Veronica Anghel / Oct 2020
The COVID - 19 crisis did not have a visible impact on the state of most European democracies. Most European democracies implemented emergency responses without undermining democratic institutions. While severely restricting freedom of movement and assembly, most executives governed within certain boundaries and maintained functional collaboration with parliaments and the judiciary. Adopting institutional measures incompatible with normal democratic equilibrium was predominantly limited to newer European Union members.
The pandemic has also not generated a coherent populist response, with challenger far right populists oscillating from embracing full conspiracy theories to casting doubt on medical guidance to introducing strict lockdowns and restrictions. Main national - populist parties witnessed a drop in popularity (La Lega - IT, Alternative for Germany - DE, Swedish Democrats - SE, Vox - ES ), few stagnated ( National Rally -FR, Freedom Party of Austria - AU , FIDESZ - HU) and even fewer grew in popular appeal (Fratelli d’Italia, Party for Freedom - NL). However, the socio-economic conditions that produced a far-right nationalism surge have not disappeared with the health crisis.
COVID – 19 effects on governments and populist voices
Main European governing parties saw their popularity grow during the crisis. Such parties in government benefited from a ‘rally behind the flag’ effect to cement authority; national populists in government (e.g. Law and Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary) also consolidated the loyalty of their voting base.
However, the crisis made it more difficult for far-right populist parties outside of government to remain in the spotlight. Such parties had confusing positions related to the virus and oscillated from embracing conspiracy theories and blaming migrants and refugees to accepting the scale of the pandemic, and from demanding nationalist responses to the crisis to blaming the EU and the European Central Bank for lack of financial support.
Compared to polling results at the start of the pandemic (February/March 2020), support for Italy’s League Party dropped by 5%. Nevertheless, they still rank first at 26% compared to the incumbent Democratic Party (PD) who polls steadily at 20%. Fratelli d’Italia, another Eurosceptic national-populist party, is now ranked at 16% of voting intentions, marking a 4% increase. Voting intention for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is currently at around 10%, scoring a 3% drop compared to figures from February/March. The Swedish Democrats saw a 4% drop. Spain’s Vox dropped by an average of 5%.
In March, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) was trailing PM Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) with 18% of voting intention compared to VVD’s 22%. By October 2020, PVV was ranked at 22% compared to VVD’s 36%.
France’s Emmanuel Macron (En Marche) and Marine Le Pen (National Rally) were neck in neck for the presidency at the onset of the pandemic. In July, polls showed a 3% spread between the two in favour of Emmanuel Macron. In the meantime, president Macron’s approval ratings worsened, yet Le Pen’s did not improve.
A setup for a comeback
Despite the slight drop in national-populists' appeal, this is unlikely to become a decisive trend. The conditions that led to their existence in the past years have not changed with the crisis. Here are three main reasons why.
Firstly, economic recessions that will follow in the wake of the pandemic are likely to augment social inequalities. The effects of the crisis will disproportionately hit workers in precarious employment who live ‘pay-check to pay-check’ and citizens in rural settings with no possibilities of upwards social mobility. Such groups are the main basis for populist votes. Social democrat parties are still to rise to the opportunity to cater for their traditional electorate and embrace the rhetoric of social justice. Their presence is still vague in main European democracies such as France, Italy, Poland and Germany.
Secondly, technocratic governance outsourced to bureaucrats in European institutions and health experts provides a traditional fertile ground for national-populism and Euroscepticism. The COVID-19 pandemic increased the influence and visibility of experts. Paradoxically, this also brought epidemiologists and virologists into the public arena and made them more accessible for peer-to-peer debates with conspiracy theorists and self-styled experts. This process legitimised alternative truth scenarios. Populists are hostile to expertise and seize the opportunity brought by mushrooming misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
Thirdly, and most importantly, populists thrive on crisis. The general confusion and uncertainty generated by the COVID–19 pandemic is a natural environment for opportunistic political entrepreneurs. Despite having previously been the parties of ‘law and order’, they currently embrace the rhetoric of personal freedoms, further muddling ideological positions of parties.
- In Italy, Matteo Salvini explored different strategies to gain his voters attention. He initially attacked migrants for being the source of the virus, then confronted the government for maintaining strict lockdown measures, spoke against social distancing and wearing masks, and recently made a U-turn to recommend the use of masks as COVID-19 cases increase. Fratelli d’Italia focuses much more on benefitting from the economic crisis and addresses merchants, small and medium entrepreneurs and workers most hit by the crisis with some success in recent regional elections. At the same time, they continue to ask for expulsion of migrants and weakening links to the EU.
- In Spain, Vox leaders accused the Social democrat government led by Pedro Sanchez of turning the country into a dictatorship similar to North Korea once strict lockdows were imposed. A slight 3% improvement in approval ratings can be noticed in October 2020 compared to July 2020.
- Germany’s AfD has been more directly linked to upholding conspiracy theories by participating or organizing anti-coronavirus protests that also featured the anti-Semitic extremist group the Identitarian Movement. AfD leaders are also vocal against restrictions of movement.
- PVV Leader Geert Wilders attacked the government for not protecting individual freedoms and continues to rely heavily on anti-migrant and anti-muslim sentiment in building public support. Austrian right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) also charged the government with undermining the country’s constitution and citizens’ rights for supporting contact tracing apps.
- In a contrary position, the Swedish Democrats criticize the government’s relaxed policy to deal with the virus. Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, referred to the country’s lack of lockdown as a failure that led to a massacre.
What next: Europe’s ‘win some, lose some’ risky bet
To prevent a comeback of national-populists, the European Union currently works in partnership with national governments to target the unequal social and economic effects of the pandemic through the Next Generation recovery plan. The success of this strategy comes at the price of also maintaining in power those governments that harbour authoritarian and corrupt practices. Countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania witnessed executives increase power during the pandemic, with severe limitations on the role of the legislative. By not addressing these and other long running rule of law issues, the EU implicitly consents to maintain power centralisation in these member states. This is a strategy that runs the risk to deepen Europe’s East – West divide, undermine the promotion of democracy in the long run and increase these countries vulnerability to authoritarian elite attitudes.