other up when challenged over accusations of democratic backsliding and the erosion of judicial independence.

It was clear who Orbán and Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki wanted to win in France this weekend. Both met Marine Le Pen for talks and symbolic handshake photos in the run up to the election, and the Rassemblement National leader has spoken of Orbán as someone who shares her vision.

The Polish leader even began a spat with Macron as election day neared, publicly criticising him for holding talks with Russia's Vladimir Putin. In response Macron accused Morawiecki of meddling in the French election and called him "an extreme-right anti-Semite who bans LGBT people", comments that led to Warsaw summoning the French ambassador.

But despite their likemindedness, the alliance between the Hungarian and Polish leadership is now under serious strain. Poland is one of the EU's toughest member states in opposing Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, and has been deeply alienated by Budapest's far more ambivalent position.

Other EU countries are seizing the moment to try to convince Warsaw to change course. Poland is viewed as less far gone than Hungary – it has a lively political scene and is generally considered to have spent EU funding rather well – and as its 2023 elections approach some hope it can be convinced to return to a rule-of-law path.

Isolated, Orbán is much less of a powerful force.

The events that have played out are far from the unassailable rise of Eurosceptic, radical right populism that was once predicted to engulf and destroy the EU. It’s notable that in order to get as far as she did, Le Pen had to temper her Euroscepticism to insist she wants to keep the euro, and remain within the EU while reforming it.

This is reflective of the moderation of the demands of Eurosceptic parties across the EU, as the United Kingdom played out the difficult trade-offs of Brexit.

In invading Ukraine, Russia attempted to overthrow its democratically-elected government. In the areas it occupies, Russian forces have imposed state-controlled media, shut down independent broadcasting, and mass detained community leaders, activists and journalists, reflecting a similarly oppressive policy undertaken in occupied Crimea since 2014.

It’s possible that this may too serve as a demonstration: of the reality of authoritarian rule, the purpose of the rule of law and democratic norms, and potentially, of their value to those who still enjoy them.