COVID-19: The End of the Populist Moment?

Is the coronavirus pandemic the grist to the mill for populist politics in the West, or simply the end of a volatile chapter? For those champions of the liberal world order who had only recently come to terms with the ‘new normal’ of insurgent movements and firebrand leaders trading in anti-establishment narratives, it can be difficult to make sense of short and longer-term impact of this crisis on our wounded political systems. Are we at the beginning of something new, or simply at the end of another beginning?

On the one hand, there is much to suggest that the more flippant, opportunistic forms of the populist campaigning style we have seen over recent years are now deeply out of vogue. After all, COVID-19 compels leaders to mobilise the full capacity of the state – leaning heavily on their institutions. The very same civil service, journalists and academia that only a few months ago were depicted as endemically corrupt and self-serving are now held up as critical democratic instruments worthy of citizens’ trust.

Nowhere has this turnaround been more dramatic than in the United Kingdom, where the Prime Minister’s communications director personally approached the media to call for a truce, recognising their important role in transmitting public information. The ‘experts’ derided as out of touch with the concerns of the British people now flank the Prime Minister and his Cabinet in their daily briefings, providing much-needed detail and evidence to a fearful public.

The coronavirus broke the spell of Johnson’s dream run since winning the leadership of the Conservative Party last summer – forcing his team to finally put their Brexit-era populist rhetoric to bed, and fully inhabit their role and responsibilities as governors. The hesitation and confusion caused by this transition – most visibly evident in the individual struggle of the Prime Minister to switch from upbeat, feel-good leader to grave statesman clamping down on citizens’ freedoms – may have cost the nation precious time. Yet today, there is no mistaking this government’s focus and determination to lead in the nation’s interests, and its recognition that a strong and able state is a tremendous advantage in such times of crisis.

The mainstreaming of right-wing and nationalist populist movements and parties across the West over the past decade has often been depicted as a homogenous phenomenon – yet this crisis has emphasised the distinctions between their esoteric national manifestations. In particular, those which are focused on dismantling established democratic institutions without a clear vision of how they will be replaced, and those which seek to strategically harness the tools of the legislature and the power of central office to build an authoritarian state in the image of a democracy.

Indeed, as the pandemic takes hold across the West, the authoritarian nature of some leaders is becoming a more important factor in shaping their approach to governance than their populist instincts. It is difficult, after all, to make a case against ‘the establishment’ when the sum of its parts has become so practically crucial in addressing the spread of the disease. Leaders can, however, exploit the power this pandemic vests in the hands of governments to advance their march on democratic safeguards.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin has now achieved his objective of extending his premiership for an indefinite period. In Israel, embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu staved off opposition attempts to form a new government by steamrolling through an emergency government to deal with the crisis – with himself at the helm. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice party are seeking to push forward with national elections in May, with the previously resurgent opposition unable to put forward their case or campaign on the ground.

Never one to miss an opportunity, earlier this week, Hungary’s president Viktor Orban drove through new legislation that will allow him to govern by degree with sweeping emergency powers, including the capacity to fine, and even jail, those deemed by his government to be flouting the COVID-19 quarantine or spreading ‘fake news’ – to his definition. With no sunset clause, there are calls now for the European Union to enforce sanctions on a member state that can hardly even now be regarded as an ‘illiberal’ democracy.

Hungary’s trajectory has been clear for some time, and the EU has not yet been able to effectively penalise its democratic backsliding. These developments highlight the double challenge facing the EU and the West more generally in the coming months as we move beyond the peak of the pandemic and look to transition into a new kind of normal. Having come into this crisis in a state of atrophy, the task at hand encompasses addressing the pre-existing structural problems, as well as the further erosions and incursions on democracy, multilateralism and openness, which will continue to arise as a result of COVID-19.

With borders closed around the world, and global supply chains disrupted, how will liberal democracies make the case for a return to the connectivity of the past – which has been framed, in this crisis, as an existential weakness?

One of the greatest unknowns about this pandemic is how it will affect the social fabric of our nations. After all, the rising prominence of populism in our politics reflects the growing salience of deep social challenges that had been brewing over the course of many years – even decades. And these conflicts and forms of competition – whether between genders, the generations, and between native and migrant populations – may be dulled by the necessity of the crisis, but surely cannot be expected to be eradicated. Moreover, the dramatic impacts of the pandemic on economic, social and political settlement will undoubtedly produce new tensions as we move beyond the eye of the storm.

We are also, during this crisis, experiencing an evolution of our relationship between citizens and governments. Approval ratings for leaders appear to be improving, suggesting a degree of buoyancy in political trust after many years of decline and stagnation. We cannot anticipate that this ‘rallying around the flag’ will prove resilient, but this experience will provide a brief antidote to citizens’ learned behaviours of cynicism and doubt.

While being constrained in our personal freedoms during the crisis may well encourage citizens to value them more dearly, it is also entirely feasible that the dramatic social and economic interventions of the state foster new expectations around governments’ role in reducing income inequality in Western societies – further strengthening the size and nature of the welfare state. The same is true of environmental movements, surely set to be one of the beneficiaries of the pandemic. As such, there is a distinct possibility that left-wing populism could be first out of the blocks as we seek to rebuild our wounded economies.

Coronavirus is a test of national leaders and international cooperation, and it has already injected a dramatic new energy and force into our political systems – sorting fair-weather populists from committed authoritarians. It is too early to be certain if it will stir conditions that deepen or undermine the Western populist challenge; however, it is clear that neither pathway is inevitable. Moreover, that the very real tensions and conflicts in societies, put on hold during the crisis, will still be waiting for us on the other side.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.