In periods of economic distress, politicians who find scapegoats for the current situation are usually acclaimed by citizens that once might have felt discouraged to vote. However, the rhetoric used works as an attempt of dividing the population in native members and non-native members and minorities (cultural populism); honest members of the working class and big business owners (socio-economic populism) and victims of corruption and politicians (anti-establishment populism). Given that these arguments exploit societal concerns, they may pose a threat to democracy, by claiming that their opponents do not have people’s best interests in consideration and by excluding from “the people” each and every person whose support is not guaranteed.
In the past three decades, this trend has risen exponentially, even in countries with the most solid economies. According to Tony Blair’s global institute, in 2018, there were 20 countries with presidents or prime ministers that were considered populists, as shown in the graph below. Besides this, 40% of Asia’s population is governed by Populists.
Will populism thrive in the pandemic?
Before the global health crisis, the forecasts for 2020 were the continuous bet in dealing with inequalities and environmental issues. Although companies are increasingly investing in Environment, Social and Governance (ESG), that is not governments’ main concern anymore. The world leaders are trying to prevent the spread of the virus while attempting to reduce the economic implications that will arise. It is difficult to measure populists’ responses to this crisis as each country is adopting different policies and their role depends on whether they are in the office or in the opposition.
The graph presented above illustrates the idea that the rise in populism was hastened by the 2008 financial crisis. Research conveys that there is a significant correlation between the level of unemployment and the popularity of these parties. The virus has also helped uncover structural problems, such as an inefficient health care system or a dysfunctional government, which are likely to sustain populists’ arguments.
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is an example of a politician that is availing the pandemic to reinforce its position. After declaring a state of emergency, the government started to attribute the blame to illegal migration and eventually arrested students that were legally studying in the country, just for protesting. By taking immediate measures, Mr. Orban gained trust from the population, which allowed him to extend his mandate to an indefinite period to deal with the current crisis.
Another politician who has climbed in polls is Angela Merkel, for imposing mass testing and effective lockdown restrictions, thus controlling the death toll. Jair Bolsonaro, on the other hand, has made declarations underestimating the threat of the virus, just like Donald Trump, and has not taken any protective measures to ensure its civilian’s health, making him lose supporters.
In times of uncertainty, people look for the answers in their leaders. They prefer someone that actually deals with the situations and takes action from the beginning, whether he is populist or not, given that both populist (Victor Orban) and non-populist (Angela Merkel) politicians have surged in approval ratings.
Another factor that might influence the polls is data manipulation that misrepresents the hard times that the country is facing, or even the control of media pluralism. Besides the fact that populists’ arguments dismantle their opponents with ad hominem fallacies, some of these politicians live in countries with a low level of democracy, allowing them to promote their ideals even further, as it is depicted in the graph below.
Will populism stay in lockdown?
Despite the ability that populism has of growing and marching to brand new territories during economic and political setbacks, there are also some particularities in the pandemic that may constrain it.
Firstly, the strategy that most non-populists are using is the inclusion of messages of union in their speeches. The virus affects all social classes, races, ethnicities and orientations and there is no benefit in exclusion as everyone is working towards the same goal.
Secondly, the only way of tackling a problem is by not ignoring its existence. It comes as no surprise that the electorate demands experienced leadership with concrete goals and actions instead of mere comments, when faced with a recession. The anti-intellectualism promoted by some populists may also be in danger as it is not that appreciated when the entire world is waiting for the creation of a new vaccine and relying on doctors and governments to reduce the potential aftermath.
Lastly, with the increase in the level of unemployment and the decrease in aggregate demand, countries will not be able to survive by themselves. In the case of EU members, they will need financial aid from the European Union to combat this crisis, trying to fight the economic fallout. Thus, the nationalism nurtured by populists may no longer be welcome.
What can we expect?
There could be a significant decrease in populism in Europe if European citizens recognize EU’s assistance and realize the importance of inclusion and union, disregarding the priorly felt nationalist sentiments.
There is also the possibility of a second wave of infections. The sudden increase in cases would prove that the previously taken measures were inefficient and would decrease population’s support of their leaders. As the majority of the politicians haven’t got a secure spot in the office, some current populists might lose its power. However, they usually last longer in the government than the rest of the people and this might be an opportunity for a new brand of populists to arrive with an improved rhetoric that meets the new economic challenges.