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Europe's Populist Leaders Have A Hard Time Accepting Trump Loss


With President Trump on his way out of office, populist leaders in Eastern Europe have lost a powerful ally. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, the president's election loss threatens to isolate those leaders even more.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: On the day after the US election, millions of votes in key swing states were still being counted, and there wasn't a clear winner yet. But that didn't stop Janez Jansa, the prime minister of Slovenia, birthplace of first lady Melania Trump, to take to Twitter to be the first world leader to congratulate President Trump for winning a second term that he hadn't won. After the election was called for Biden, Poland's president, Andrzej Duda, composed a carefully worded tweet that avoided congratulating him for the win, adding that Poland would wait for the results of the Electoral College. Eastern Europe's populist strongman leaders are having a hard time accepting Trump has lost.

JUDY DEMPSEY: I'm not so sure it's a big loss for the populations. I think it's a big loss for the individual leaders, frankly.

SCHMITZ: Judy Dempsey, fellow at Carnegie Europe, says the increasingly authoritarian governments of Hungary and Poland will especially miss a U.S. president who seemed to share their worldview.

DEMPSEY: They loved nothing more than getting invited to the White House. In that sense, they've lost one of their cheerleaders. But, frankly, I think their populations might be quite relieved that they have a sane man coming into the White House in January.

SCHMITZ: Voters in Hungary and Poland elected these populist leaders into office, but many have grown wary of their crackdowns on democracy. So has the European Union. It's launched an investigation into both countries that could result in their loss of voting rights in the bloc.

MARCIN MATCZAK: The Polish government bet on the wrong horse and, unfortunately, bet everything they had.

SCHMITZ: Marcin Matczak, law professor at the University of Warsaw, says Poland's nationalist Law and Justice Party, in power since 2015, bent over backwards to align itself with Trump's anti-immigrant, antiglobalist views. Matczak says the Trump administration largely looked the other way as the ruling party systematically dismantled Poland's judicial system and cracked down on its free press.



SCHMITZ: Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Poles, spurred by leaders who aim to tighten restrictions on abortion, have braved the pandemic to hold the biggest antigovernment demonstrations since the fall of communism. Biden says he's committed to rebuilding ties with the EU, and Matczak says that puts Poland's government in danger of being left by the wayside.

MATCZAK: They no longer have a friend in a president of the United States. And it will no longer be possible for them to build a strategic partnership with the United States with the politics they have in Poland. So I think it is going to be a huge problem for them.

SCHMITZ: Matczak says Poland is left with only two potential friends in the region, the U.K., whose prime minister, Boris Johnson, has jettisoned his country from the EU, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has consolidated power in himself and his nationalist party.

ZSUZSANNA VEGH: But Orban is going to be just fine among his supporters, even if it's not Trump in the American presidency.

SCHMITZ: That's because, says Zsuzsanna Vegh of the European Council on Foreign Relations, unlike Poland's leadership, Orban has been in power for a decade, well before the rise of Trump. In that time, Vegh says, Orban has completely reshaped Hungary's political system by changing the Constitution, tampering with the electoral code and removing counterweights to executive power. Vegh says Hungary's opposition will look to Biden for moral support.

VEGH: Or whether it just remains, like, a distant reference point to the opposition that, OK, we can look at the West and see that change is possible.

SCHMITZ: Carnegie Europe's Judy Dempsey says Biden will be too busy with the pandemic and domestic affairs when he takes office to do much about autocrats in Europe. That should be left to the EU, she says. And for those in these countries fighting for democracy, she says, what matters most is not who's coming into the White House but who's leaving it. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.