politics

Here’s Where Turmoil Is the New Normal

Losing a prime minister or failing to form a government is not necessarily a sign of weakness for some leaders.
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People march in front of the Romanian parliament in 2017.

Photographer: Andrei Pungovschi/AFP via Getty Images

It's been a tough week for some governments in eastern Europe. One is struggling to get off the ground, one is about to get its third prime minister in a year and another faces a parliamentary debate on corruption.

Rather than exposing the weakness of leaderships in some of the European Union's youngest democracies, the apparent turmoil masks the strength of the populist strongmen who run the countries.

Czech billionaire Andrej Babis failed to form a cabinet, though he will remain in power and his popularity is growing. The leader of Romania's governing party, Liviu Dragnea, got to pick a new prime minister after Mihai Tudose resigned following their feud. Bulgarian premier Boyko Borissov will hear new corruption allegations and face a no-confidence vote, though it amounts to little more than an embarrassment.

From left; Boyko Borissov, Andrej Babis, and Liviu Dragnea.
Photos: Jack Taylor/Getty Images, Martin Divisek/Bloomberg, Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

The forces of nationalism and Donald Trump-style politics have swept across Europe. It's in the continent's east where they have really taken hold and are growing stronger. Most prominently, populists in Poland and Hungary are increasing support by clashing with the EU mainstream and promising to make their countries great again. 

“Eastern European leaders are telling voters ‘don’t trust institutions, trust me,”’ said James Sawyer, an analyst at political risk consultants Eurasia Group in London. “And voters are increasingly rewarding personality-driven politics. Some of the political upheaval we're seeing now is the clash of personalities and institutions.”

Babis, 63, is busy cementing his power in Prague after winning elections last year by pledging to run the Czech Republic like a business. He was forced to resign on Wednesday after mainstream parties refused to join a coalition. President Milos Zeman promised him another try.

Dragnea, 55, whose Social Democratic Party now wants to overhaul the judiciary, has been pulling the strings in Romania since 2016. He's unable to take the top job himself because of a criminal conviction and will appoint his third prime minister. Tudose lasted six months.

Bulgaria currently holds the EU's rotating presidency. Borissov, 58, a former bodyguard, has ruled on and off since 2009 with pledges to raise wages and improve infrastructure in the EU's poorest state. The opposition triggered a no-confidence motion in his government for next week, a frequent exercise that has failed every time during the 27 years since communism collapsed.

The real absence of turmoil has been evident in financial markets. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary boast the best-performing emerging-market currencies since the beginning of 2017. Their stock markets also hit multi-year highs in the last 12 months.

Economies in the region, which receives billions of euros of subsidies from the EU, probably grew 3.7 percent last year, the fastest pace since 2011, according to a weighted average of country forecasts in a Bloomberg survey.

QuicktakePoland’s Populist Turn

It’s enabled politicians to make  promises. Poland's Law & Justice Party under Jaroslaw Kaczynski won an unprecedented majority in parliament in 2015 and has built on that popularity by introducing extra payments for families and railing against opponents and the EU. Kaczynski, 68, replaced his prime minister late last year with another party loyalist.

Hungarian premier Viktor Orban, with his self-described “illiberal democracy” and fences to keep out refugees, has been a lightning rod for western European criticism of how the former communist region has turned out politically.

Orban, 54, is expected to win his third consecutive election on April 8, helped by a fierce campaign against Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, who said attacks on him were reminiscent of Nazi-era propaganda.

“These strongmen managed to tap into the general dissatisfaction of the people in these post-communist countries,” said Judy Dempsey, a fellow at Carnegie Europe in Berlin. “They are doing quite well economically. But there’s a general disgust with how politics has been conducted in the past three decades.”

— With assistance by Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova, Samuel Dodge, Andra Timu, and Elizabeth Konstantinova

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