Has the COVID-19 crisis exposed the weaknesses of populism? During the pandemic, populist parties – which have typically enjoyed growing levels of support across Europe for years – have been slumping in the polls. Instead, established parties, particularly governing parties, have found themselves enjoying a “rally round the flag” effect.
In April 2020, for example, 72% of eligible voters in Germany said they were satisfied with the work of the federal government (by comparison, only 35% were satisfied a month earlier), while the far-right, populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has seen its poll numbers decline (though they have begun to creep back up in recent weeks).
Could Europe’s populist parties become victims of the pandemic? The public health crisis (and the way it was handled) certainly seems to have been the undoing of populist US President Donald Trump. Will European populists share his fate?
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Gerhard (originally sent in before the pandemic) predicting that traditional political parties will soon be replaced by newer alternatives. However, has the pandemic changed things?
To get a response, we spoke to Shane Markowitz, Associate Fellow with the Future of Europe programme at the global think tank GLOBSEC. What does he think of Gerhard’s assessment?
The immediate effect of the pandemic was that people returned to the established parties. The issue of migration disappeared from the headlines and was replaced by the pandemic and its devastating impact on the health system, society and the economy. We have been able to observe the ‘rally round the flag effect’. In times of crisis, the population tends to rally around their political leaders. Leaders of established parties across Europe, from Angela Merkel in Germany to Emmanuel Macron in France to Sebastian Kurz in Austria, all experienced huge approval spikes, as did their political parties.
Populist parties, on the other hand, saw declines in their support; this was the case with the Sweden Democrats, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Lega in Italy and the AfD in Germany. All over Europe, support for populist parties fell a little as people turned to wanting competent governments that could address the crisis. This was the immediate, short-term trend of the pandemic, namely a return to some of the established parties that had seen their support drop in the years before the pandemic.
For another perspective, we also put Gerhard’s comment to Richard Youngs, Senior Fellow of the Programme on Democracy, Conflict and Governance at Carnegie Europe. What does he think? Will populism survive the pandemic?
Populism can and will survive the pandemic. The future of populism depends on many different factors, the pandemic is only one factor among many. So far, there is no consistent trend across Europe on how the pandemic has affected populist parties. Some populist parties have lost ground, others have held their place, some have even gained support. So there is no consistent link between the pandemic and support for populist parties. As always in debates about populism, it depends somewhat on who is defined as populist and who is not.
I think the way the pandemic plays into the very specific national politics of different member states will mean that populist parties could develop in very different ways. During the most acute phase of the pandemic, quite pragmatic, evidence-based decision-making was at the forefront and some of the traditional narratives of populists lost their appeal. In the longer term, it may be that after the pandemic, when the focus is more on the economic and social impact of the health crisis, some of the populist discourses will regain appeal. There will be a lot of very difficult political decisions needed to deal with the economic consequences of the crisis.
Next up, we had a comment from Danielle who believes that, in times of crisis, people are afraid and look for easy answers. This makes them vulnerable to populists who only want to promote their own political advantage. Is she right?
We put Danielle’s comment to Jamila Schäfer, the Deputy Chairperson of the German Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen party. What does she think?
I think what we can see is that the experience of the crisis has also led to uncertainty among many people. They have fears about the future. I think that, in the past, right-wing forces have exploited this fear of change. But what we see is that the crisis could actually become an opportunity for good, solidarity-based change. The question is: how do we respond to the challenges and to the current situation? It is the political task of democratic forces to make sure that anti-democratic forces do not instrumentalise frustrations over the failure of governments, because there are sufficient democratic alternatives.
Finally, we also forwarded Danielle’s comment to Shane Markowitz of the think tank GLOBSEC. How would he reply?
Well, that depends on the nature of the crisis. Certainly, after the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent financial crisis that engulfed Europe for the next decade, many people turned to populist parties for answers. In times of economic hardship and high unemployment, especially high youth unemployment, where there is economic inequality and people feel a loss of social status, public research shows that people often turn to populist parties.
However, during the pandemic, because it was a kind of immediate disaster, many wanted to rally behind the national flag, behind the national leaders. So, the immediate effect of this crisis was that support for the established parties increased. Of course, there is also concern about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the economy. If youth unemployment and economic inequality becomes a problem, if people lose their jobs, then there is certainly the concern that populism could see a resurgence.
Will populism survive the pandemic? Has the pandemic shown the weaknesses of populist parties? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!