Why the Pandemic and Populism Still Work Together

Hopes that the pandemic would kill off populism in Europe were always optimistic, and the second wave is likely to definitively put an end to this idea.

Expert comment Published 24 November 2020 Updated 10 March 2021 2 minute READ

Pepijn Bergsen

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme and UK in the World Programme

The public health and economic response to the first wave of the pandemic appeared to provide some vindication of centrist technocrats against claims from anti-establishment populists in Europe, and this was supported by opinion polling in the first half of 2020.

During the first wave, populist challenges floundered as there seemed little relation between the approval ratings of heads of government and countries’ relative performance on health outcomes or economic metrics.

Leading radical right populist parties such as the Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats and the Lega in Italy saw decreases in their support in polls, with one poll pointing to a decrease in populist attitudes across a number of European countries, seemingly due to an increase in trust in experts, scientists and politicians.

Even in a badly-hit France, President Emmanuel Macron saw a slight uptick in his approval rating while his main populist challenger, Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, failed to gain traction after aligning with anti-lockdown forces.

But this decrease in support for populist parties is transitory and may reverse soon. Issues which populists thrive on such as immigration and European integration have been pushed out of the headlines, but they are going to return. Several politicians across Europe have been trying to shift the debate back towards them, especially in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in France.

Meanwhile, the arrival of the second wave of coronavirus in Europe has given the opportunity to undermine the expertise narrative used by centrists in government as the renewed lockdowns can be spun as a failure on their part to control the virus. Opinion polls continue to show overwhelming support for these tough measures, but this support is shrinking and may diminish further due to the length and severity of restrictions.

Anti-lockdown protests are increasing, and frustrations could lead to a backlash against ‘the establishment’ which radical right populists can use by successfully aligning themselves with these forces. In the UK, Nigel Farage is rebranding the Brexit Party as an ‘anti-lockdown party’ so that, instead of ending the populist challenge, the enduring impact of the pandemic may actually reinvigorate it as a new ‘anti-lockdown populism’.

Most importantly, the underlying drivers of the populist surge in Europe have not gone away because of the pandemic, and there is still no consensus as to what these specific drivers actually are – in particular, economists and political scientists argue about whether economic or cultural factors are more important.

In reality, the economic consequences of the pandemic are fertile ground for populist forces as those lower down the economic ladder are hit hardest, especially if the increase in public debt leads governments to retreat too early from supporting the economy or to repeat mistakes made following the global financial crisis. A premature turn to austerity measures feeds anti-establishment forces.

The theory that the pandemic would be bad for populists has not been tested yet in any national elections in Europe, but the amount of support Donald Trump won in the US presidential election shows even a heavily-criticized response to COVID-19 does not necessarily lead to a sharp drop in support for populist politics.

Several local and regional elections have been held in Europe during the pandemic, often with populist challengers underperforming, but these were mainly decided on specific local factors. The first big test for Europe will be the March 2021 elections in the Netherlands, one of the European countries where the populist radical right has been most successful.

Polls suggest the pandemic has boosted the chances of the popular prime minister Mark Rutte. One of the two radical-right challenger parties, the Forum for Democracy (FvD), has struggled in part due to party infighting, while the other, larger Party for Freedom (PVV) has only recently begun regaining some of the ground in the polls. Nevertheless, with several months of campaigning still to go, these two challengers together are still polling at around one-fifth of the vote combined.

As with the Alternative for Germany in the German federal election later in 2021, the populist radical right parties in the Netherlands could benefit from increased Euroscepticism among their potential electorate – driven by the European Union’s creation of a recovery fund because large parts of the German and Dutch electorates fear this is a further step towards a fiscal union. We might see a slightly different kind of populist challenge coming in Europe, but certainly it is not about to magically disappear as a result of the pandemic.