Populism and Covid-19 in Europe: what we learned from the first wave of the pandemic
It is often assumed that populist parties benefit electorally from major crises. Yet as Giuliano Bobba and Nicolas Hubé explain, populist actors have struggled to politicize the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Based on a new book covering the first wave of the pandemic in Europe, they draw several lessons concerning the effect of crises on the electoral attractiveness of populist parties.
Several authors agree that crisis situations are a prerequisite for the emergence and success of populists, or at least that they can favor them. Although the impact of Covid-19 has not been the same around the world, in many countries the pandemic has been the biggest health, economic and social crisis since World War II.
Given the special nature of the crisis, however, it is not clear how populists can profit from it. Like other disasters or natural events, Covid-19 is difficult to politicize, that is, to become an arena of political confrontation between parties with traditional divisions (us versus others; elites versus people) , at least in its early days.
In one new book, we have gathered contributions covering eight European countries which have been affected in different ways by the pandemic (Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and United Kingdom). Our study presents a comprehensive comparison of how populist parties in each of these countries responded to Wave 1.
Table 1: Impact of the first wave of Covid-19 infections in some European countries
To note: The table includes the figures from the start of the epidemic until June 10, 2020. Source: European Center for Disease Prevention and Control
As the populists sought to profit from the crisis, the inability to take ownership of the Covid-19 issue made it difficult for the pandemic to be politically exploited. In particular, ruling populists have attempted to depoliticize the pandemic, while radical right-wing populists in opposition have attempted to politicize the crisis, but have largely failed to garner substantial public support. In the following, we describe what we have learned so far and what we can expect in the future.
Populists lacked support during pandemic
In terms of political support, measured by voting intentions, the populists have not benefited much from the crisis (Table 2). This is evident both in the short term, after the first wave (end of May 2020), and in the medium term (end of March 2021).
Table 2: Voting intentions for populist parties during the Covid-19 pandemic
Source: Politico – Poll polls
Although the success of populism is often interpreted as the result of an external crisis (i.e. economic, financial, political, migration, traditional values), this general scheme does not work when applied to the Covid-19 crisis. The peculiar nature of the crisis, as well as the implementation of similar political solutions in European states, has largely prevented the populists from using their usual proposals and rhetoric to gain a central place in the political arena and support the public.
Populists on the left and on the right reacted differently
Our research has shown that populist parties on the right and on the left have responded to the crisis in different ways. On the one hand, right-wing populism has identified new lines of conflict: an increased emphasis on nationalism (and neo-natalism), and the resulting opposition of “ us the national people ” , not only against the EU but also against certain other Member States. These results confirm that even during the pandemic, right-wing populism is closely linked to euroscepticism.
Right-wing populist parties have been prevented from using their traditional appeal to the people as a basis of support and have instead focused on addressing migration issues. While in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Spain and the UK, this included calls for border closures to reduce the risk of contagion from abroad, in France and Italy, two Right-wing populist leaders Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini accused governments of caring for migrants instead of focusing only on nationals. On the other hand, the left parties (Podemos, La France Insoumise, and to a certain extent the Five-Star Movement) have not used this kind of discourse. During the crisis, they became more concerned with denouncing the lack of public investment in national health systems and the disastrous consequences of years of European neoliberalism.
Being a populist in power or in opposition affairs
Whether the populist parties are in power or in opposition seems to have structured their discourse on Covid-19. Opposition parties attempted to politicize the pandemic at the end of the first wave, mainly blaming the ruling parties for their handling of the crisis, but with partial success. No populist party has tried to politicize the pandemic like Donald Trump, by questioning the origin of the virus. The most marginal parties such as the Brexit Party, the Vox, the AfD and the Konfederacja have clearly radicalized their discourse on the basis of nationalist, protectionist and neo-nationalist agendas.
