Cas Mudde :academic
By now it is almost received wisdom that “populists” (often used as a euphemism for “the far right”) have ignored the threat of Covid-19, that populists have been the electoral victims of the pandemic, and that the pandemic has exposed the political incompetence of populists in government.
Most of this speculation is based on one or two individual cases, most notably the US president, Donald Trump. But he is the exception rather than the rule. In a recent comparative study of far-right parties in the European Union, we found that none of those three assumptions holds up to scrutiny. In fact, there has been significant variety in far-right responses to the pandemic.
In contrast to Trump, most European far-right parties were quick to point to the danger of the virus to the point of outright alarmism, although many started to walk that back after the number of cases had peaked, and some even started to spread misinformation. Matteo Salvini and his League party in Italy saw the virus as a major threat, but with time opinions on Covid started to fluctuate.
The main reason was that the most affected regions in Italy were governed by the League. Consequently, the party went from Salvini’s alarmist appeals to close the borders and ban the Chinese new year, to claims that the virus was not that bad by the League governor of the hardest-hit province, Lombardy.
Many far-right parties in opposition initially criticised their governments for responding too slowly, but quickly became the loudest critics of the alleged “anti-democratic” and “unconstitutional” government policies when lockdowns were introduced. For instance, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) argued that freedom of speech was “the clearest victim of corona”, while the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) claimed that it had stopped “totalitarian” surveillance plans.
By contrast, far-right parties in government implicated the opposition in spreading the virus or frustrating the national response. For instance, the Hungarian government targeted the mayor of Budapest for mismanaging the situation, while Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued that the opposition, “instead of taking care of peace and helping, threw sand in the modes”.
The second misperception is that far-right parties have been the big losers of the pandemic — recently strengthened by the claim that Trump lost the election because of Covid-19.
However, in our study of 31 far-right parties in EU member states, only half lost some support in the first, more acute, coronavirus wave, from mid-March to mid-June.
Of the rest, five gained support, and 10 experienced no change in the polls. Moreover, the overall effect was marginal, within 1% on average. Far-right parties have started to lose a bit more during the continuing second wave, although the averages remain small and within the polls’ margin of error.
Once again, government status seems to play a role. The far-right parties in control in Hungary and Poland mostly gained in the first wave but lost the most in the second wave. Far-right parties in governing coalitions were initially not affected but have now seen some small losses. And far-right parties in opposition, the vast majority, experienced some small losses in the first wave that have largely disappeared in the second wave.
So, did the pandemic expose “the incompetence” of the far right in power? The European data provides little evidence for this.
Countries with far-right governments adopted the strictest measures of all; and while those with far-right parties in coalition took less severe measures, it is hard to assess those parties’ roles. And in terms of cases and deaths per population, the numbers are mostly lower for countries with far-right parties in government or in coalition than for countries where the far right is in opposition.
It should be noted that all the countries with far-right government participation are in central and eastern Europe, the region least hit by Covid-19 in the first wave. Still, even here countries with far-right parties in government did slightly better than other countries in the region.
In short, much of the public debate about the far right, populism and Covid-19 is wrong. Overall, the far right has not ignored Covid-19, has not been its electoral victim, and has not been exposed as incompetent by the pandemic. While the far right has generally framed Covid-19 and the pandemic in line with its ideology (nativism, authoritarianism, and populism), its policy responses have differed, mainly based on whether they are in government or opposition.
More than anything, these findings show that we should stop viewing the European far right through the prism of Trump. The US president is in many ways the exception rather than the rule in terms of far-right politics. And as Trump leaves the White House, far-right parties remain major players in Europe. — The Guardian.
Mudde is professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.