Pandemic populism – how Corona brings a certain form of government to the crossroads

© Timm Beichelt

von Timm Beichelt
May 28, 2020

In the debates on COVID-19, the political responsibility for the development of infections and casualties has mostly been discussed on the national level. One question that has been asked is if COVID-19 has the potential to weaken populism and their leaders. The issue came up against the background of fallen rates of support in countries with populist oppositions (like Germany or Austria), and was partially backed by the evidence that one of the most outright populists in Europe, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had fallen ill himself.

Cas Mudde has already argued that we should not be too confident that populism will suffer from Corona and its consequences to the societies hit by COVID-19. Until now, we do not know enough about the development of populist support until a couple of post-Corona elections will have been held. We know that surveys lose much of their validity in times of uncertainty and therefore indeed should not infer long-term developments from short-term studies on popular support.

We are, however, able to gain insights if we turn around the question. Has populist leadership had an effect on the consequences of COVID-19?

At the moment, the answer to this question seems quite obvious. Comparative figures leave little doubt that the proliferation of Corona is congruent with a specific type of leadership. The list of reported infections is headed by the USA, Russia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. It may be true that the number of reported cases heavily depends on the capacity of health laboratories to test Corona infections. However, comparing these countries to their respective neighbors reveals that the Corona virus has been able to befall countries that are led by leaders or governments with a particular profile. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson claim to listen to the pulse of the people and position themselves against what they see as overly rule-based and equality rights oriented governance. Equipped with strong self-confidence, they seek to overturn transnational (or international) norm systems in order to re-establish the nation state and centralized leadership.

While the Italian and Spanish cases are not marked by such strong figures, there are still quite a few similarities. The governments of both countries are, or have been during the recent years, dependent on parties with charismatic leaders that express themselves on similar lines as Trump, Bolsonaro, or Johnson. Former Italian Interior minister Matteo Salvini is a clear case. The Five Star Movement, equipped with several prominent front figures, has followed Salvini’s anti-immigration policies and voluntaristic style of policy-making. Spanish Second Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias has become prominent in denouncing international schemes of governance and has rejected transnational solutions for domestic problems on a general scale.

Is a link between populist rule and the number of Corona infections plausible? After all, various other causes play a rule and could override the effect of the type of leadership: the capacity of the health system drives death rates, the number of test determines the maximum number of infections. Besides, the size of a country and its political structure (for example federalism) may play a role. It is also tempting to accredit the exposure of a country to Corona and COVID-19 to bad governance. Brazil and the USA seem to be relatively obvious cases of incompetent leadership at the very top, whereas Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom have recently been troubled by unstable governments and multiple crises.

However, if we turn our attention to those characteristics that have been identified with populism, we find several aspects that can easily give way to halfhearted pandemia politics.

From the perspective of populist leaders, health agencies and medical authorities are by nature equipped with persons of a scientific and technocratic background. Crisis task forces tend to know their ways through the different layers of regional and transnational executives, and they are used to refer to something that in former times was called „facts”. Health crisis managers are in a way natural enemies to populist politicians who (often falsely) claim to represent the people by listening to their needs and by keeping away the impositions that come along with executive and norm-based action.

Brazil, the USA, and the United Kingdom present vivid cases where Presidents or Prime Ministers have denounced recommendations by health offices, either by publicly relating to COVID-19 as a kind of flu or by claiming that assessments by health authorities were overly pessimistic. Beyond these obviously flawed policy positions, there is an interesting and long list of populist politicians who decline to follow recommendations on how to contain the virus. Trump, Bolsonaro, and – until he fell sick himself – Boris Johnson, refused to wear face masks. Irene Montero, a government member and the wife of Pablo Iglesias, rejected recommendations not to take part in mass demonstrations and got infected. Dominic Cummings, the main advisor to Boris Johnson, and the Polish populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński, omitted rules to stay at home while imposing sanctions on others.

