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!

Image Credits: Bigstock (c) renka

33 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar

    You don’t imply that covid killed the Democracy in EU, do you?populism – the will of the people, is the foundation of democracyelitism (on the opposite side) – is the foundation of plutocracy populism /ˈpɒpjʊlɪz(ə)m/ noun – definition: “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

    • avatar

      George Thomson “Populism” and “elitism” aren’t the only two options available. How about sane solutions proposed by qualified policymakers based on available data? It’s very easy to throw out simple solutions based on emotional appeals. “Lock her up”, “Mexico will pay for itl”, “taking back control”, etc, etc…

  2. avatar

    Populism can survive close to anything since there will always be people willing to believe in simplified and alluring versions of reality. But, hopefully, when more people realize they have been deceived (like more and more recovering Trump and Brexit supporters fortunately are), they will most likely be more inclined to accept science and common sense again. However, we still need to accept that not everyone agrees on everything and that debate should be allowed and encouraged. Because if we exclude people with alternative beliefs, we risk letting them down in the long run. Most people who turn to populism aren’t stupid or evil, they are most likely afraid of heavily misinformed. Something we all have a responsibility to counter with facts and understanding. Also, the EU, WHO, and the nation-states, in general, will need to be sure they are presenting the truth at all times, to avoid creating fear and the misinformation, that is fuel for conspiracies.

  3. avatar

    I certainly hope not. The world doesn’t need more demagogues with cheap slogans.

  4. avatar

    Politics = populism. Until we (the crowd) believe in saviours (e.g. that anyone other than us is able to solve our problems) populism will exist.

  5. avatar
    EU Reform Proactive

    Is the EU cum FoE/DE think tank looking for safe bets to justify, defend & echoing what their corporate lobbyists and sponsors together with their “equally populist” Europhiles & historic nobilities want to achieve- namely, the creation of a USE- bound by a web of legalities- called “the rule of law”?

    Although plausible at face value- but questionable as one follows its step-by-step approach to achieve a yet undisclosed & veiled outcome!

    That leaves me speculating & cautious to believe in an ever-self & harmless ‘under construction’ EU concept!

    It points- as its final objective- to a resurrected (un)‘democratic empire’ ruled by a new EU bureaucratic & obedient core, an ever-present but invisible nobility & a money elite supporting all these declared ‘EU values’ and portray anything different as dangerous populism & patriotism- whenever such opportunity arises.

    I trust in the European folk’s peaceful search to preserve their EU embezzled & alienated right to their harmless but traditional brand of “populism/patriotism”.

    It should & will survive any pandemic and the FoE/DE propaganda machinery!

    To my surprise, a high anti-EU sentiment was exposed by the damning 46 German to 6 English comments received so far – “What are European values”? (‘Was sind europäische Werte’?)

    Q: Is there a wind of change?
    Isn’t it high time to engage the National leadership & the EU in a series of EU introspections- starting at national levels?

    After all, the EU’s original mandate stems from the very first referendum held in the ’70s to the ’90s. Why not dare and scrutinize the question on the original ballot papers? It might expose a significant variation in what the EU has become so far and intend to become in the future!

    For example, any deviation in a contract triggers a ‘variation order’ & a new price. In politics, it requires a new MANDATE (price=referendum) to remain within & above ‘the rule of law’!

    Any deviation/alteration without such V-order makes the ‘rule of law’- unlawful & illegal!

    Has the EU become an illegal body? Who will survive whom?

  6. avatar

    I do not think that somehow during the pandemic we became more educated and developed our critical thinking.

  7. avatar
    catherine benning

    Will populism survive the pandemic?

    Populism has endured since the beginning of intellectual communication between an evolved human race. And as it survived through far worse plagues than this, well back before biblical times, which starts with Genesis, in recording of the history of time for the Jewish people, what is your guess?

    This pandemic is already intellectually dealt with by the people of this planet, you are barking up the wrong tree with this deflection. The serious big issue for ‘mankind’ today is whether they accept defeat of their individual breeds by inferior, unworthy, perfidious and hidden from view, commanders? That is presently being decided.


  8. avatar

    No, not at all ! The democratic gap is at least two decade old !!! It is linked to international treaties !!! Populism is not linked to Covid at all. it is linked but to democracy gap. Covidcircus made it clear that the great reset is aiming a new world order in which people’s need is put aside !!! If populisme is not surviving this is because the SMART totalitarism is going to shut up free speech and the smart management of all our ressources (incl HR) is going to create a police state at planetary level !!! An extremely greenish communisme in which room for hunger game at local level … will be managed by A.I. … etc….

