A Virus to Kill Populism, Or Make It Stronger

The last global crisis paved their way to power. The question is whether the latest one will loosen their grip on it.

Fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown produced an electoral earthquake that upended postwar party politics, brought a new breed of populists to government and decisively shifted the balance among global powers toward China from the U.S. Novel Coronavirus may prove just as disruptive.

It’s too soon to predict which governments will suffer politically from their handling of the virus, as the death toll continues to grow and a quarter of the world’s population remains in lockdown. Whether responses to Covid-19 unmask or entrench such leaders as U.S. President Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Italian opposition chief Matteo Salvini remains unclear.

So, too, whether China will succeed or fail in transforming a disease that appears to have spread across the globe from Hubei province into a geopolitical opportunity, as it airlifts medical teams and supplies of masks and other equipment to burnish its image in countries such as Iran and Italy.

But what’s already apparent is that for populist leaders who thrive on portraying their country as under siege, the coronavirus is proving a challenge. This time the enemy is an invisible one that doesn’t easily fit into a simple anti-elite, anti-migrant or anti-science narrative that has proven so politically fruitful before. Rather than fear others, people fear for themselves. 

Not only is the coronavirus creating a Darwinist test of which systems and societies are better able to cope, more citizens will put a premium on political decisions being underpinned by truth, said Ahn Cheol-soo, a former South Korean presidential candidate.

“It will eventually help build a political landscape in which the public isn’t swayed by populism,” said Ahn, who is trying to form a political group to mount a challenge in April 15 parliamentary elections. “That will eventually make populists lose ground.”

At the same time, some leaders have sought to tap into wider unease about a virus that has spread across a deeply interconnected globe at the speed of modern airliners. It’s forced even governments that favor globalization to shut down travel and disrupt supply chains. The course of the virus could yet be portrayed as vindicating nationalist arguments for a less connected world.

After initially dismissing the severity of the pandemic, Trump has since tweeted that “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!” He referred to the coronavirus as “Chinese” before backtracking.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban initially focused popular ire on a group of Iranian students who were quarantined and later tested positive. As the virus took hold in the wider community, he then dropped the anti-immigrant theme that helped him win a third straight election in 2018.

Salvini, leader of the League party whose roots are in the hardest-hit north of Italy, linked the spread of the disease with migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to Italy from north Africa. He didn’t provide any evidence.

A former interior minister, Salvini has also portrayed Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as doing too little too slowly to combat coronavirus, while at the same time accusing him of imposing the decisions of an elite without consulting parliament. Yet none of these arguments has gained traction to date, in a country struggling to cope with what’s quickly becoming the world’s largest outbreak of the disease.

Italians are instead rallying behind their institutions in the emergency. Conte’s imposition of an ever-tighter lockdown has seen his government’s popularity reach a record high, backed by 71% of Italians in March, according to a Demos survey. But whether that popularity will survive a postmortem of Conte’s handling of the crisis also remains to be seen.

A similar dynamic seems to be at play in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her beleaguered Christian Democratic Union party were severely damaged in elections by the wave of refugees who fled to the country from the Syrian war in 2015-16.

They are now seeing their popularity rise on the back of their coronavirus response. A recent poll showed support for the Christian Democrats has jumped by five percentage points. The party joined traditionally fiscally cautious peers such as U.S. Republicans and Britain’s Conservatives in abandoning  ideological commitments to cutting budget deficits. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz called for a “bazooka” to be fired into the economy.

“The economic crisis, rising immigration, these are things you can easily blame on one group or the political elite,” said Benjamin Moffitt, a senior lecturer in politics at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, whose latest book “Populism” was published this month. “But this is a biological crisis—to stop it, you can’t just drain the swamp or block refugees from coming.”

Whereas Salvini has the luxury of opposition and risks at worst being side lined, the stakes are higher for Trump and Bolsonaro.

The U.S. president has come under attack from state governors for not acting quickly enough to contain Covid-19, despite a $2 trillion aid package for the economy passed in the Senate. He claimed churches would be full again for Easter, a little over two weeks away. On Thursday, the U.S. surpassed Italy in cases, with more than 80,700, and is poised to overtake China.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s insistence that life and business should go on as usual, despite the virus, has led to protests in the major cities with people hanging out of their windows to bang pots and pans. Already under pressure before the pandemic as scandal swirled around his family and a promised economic renaissance failed to materialize, Bolsonaro looks vulnerable.

“This crisis has knocked the government out of his orbit,” said Creomar de Souza, chief executive of Dharma Political Risk and Strategy in Brazil. “The characteristics he has that were seen as positive, like combativeness and obstinacy, are now being seen as a liability.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado, a populist from the left, has also downplayed the severity of the threat from the virus, telling people “to keep taking the family out to eat.”

Although Mexico still has relatively few recorded cases, a telephone poll by the owner of newspaper Reforma found 44% of Mexicans now disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus threat, to 37% in favor. On Thursday, he appeared to  change his tone and called on companies to send their workers home.

In the U.K., the urgency surrounding Covid-19 has even buried the debate over the terms of the country’s departure from the European Union—and with it Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s flirtation with populism.

He deferred conspicuously to medical and epidemiological experts in his initial attempt at taking a measured approach to fighting the disease. During the Brexit campaign, experts were deliberately derided.

Yet the idea that fighting coronavirus will lead to a restoration of a pre-financial crisis faith in fact is probably wishful thinking, according to Moffitt. That particularly goes for the U.S.

“Expertise, in terms of this idea of neutral knowledge is dead in a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “You cannot spend a decade arguing that climate change is nonsense and that you don’t need vaccines, and then turn around and say actually, yes we need experts.”

— With assistance by Kanga Kong, John Follain, Walter Brandimarte, Zoltan Simon, and Misha Savic

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