Let’s Talk Elections with Ricardo Silvestre and Leszek Jazdzewski [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

Why do the recent election results in Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain matter? What do they mean for Europe? And what is to be expected of the forthcoming elections in Portugal and the European elections? We are starting the new season of the Liberal Europe Podcast with a thought-provoking conversation between our two hosts, Ricardo Silvestre (Movimento Liberal Social) and Leszek Jazdzewski (Fundacja Liberte!).

Ricardo Silvestre (RS): What is your assessment of what happened recently in Poland? And what is happening now?

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): It was a huge change, because after an eight-year rule of a right-wing party (Law and Justice, PiS), an unexpected turn of events happened. With the highest voter turnout in the Polish history (almost 75%), the coalition of opposition parties won, and it is now in power. We still have a PiS President, Andrzej Duda, who is threatening to veto most of the laws the new government wants to introduce. Therefore, there is a kind of a gray zone if they want to amend the things that Law and Justice did in the past – especially in regard to the rule of law. It is thus somewhat chaotic and difficult as the law seems to be the most important these days.

On the other hand, we see an interesting shift as it is now PiS that is protesting, waving flags, and chanting “Constitution!.” However, I believe that after a couple of months it might become possible that we will finally get to a stage where Poland would also be able to be active on the international stage, and not only look inward. I look forward to that.

RS: You have a rather good start with the current government – regarding the environment, Europe, Poland’s position on Ukraine. But I would really like to talk about this ‘counter-power.’ I come from a country which has a semi-presidential governing system, and the president can be a counterweight that can try to balance policies and politics. Are you afraid that in Poland, President Duda might really be an obstacle to this new time of governance in Poland?

LJ: Technically, it is possible with his veto power. He could slow down some processes. However, we have presidential elections in 2025 anyway, so he cannot do it forever. The ruling coalition did not allow the president to gain the momentum, so I believe that they will find a way (and they are already in the process of doing that) to go around the veto power – but, of course, not for all issues. On the more progressive side, especially abortion may be a law impossible to introduce. Still, having this president in office might be a kind of an excuse for a coalition that spans from the center to center-left, so that not to introduce a controversial law within the coalition.

RS: Until recently, you had a populist party in power in Poland. The change in government is, therefore, a real success story. In all of Europe, we were very happy – including my home country. In Portugal, we were pleased to see the coalition of democratic parties beating down PiS and taking it from the power structure.

On the other hand, populism is still growing in Europe. We see what happened in Slovakia, or what is happening in Germany, France, but – more specifically – what happened in the Netherlands, where the Party for Freedom (PVV) from Geert Wilder actually won. This was quite a shock. You experienced it for quite many years, so – having in mind the general perspective of European perspective – do you think we can beat down these populist movements like you did in Poland?

LJ: I am not an expert in Dutch politics, but it seems to me that there is a general trend of anti-migration being the driving force of the populists in the West. In the East, it seems to be more complex. Of course, there are also other issues, but it seems that the problem of migration and integration of the existing minorities of origins who seem – at least according to some right-wing populists – not to want to integrate in the way they expect. Voters seem to be picking up on this trend already in France and the Netherlands.

Moreover, we see also new parties emerge following this trend. The Iberian Peninsula seemed to be immune to right-wing populist movements before. But what is your view of Geert Wilder? Do you this it was his charismatic personality or some other issues that had not been addressed by the mainstream parties that contributed to the success of PVV? Or maybe it was the failure of the previous government?

RS: I follow Politico Europe very closely regarding polls. I am a kind of a ‘poll junkie’, trying to figure out what will come next. There are some structural problems in the Netherlands. Our friends from D66 and the VVD whom I have the pleasure of knowing and interacting with in Brussels tell me that they have been facing a regression on some liberal values and ideas in the Netherlands – from individual rights, abortion, to freedom of expression.

In the Politico polls, we could observe a tremendous shift when the Gaza Strip conflict between Israel and Palestine occurred. There well all those rallies on the streets of major cities in the Netherlands, where people were expressing their discontent with Israel’s actions in Palestine – and rightfully so. This shift we saw led to the number of people voting for the PVV skyrocketing.

This phenomenon goes along what you were saying. In Italy, Germany, Belgium, there are, of course, other issues – the price of living, inflation, energy, among others. This tendency of extreme right-wing populists trying to convey the message that Europe should be closed to illegal migration – or, who knows, maybe following the example of the United States, even to legal migration. The latter, however, is something I do not think will happen here in Europe, because we need those people working in the European Union space.

This makes me a little bit afraid. Of course, the European Union and the European Commission are now setting new packages for dealing with migration, so let us see how that goes, because it is going to take a lot of time to implement – particularly with the forthcoming EU elections and the growth of extreme parties. Let us try – and by us, I mean liberals, democrats, centrists, and progressives – counteract these kinds of slogans and narratives that populists set.

LJ: I totally agree, especially with what you said about having a counter-narrative. We should not just passively receive whatever fears the right wing wants to instill in the population. At the same time, I do believe that liberals should not be the ones perceived as the people who do not want the borders, because I do think that, unfortunately, voters would be very skeptical to support this political stance on the borders and migration.

Meanwhile, Portugal is facing an early election soon – in March 2024, a while before the European elections. Populism is on the rise also in Portugal – there is the Chega party. I am very curious what is your perspective on that? What is the reason behind holding an early election? What sort of scandal broke down the government in November 2023. What really happened? Why did Antonio Costa have to resign and called for early elections?