These reactions fit to another trait of populism, namely the hostility to institutions and rules that restrict their room of maneuvre. The aspiration to eliminate veto powers has been widely discussed with regard to the judiciary and the media. In the current situation, recommendations by health bodies or crisis groups form the functional equivalent. Experts may have considerable influence on public opinion, as we have seen with prominent specialists like Anthony Fauci (USA) or Roberto Burioni (Italy). When he tried to establish positions that would have fenced in the political leaders, Fauci was publicly denounced by Donald Trump. Italian virologists were omitted by local political and economic leaders in Lombardia when they suggested to pull the emergency brake in Val Seriana in early March 2020. By doing this, valuable time was lost and the Bergamo region turned into the no. 1 hotspot of COVID-19 a few days onwards.

Both in Italy and Spain, these struggles also had a center-periphery dimension. Local leaders with populist backing were fighting central governments and tried to slow down interventions from the national level. In Italy and Spain, the main line of conflict during the Corona crisis did not consist of populist politicians versus a “rational“ executive. The broader gap existed (and exists) between the emaciated political establishment of the “old parties“ on the one hand and “alternative“ forces on the other. In both countries, expert governments needed to be established because the most successful political parties were not able to form stable coalitions. Changes of government did not go from one party or coalition to the other, but from caretaker/expert governments to governments backed by populists.

And there are more details. In Madrid, where Corona hit Spanish society most fiercely, the mayor from 2015-2019 leaned on an instrumental group without internal political life (“Ahora Madrid“). In 2019, the acting mayor was replaced by a candidate from the People‘s Party who was, in turn, backed by deputies from right-wing populist Vox. A big proportion of the mayors of the regions in Northern Italy have belonged to or belong to the populist Lega. In particular, Lombardia has been ruled by the former Lega leader Roberto Maroni from 2013-18 and by Attilio Fontana, also a Lega leader, since 2018. In both countries, we cannot shy away from the observation that a regional populist government was strong in those places that were most strongly hit by the Corona virus.

In times of Corona, therefore, populism has had a clear epidemic effect. Its contagious qualities may in general terms be thought of as an in-built contradiction between elected governments and expert rule. The first try to exert political leadership, whereas experts, bureaucrats, and other institutions try to transform scientific insight into binding decisions. The constellation consists of a peculiar yo-yo effect between populist leaders and health bureaucracies. For some time, the restrictive measures brought up by experts are able to win their way. Once the situation is somewhat under control, legitimate – but hostile to bureaucratic expertise – politicians take over, ease restrictions and open the way for the next round of virus transmission. In places where populism persists, it is hard to imagine scenarios in which political mechanisms can stop Corona.

Once we have recognized the link between populist rule and the spread of infections, we have to reflect about the consequences. People in the affected countries are likely to find out about the correlation, not least because media and the political opposition can use the public sphere in order to point to the shortcomings of populist rule. And, of course, we can assume that populist leaders will seek for countersteps in order to claim their fields.

By and large, we can see two different ways of reaction. One has been, maybe surprisingly, to give up the style of populist leadership to some extent. British, Italian, and Spanish governments have implemented advice from their health bodies. In Italy and Spain, this has happened after a first and catastrophic phase and in a situation where populist leaders were minor partners in government. In a way, we can argue that this has led to a political style that shies away from the core program of populism: Alternative sources of discursive power have been accepted, at least for the time being.

In other countries, like Brazil, the USA, and Hungary, the reaction has been different. Whereever opposition to central government has appeared, it has been fiercely fought even by non-democratic means. The Hungarian government has eliminated parliamentary control altogether. Jair Bolsonaro and his team have started to completely demolish political and executive institutions, including regional governors, prosecutors and police authorities. Donald Trump and the Polish government have started to attack elections as the core principle of the distribution of power.

Altogether therefore, two scenarios appear on the horizon. One consists in populism being fenced in due to the harm it has helped to spread. In this scenario, populism as a form of governance is actually weakened. The other scenario consists in the end of populist rule by transforming populism into overt authoritarianism.

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