Covid-19: The beginning of the end for European populism?
Credit: Lorie Shaull (CC)

Populists have been surprisingly quiet during the Covid-19 pandemic. The usual charismatic, controversial, and boisterous political outsiders, such as Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, have been increasingly marginalised in politics across Europe. Their now outdated narratives make it difficult for them to stay relevant, and expose their inadequacies in leading during times of crisis. 

Understanding European populism

Populists aim to represent the ‘pure people’ of society, whose interests are disregarded by the ‘corrupt elites’ in power. Most often, they position themselves as political outsiders who can represent the true ‘will of the people’. Populism is a ‘thin’ ideology, without a fixed set of ideas, and can be used by figures across the political spectrum.

Despite the ‘thin’ nature of populism, it has largely manifested in Europe as right-wing, with sometimes authoritarian tendencies. We can understand the previous success of European right-wing populism as backlash to the cultural and economic changes brought about by globalisation. This is dissimilar to the left-wing populism found in Latin America, which is rooted in solving the huge economic inequalities of the region. 

In Europe, populists claim to represent the hardworking ‘natives’ with traditional values who feel that they are being ‘left behind’ in an increasingly globalised and multicultural society. With this comes controversial and often overtly racist and xenophobic messages. Whilst supporters see this wave of populism across Europe as transformative, others view it as a plague; an epidemic in itself to the health of our democracies. 

Increasing populist support has ridden on the backs of the newer, subtler changes caused by globalisation, such as higher levels of immigration, international job competition, and the erosion of the working class. In the past two decades, total support for populist parties across Europe, measured in the national elections of 31 countries, has increased from just 7% to over 25%. These parties include the radical right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Hungary’s Fidesz, and France’s Rassemblement National. 

Populism and Covid-19

The nature of the pandemic and the strategies adopted to cope with its spread diminish the value of the very core of populist narratives. It has created a spirit of consensus and cooperation, as the pandemic and multiple lockdowns affected everyone in some way. Everybody has had to stay home, unable to see friends or family, and has experienced huge changes in their daily lives. 

Politics has never been more important to our everyday lives. Every political party, no matter if they are mainstream or populist, has struggled immensely in coming up with the perfect strategies and solutions to the virus. The reliance on experts, scientific advisors and qualified, experienced politicians has further worsened prospects for populists, who are traditional political outsiders. Scientific advisors who have previously worked behind the scenes have become household names across European nations. Yet according to populists, these advisors shouldn’t be trusted: they are seen as part of the ‘corrupt elite’. When this distrust manifests at government level, the consequences are catastrophic, as seen through Trump’s dismissive approach to Covid-19. 

As a result, populist parties have seen their approval ratings plummet over the course of the last year. As of January 2021, the Alternative für Deutschland party has experienced approval ratings drop from 14% to just 9%, and the Italian anti-immigrant league at from 32% to 24%. The populists leaders in power are being similarly scrutinised. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has utilised populist rhetoric in his electoral campaigns, has been criticised for causing the UK to have the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe, at over 100,000. His government has consistently had under 50% approval ratings, with the lowest being 26% in November 2020. 

For those who are more archetypal populists, this increase in power granted to governments has legitimised more controversial shifts in power. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has further strengthened his already authoritarian hold on power by passing a law to rule by decree in March 2020. Yet, as one of the most popular and successful populist leaders, his approval ratings have fallen to under 50%, the lowest it has been in three years. Similarly, the ruling PiS party in Poland, who have passed many controversial laws undermining civil liberties of women and minority groups, has seen approval rating fall from 42% to 34% and have faced widespread protests over its abortion laws.

This paints a bleak picture for the success of populists in power across Europe. It looks as if the only populists who may stay relevant are those such as Orbán, who have consolidated their power by attacking the democratic institutions that they are working within. 

Could Covid-19 produce new ways for populist support?

Populists target specific groups of society, and this could continue in the fallout of Covid-19. Studies on the link between populist support and the impacts of globalisation find a positive correlation between rural, isolated areas more vulnerable to the negative impacts of globalisation and increased populist support. Whilst capital cities have generally thrived from becoming more cosmopolitan and multicultural, industrial heartlands are more likely to suffer from international job competition and rising unemployment. This has been seen in the Brexit referendum, where areas with higher levels of unemployment were more likely to vote Leave, and in the French presidential election in 2017, in which Le Pen garnered most support along the Mediterranean Sea, a particular hotspot for immigration.

A recent study from the Office for National Statistics in the UK found that certain blue-collar jobs, such as security guards, plant processors and taxi drivers, had recorded higher numbers of deaths from Covid-19. Whilst those with jobs that can similarly take place online have their health protected, those who are forced to continue to go to work in person have been disproportionately affected. As well as this, those who work in industries such as hospitality and food have experienced harsher financial burdens or employment prospects. The pandemic has had catastrophic economic impacts across Europe, but on an individual level it has affected those with lower paid jobs worse; the same people that have historically supported populists. 

Even if individuals have not experienced any major burdens through the pandemic, distrust towards the government may prevail. Many see Europe as fundamentally liberal, and places such as the Netherlands have seen rising social tension over the overbearing nature of government ruling and a sense of freedoms and individual rights. If some believe that government lockdowns work against the ‘interests of the people’, Covid-19 will fuel distrust, and most importantly, the core anti-establishment sentiment which is at the heart of populism. 

Yet, populists are lagging in picking up on this. They may be more reactionary in the future when politics is not under such constant and immediate change, and construct a voter base around issues caused by the pandemic. 

A new type of populism?

If the pandemic has exposed anything, it has exposed the enduring racial and ethnic inequalities across Europe. It has been found that Black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. In the UK, individuals from an Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani background are at particularly increased risk, and Black people are more than four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people. The ONS have concluded that implications are partly linked with socio-economic disadvantage, but the remaining explanation remains unclear. These are the same groups that are often racially targeted through anti-immigrant, culturally exclusionary populist campaigns.  The pandemic can exacerbate this: in Israel, populist Prime Minister Netanyahu has been accused of excluding Palestinians from their world-leading vaccine rollout. 

European populist parties nearly always scapegoat and target immigrants and minority ethnic groups in their campaigns, but these groups have disproportionately suffered in the pandemic. The startling racial inequalities of the pandemic do not correlate with populist attempts to paint white ‘natives’ as being ‘marginalised’. Within these conversations of racial justice, we may expect to see more electoral campaigns which place these issues at the heart of future political agendas. Perhaps we will see a rise in a new breed of left-wing populism which aims to tackle these inequalities, which socialists such as US Democrat Bernie Sanders and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have been associated with. 

The future for European populism 

If anything, the pandemic shows that the populist wave across Europe may not be a movement, but merely a moment. This is a crucial moment in which Europe can choose to leave it in the past. 

Unless Europe’s populists reframe their globalisation-orientated narratives, we can expect their already dwindling support to diminish even further. Europe, as well as the rest of the world, will be looking to heal from the social rifts enhanced by populist narratives. This simply cannot happen if populism continues to flourish in its current form. Populists spark division, distrust and hatred, and are striving to replicate an idealised and fictional past, in a time where Europe is increasingly looking to the future.