In contrast, parties aspiring to rule, such as the National Rally, La France Insoumise and La Lega, have been much more cautious, focusing primarily on the government’s alleged incompetence. In contrast, the ruling parties attempted to depoliticize the crisis using technical and scientific arguments and following the recommendations of national experts. For them, the crisis was a great opportunity to show their political skills, their managerial skills and their dedication to the people. A typical case is that of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who emphasized his ability to govern the country during the crisis with the same success he had achieved in running his businesses in the past.
Once again, a difference seems to have emerged between the ruling left and right populists. Podemos in Spain and the Five Star Movement in Italy, as members of coalition governments, based their political action on the advice of scientific and technical committees, while stressing the need for increased public investment in healthcare . In contrast, the right-wing populists in power in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary have mainly used scientific arguments to justify their political decisions, emphasizing their leader’s ability to make informed decisions solely on the basis of the authority of their political leadership.
Populists as “ entrepreneurs of crisis ”
While populist actors often operate as ‘crisis entrepreneurs’, most of them have not been able to exploit the pandemic. Evidence suggests populists benefit more from a situation of continued complaint against new contradictions than from the actual onset of a crisis such as Covid-19, or, worse yet, a solution to it, such as Brexit. in the case of UKIP.
As entrepreneurs of crisis, populists strive to fuel a permanent cycle of crisis. This is indeed the condition that allows them to take full advantage of crises in terms of political centrality and voter support. Of course, as already mentioned, not all crises are the same. Populists appropriate the contradictions that best correspond to their vision of society. The quest for this crisis ownership is what fuels the ongoing process of name, blame and claim systemic contradictions that the populists implement as a political strategy.
The model usually begins with the emergence of a political contradiction, triggered by the populists. The next step is for this contradiction to be publicly recognized as a relevant issue, before being exploited by populist politicians, who then push it into a real crisis. Finally, populists don’t limit themselves to just one contradiction, but rather trigger that cycle for all the contradictions they identify at any given time. The initial phase is where the populists can benefit most from a crisis while in the final phase, the climax, the contradiction finds a solution or a compromise that weakens the problem.
During the pandemic, all political actors suddenly found themselves in the final phase, where a crisis had erupted and a solution had to be found. This is the worst condition for populists because citizens perceive the problems as real or experience them directly. Policy responses must be implemented quickly. At these critical times, differences and polarization often give way to non-hostile and tacit forms of political collaboration or agreement in the name of national solidarity. However, as soon as this state of emergency ended, the populists began to implement the strategy of permanent crisis again, favoring the emergence of new contradictions. This is exactly what happened in the eight countries we analyzed between February and May 2020.
From the Covid-19 crisis to multiple crises: a new breeding ground for European populism?
In our opinion, crises in itself do not necessarily promote populism. On the contrary, it is the populists who fuel a “permanent cycle of crisis” which consists of a continuous search for “the appropriation of the crisis” around stable or emerging political contradictions. The Covid-19 pandemic is an interesting case where populists were unable to achieve this type of ownership at an early stage of the crisis. However, the consequences of managing the pandemic – in health, economic and social terms – are increasing the number of critical situations that could lead to real crises in the months to come.
As we all know, unfortunately, the health crisis is far from being brought under control or under control. Covid-19 has entered into political routine and governments oscillate between economic, public health and preventive policy measures. Once in the coming months the first vaccination campaign is over, the situation will evolve towards a new standard – very different from the previous one – in which the political struggle will take place and people will have to live. This normalization of the Covid-19 crisis is likely to give opposition parties more opportunities to politicize policies implemented by governments and possibly profit from the crisis. Populists in power and in opposition will therefore face opposing challenges, the outcome of which will determine the characteristics of European populism in the post-Covid-19 era.
For more information, see the accompanying author’s book, Populism and politicization of the COVID-19 crisis in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)
Note: this study was carried out as part of the H2020 project Democratic efficiency and varieties of populism in Europe (DEMOS) and was funded by the European Commission under grant agreement number 822590. The article gives the point of view of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics . Featured Image Credit: National Gathering