Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova speaks during a joint press statement with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Presidential palace, in Paris on July 24, 2019. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Zuzana Caputova, who was elected as Slovakia's president, was a political outsider who campaigned against the corrupt status quo © Ludovic marin/AFP

The tides of illiberalism in central and eastern Europe are in partial retreat. High-handed leaders who scoffed for years at the rule of law are losing public trust and power. This trend, though uneven and not irreversible, is heartening: some of the region’s countries have taken a wrong turning over the past decade, betraying the civic democratic promise of the 1989 anti-communist revolutions.

It would be a mistake to think that well-judged EU policies, backed by the US, have contributed to the new trend. The role of what we used to call the world’s leading liberal democracies has been relatively small. Rather, illiberalism is on the defensive mainly because hundreds of thousands of the region’s citizens, impatient with politicians who feed corruption and bend justice to their own purposes, have risen up against it.

The most prominent examples are Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In all three countries, the rule of law was eroding under pressure from politicians borrowing populist methods from Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Hungarian and Polish leaders. In Romania and Slovakia, it is a grim fact that it required public revulsion at murder to stop the rot.

In late July, the abduction and killing of a 15-year-old Romanian girl prompted such outrage that the nation’s constitutional court struck down controversial changes to the legal system passed by the ruling Social Democrats. The chief purpose of these changes was to undermine the judiciary’s independence and protect party bigwigs and their friends against corruption charges. But prosecutors and citizens alike seized on the murder to argue that the changes weakened the state’s ability to tackle serious crime in general.

The landmark decision came two months after several other blows against Romanian illiberalism. Liviu Dragnea, the Social Democrat leader and strongman behind the government, lost his appeal against a conviction on corruption charges and began a prison sentence of three and a half years. The party’s vote collapsed in the European Parliament elections. In a simultaneous referendum, Romanians supported a ban on pardons or amnesties for corruption cases, as well as a ban on emergency decrees to change the justice system.

In Slovakia’s case, the turning point was the February 2018 murder of Jan Kuciak — an investigative journalist probing the ties between business, organised crime and politics — and his fiancée. Mass demonstrations brought down Prime Minister Robert Fico, the dominant figure of Slovak politics for the previous 12 years. Then, last March, the national presidential election was won by Zuzana Caputova, a political outsider who campaigned against the corrupt, clientelistic status quo — but in a deliberately mild and reasoned manner.

Andrej Babis, the billionaire Czech prime minister, clings to power after being rocked by the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution swept away communism. Public discontent focuses on the entanglement of his political and business roles, which the EU authorities suspect — and Mr Babis denies — amount to a conflict of interest. After campaigning with a Donald Trump-style red baseball cap bearing the slogan “Strong Czechia”, he topped the polls in his country’s European Parliament elections but his party was crushed in Prague, the liberal-leaning Czech capital.

To interpret these various events calls for perspective. Central and eastern Europe is not a monolithic region. The most extreme version of regional illiberalism, that of Mr Orban’s Hungary, has a stronger grip on power than others precisely because it has gone furthest in dismantling or corroding the institutions of a civic democracy. The Polish variant, that of Mr Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, appears on course to win re-election in October because its policies appeal to millions of voters and the opposition is disunited.

Moreover, the Czech, Romanian and Slovak protests have been directed largely against corruption, cronyism and abuses of the law rather than in support of the western-style liberal norms embraced by the pro-democracy revolutionaries of 1989. Little suggests that hostility to non-European migrants and refugees, or lukewarm interest in deep EU integration, is fading.

Even if the public reaction against illiberalism is at its heart an outburst against misgovernment and injustice, it is still a cause worthy of western support. The question is how strong it will be. Looking at Mr Trump’s re-election campaign in the US, Boris Johnson’s early days as UK premier and the EU’s habitual caution in such matters, one might be forgiven for having doubts.

tony.barber@ft.com

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