  9. avatar

    People have to choose between populism and survival. Survival of mankind depending on collective security, the reason for the formation of EU. The reality of this global era is comparable people sitting on the same boat. No one can survive it the boat rock and sink. Pandemic is only one of the many realities that can adversely affect the survival of mankind such as war, pollution, weapon of mass destruction, food crisis, human and drug trafficking, etc.

  10. avatar

    Всичките са маскари.

  11. avatar

    Yes, unfortunately , if the politicians don’t start to address the people’s real problems.

  12. avatar

    Populism? More populism than the EU leadership itself?

  13. avatar

    Erm do you mean democracy, surely populism is democracy?

  14. avatar

    Will elitism survive the pandemic? I hope not.

  15. avatar

    THe last president was not the last idiot! maiby…the first…

  16. avatar

    Seriously, even granting you your euphemisms – “crisis”, “populist” – if there’s one thing most sane people can agree about, it’s that the current crop of politicians is NOT gifted with competence.

  17. avatar

    Populism seems to be doing quite fine as a permanent force in European politics. But it doesn’t seem to be “rising” very fast anymore.I have noticed “non-institutional populism” getting noticeably dumber, focused on COVID conspiracies, masks, 5G, Gates/Schwab, etc. It’s possible that pandemic constraints have demoralized people, made them into atomized individuals (as opposed to members of political movements), and eliminated the opportunities for mass real-life events which politicians like Salvini thrive on. But things should, knock wood, go back to normal.

  18. avatar

    The pandemic has shown we need globalist solutions

  19. avatar

    will elitism-plutocracy survive?
    After all – democracy is founded on the interest of the majority of the people, which IS populism by meaning and definition. Only dictatorship can suppress populism. Are you advocating a dictatorship?

  20. avatar

    Nein, inzwischen dürfte jedem klar sein, welchen Schaden die populistischen Lockdowns der Regierungen angerichtet haben, ohne irgendeinen messbaren Nutzen.

  21. avatar

    Sure thing it will. No doubt about it.

  22. avatar
    JT HK

    Last year, the so-called “yellow vest” took to the street protested against France’s increase in fuel price increase. If Europe does not want people take to the street, Europe must not follow the US to sanction Russian oil. The US relying only about 8% on Russian cheap oil and UK is about 6%. They are both oil production countries, not EU which has been relying on over 30% of Russia cheap oil. Now the US is approaching Venezuela and Iran for oil. Populism should think more the reality and life and economy are reality that needs rational thinking leaders rather then relying on ideology to yield political support of the innocent public.

  23. avatar
    JT HK

    Can populism save lives? Can populism open the economy for pot-Covid economic recovery? All we can see is populism has been radicalized European politics, dividing people and countries, paralyzed people’s rational and logical thinking at the midst of a pandemic which has been killing over 6 million people. It appears that the US-UK led community immunity and coexistence the virus has been misleading their allies and even the whole world towards death of people and economic destruction. It is a pity that Europe has lost already two years of social and economic development. Young people have also lost two years of opportunity. How many two years can people can waste? Young people need to go out their country and Europe to see the whole world and explore their opportunities as a global citizen in this global era. Would old people who cannot transcend last century’s Cold War stop using last century’s ideological to imprison young people’s mind and body.

    • avatar
      JT HK

      If Europe cannot recover from the pandemic and stabilize the political environment with continuous threat of a great war, the Chinese investment would not go to Europe. Even in HK, I know young entrepreneurs cannot go to explore good quality wines and other commodities to HK and China for China. For example, China is four times the population of the US. It cannot support the high death rate of the US. Taking the death of 1 million in the US, Community immunity and coexistence with Covid would mean at least 4 million death in China. Even worse, if China open up the import and export of people and virus all over the world, how many million wold be dying as the world death toll is more than 6 million…the priority of Europe is not populism but to control the pandemic and encourage inflow of Chinese investment to for post-Covid social and economic recovery. This can only be done by clearing unnecessary political barriers basing on fake news of the BBC, to ratify the Europe China Investment Agreement.

    • avatar
      JT HK

      Emotional is both the weakness and power of woman. Emotional has been preventing woman from acquiring equal rights as man. However, emotional of woman is required to keep harmony of man and reduces aggression and destructive force.

  24. avatar

    Stupidity survives everything

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