Populism during Covid-19

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A year on from the start of the coronavirus pandemic and much of how society operates has changed: digitalisation has accelerated, social movements have become more prominent, and international migration and movement has contracted, to name but a few. But what has changed about the political landscape and, in particular, what has happened to populism?

During 2019, the rise of populism was one of the biggest questions being posed around the world, as millions flocked to demagogic figures. These figures voiced a distrust for the establishment, a resentment towards elites, and often blamed already marginalised groups for society’s ills. However, a number of political commentators saw the coronavirus pandemic as presenting a serious, and possibly even a fatal challenge to populism.

How could populism survive in a crisis where technical, expert advice was more essential than ever? Surely the emotive language and rhetoric of populist leaders would not be enough to reconcile even their most devout followers, were mass casualties to be inflicted as a result of not listening to scientific advice? This was a fair prediction but has not come true. Populism has survived, interestingly with its leaders taking a variety of approaches.

populist leaders have managed the crisis as many would have imagined, characterised by a distrust of the elites, the placement of blame on others, and an overall downplaying of the magnitude of the crisis

In a number of countries, populist leaders have managed the crisis as many would have imagined, characterised by a distrust of the elites, the placement of blame on others, and an overall downplaying of the magnitude of the crisis. Trump consistently downplayed the crisis, insisting that coronavirus was “a little like a regular flu” and repeated unverified scientific claims that, “if we didn’t act quickly and smartly we would’ve had, in my opinion, and the opinion of others, anywhere from 10 to 20 and maybe even 25 times the number of deaths”. Brazil’s Bolsonaro has pedalled a similar narrative, as he has dismissed coronavirus as a “little flu” and condemned state governors who imposed lockdowns.

While this approach proved fatal for Trump when he was voted out of office in November 2020 by the American electorate, it did not initially for Bolsonaro who, between August and December, saw his highest approval ratings. However, as Brazil’s situation has worsened, and the impact of his emergency relief program have worn off, Bolsonaro’s popularity has plummeted. 

On the other hand, many, in fact a majority, of responses by populists to the crisis have seen them take the threat of coronavirus seriously. Giuseppe Conte in Italy imposed one of the first and strictest lockdowns which was later used as a model for other countries in the crisis. Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic used similar measures to reduce infections as the country pioneered mandatory face-mask wearing in Europe, while Narendra Modi was responsible for India’s lockdown, which saw just under a fifth of the world’s population confined to their homes.

On the face of it, these populist leaders have largely taken an uncharacteristic approach to the coronavirus crisis by following scientific advice and not exploiting people’s fears. However, this would be a misleading conclusion to draw. A number of populists who have taken the crisis seriously have also used the pandemic to strengthen their position within the country’s domestic political landscape and weaken potential opposition. This behaviour has tended to come from cultural populists.

Poland’s Andrzej Duda has used the crisis to push through controversial legislation that severely restricts the independence of the judiciary and attempted to stage an election that would have prevented the opposition from campaigning effectively. As such, 2020 saw Poland’s Freedom House Index score, which measures the level of democracy in a country, decline from a “consolidated democracy” into a “semi-consolidated democracy”.

some have used the crisis to increase their power and weaken the power of opposition groups, while others have stuck to a liberal-democratic agenda and not exploited the crisis for their own purposes.

Meanwhile, in Hungary Orban used the crisis to massively increase his powers. On March 30, the government passed a bill that gave Orban the ability to rule indefinitely by decree, on the basis that this was needed during a state of emergency. While these powers were eventually given up by a bill passed on 16 June, a precedent has been set for the use of unlimited executive power and many commentators have pointed out that this second bill still allows the government to declare a “state of health emergency” and use these unrestricted powers in the future. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the pandemic to clamp down on opponents of his regime. Using existing laws, over 500 people, who have posted criticism of Erdogan’s handling of the crisis on social media, have been arrested. 

Two conclusions can be drawn from populism, a year on from the start of the pandemic: one, that populism has certainly survived coronavirus; two, that there has not been a uniform populist response to coronavirus. Populist leaders have taken varied approaches to the pandemic with some downplaying the extent of the crisis and others taking the virus seriously by readily imposing restrictions. However, even those serious responses have varied; some have used the crisis to increase their power and weaken the power of opposition groups, while others have stuck to a liberal-democratic agenda and not exploited the crisis for their own purposes.

This has been the first real crisis that populists around the world have had to encounter since entering mainstream politics post-2008. As such, populism’s survival may prove to legitimise its position in the political landscape and cement itself in international and domestic politics for years to come.

Image: Thomas Cizauskas via Flickr

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