What’s Driving the Rise of Authoritarianism and Populism in Europe and Beyond?

What’s Driving the Rise of Authoritarianism and Populism in Europe and Beyond?
A protester holds a sign mocking Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during an anti-government march in central Budapest, Hungary, Dec. 21, 2018 (AP photo by Marko Drobnjakovic).

Globally, the past decade has been marked by the twin advances of authoritarianism and populism. The two are not always linked, but in situations ranging from the Philippines and Cambodia to Hungary and Poland, politicians have leveraged populist movements to seize power. Once in office, they have begun the process of dismantling the institutions designed to check their authority and protect human rights, particularly the judiciary and the media.

The populist boom is fueled by disparate, local issues, but these often share common features, such as feelings of disenfranchisement, of being left out of a global economic boom and of discomfort at seeing familiar social orders upended. The movements these grievances generate have spurred anti-immigrant xenophobia—and, in places like Hungary and Greece, even horrifying episodes of political violence—as underlying prejudices are exploited by opportunistic politicians.

Champions of liberal democracy have often appeared hamstrung in their attempts to counter these forces, but there have been some recent successes, including the rise of the Greens across Europe and electoral setbacks for extremist parties in countries where they once seemed ascendant, such as France, Spain and the Netherlands. And in countries where centrist or right-wing parties have chosen to adopt populist policies rather than to push back against them, civil society groups have been resurgent.

WPR has covered the rise of populism and authoritarianism in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What role will Venezuela’s political crisis play in the U.S. presidential election? Can Europe push back against illiberalism in its midst? Will the coronavirus pandemic weaken or strengthen populist movements around the world? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Turkey’s Challenge to the Regional Status Quo Begins in the Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey is making a major move to end the regional status quo established by the Treaty of Lausanne, and the crucible for that challenge is increasingly the Eastern Mediterranean. For many of Turkey’s neighbors and current allies in Europe, that effort is already having some significant and dangerous consequences.

Europe’s Anti-Immigrant Parties and Illiberal Leaders

The continent is a hotbed for populist movements, mostly driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. In countries where those parties have won power, particularly in the east, they have often attempted to dismantle democratic institutions.

The Philippines

Ahead of his 2016 election, Duterte won widespread support for his pledge to wage an extrajudicial war on drugs. And he has delivered. Since his election, thousands of Filipinos have been killed in the “war on drugs,” even as that campaign has masked Duterte’s other efforts to consolidate power.


Over the past decade, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone from being a model of democratic political Islam to a traditional autocrat, using a counterterrorism campaign to crack down on dissent and a failed coup as an excuse to purge political opponents. But significant electoral gains by the opposition in last year’s local elections show that Erdogan’s hold on power might not be as absolute as he thought it was.


After facing a stiff electoral challenge from a united opposition in 2014, Prime Minister Hun Sen initially responded by seeking reconciliation. Since then, however, he reverted to his traditional authoritarian ways, cracking down on the now-fractured opposition to consolidate his power in elections in 2018, at the cost of his ties with Europe and the U.S.

Nicaragua, Venezuela and Brazil

Their individual circumstances are unique, but in each country there are concerns about how an elected leader is wielding his power.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.