RS: The socialists in Portugal have been in power for eight years now. Government-wise, Portugal has always had examples of corruption and we try to fight that not only internally, but also at the EU level, but this is just more of a corruption at the higher levels of a political party. Our prime minister is being investigated by our judicial system about traffic of influence and even of corruption by receiving money to then have decisions made at the government level.

Similar practices have been going on for years and years. Not long ago, our minister of infrastructure was also accused of corruption. There have also been a lot of corruption cases regarding our flight carrier and energy systems, among others.

What happened was that two people from the cabinet of the prime minister, who were very close to him (actually, one of them was his best friend) had thousands and thousands of euros in their offices, which was right next door to that of the prime minister, stashed in books and wine cases. It now sounds like a joke, but, unfortunately, it was not. There are recordings of conversations between those people and the prime minister where, again, things are a little bit hazy, and so the judicial system is investigating this matter. As a result, the president of Portugal accepted the resignation of the prime minister and called for new elections.

Meanwhile, we are facing the growth of populist forces. The party that you have mentioned, Chega (which in English would translate into ‘Enough’), is a non-policy, non-ideological, non-ideas party. They are simply screaming their lungs out as much as they can about things that are perceived as problems that have no solutions. The leader of the party is quite friendly with Marin le Pen, Viktor Orban, and Geert Wilder.

Two years ago, we were in exactly the same situation. Social democrats were supposed to win, but because of the Portuguese electorate being afraid that the social democrats will then bring the extreme right wing to the government (like it happened in Spain), socialists ended up having the majority. Fast forward to today, we are about to have an election and the socialists might win again, because, again, the electorate does not want to have a right-wing coalition, where you have the social democrats, Christian democrats, maybe the liberals, but then also the extreme right wing.

LJ: Corruption has been very often used by populists as a slogan. ‘Drain the swamp’ was used by the Trumpians in the United States. Does this phenomenon influence the polls and the potential election results? Are there any other reasons for the rise of the right wing? How do you see the future of the right wing in Portugal?

RS: The rise of the extreme right wing in Portugal is quite different from Spain. In Spain, the Vox party has a different set of ideas and policies. In Portugal, Chega is not really a solution-driven political party – it focuses more on pointing out the deficiencies of a very deficient system of governance and the government.

15-20% of the population – and we see this all over Europe and in the United States – are the people who are against liberal values and ideas. They are illiberal at heart. This is true for Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. These people do not want migration, gay people, abortion, decriminalization of light drugs or euthanasia. They are anti-system and will try to beat down progress.

In Portugal, we are at a point where people vote socialists, even though the socialists are showing that they have bad governance and are corrupt, because they do not want the extreme right wing to in the government and thus in power. This is exactly what happened in Spain. The PP party had to win the election against the PSOE party. When they did win, they did not have enough votes to create a government – and the rest in history. PSOE entered a very weird coalition to be in the government.

So, what may happen in Portugal? Socialists may win again, or even if the social democrats will not have enough votes to create a government if they do not bring in the extreme right wing to the coalition. Then, the socialists will turn to the greens or the moderate left – a little less moderate left, called the Left Bloc (which is similar to Die Linke in Germany) – and then form a government with a more socialist, center-left ideology. In a nutshell, we might have socialists in the government for another four years.

LJ: It is a little bit ironic that the people seem to fear more the Chega party in the government than a comeback of the party accused of corruption. One of the reasons of why populists are going beyond the support of the already mentioned 15-20% of population and why they sometimes become a mainstream party is that a lot of people are tired of mainstream politics. In the end, it seems that what they vote for is the same party or very similar parties in terms of economic and social policies.

Moreover, we see that the rise of far-right movements is a big problem to the right-wing parties. In Germany, we see Manfred Weber trying to embrace at least some of the more moderate (if we can even say that) far-right parties to compete with socialists – which happens in certain countries. On the other hand, the left seems to be getting weaker for a number of reasons – including structural reasons.

Turning to Spain, I was amazed to see Pedro Sanchez come back to politics. He is a survivor, who managed to form an unlikely coalition of all the minorities supporting his government. What do you think contributed to his success? Why did the right wing not win this time?

RS: Spain is our close neighbor, so we pay close attention to what is happening there. Right now, for the whole Europe Spain is an example of how extreme you can get when you try to have power on the other side of the spectrum – which is to have independentist or extreme left political parties in a coalition. Those coalitions are very fragile and can even be very toxic.

When Pedro Sanchez came back, he had to include everyone – from the Basque separatists to the parties in the north of Spain, to the extreme left wing. This goes along the lines of people being tired of the system. However, to develop new systems you need to experiment, because people do not want to vote for the parties that are in the center. This worries me.

Now, in the Netherlands, it is going to be quite impossible to form a government coalition, because no one wants to have a government with Geert Wilders. On the other hands, in Sweden, they made a coalition with the democrats and, actually, with the Liberala party, and things have been working.

This sort of experimentation makes me nervous. In Portugal, bringing Chega (so the extreme right wing) to the government scares me. On the other hand, the Portuguese example is softer, because if socialists turn to the greens, the moderate left, or even the radical left, it would be still more manageable than what we see in Spain. At the same time, I fear that the same experiment in Spain is going to go terribly wrong.

When it comes to the European Elections, the Identity and Democracy group is now projected to be the third biggest family in the European Parliament. The Lega, PVV, Chega, AfD, FPÖ parties – these are not the people who want to build the European project like you and I.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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