The successes and failures of populism during the pandemic – new report

“My orders to the police and military ... if there is trouble and there’s an occasion that they fight back and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead.” “Is that understood? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I will bury you.” – President Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) in a televised address to lockdown violators, April 2020

Dr Giorgos Katsambekis

A NEW study which examines the way populist governments and opposition forces have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the huge variety of responses to the pandemic – from threatening to shoot lockdown violators to actively encouraging free movement.

Dr Giorgos Katsambekis, of Loughborough University, has co-edited a report that examines the diverse reactions of populist actors to the COVID-19 pandemic and looks at what influences lay behind the broad spectrum of successful and catastrophic actions they have taken.

In total, 19 academics have looked at 16 countries and political actors from across the world, from Australia to Sweden and from the Philippines to Brazil and the United States, in a report that has been the result of collaboration between Loughborough’s Populism Research Group and the POPULISMUS Observatory at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in Greece.

He said: “Populism has been dominating public discussions around the future of democracy and representative institutions for quite a few years now.

“Almost immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic started hitting one country after the other, we witnessed the proliferation of myriads of articles by pundits and media outlets that rushed to speculate on the role and prospects of populism in the new conjuncture.

“Would COVID-19 ‘kill’ populism? Would it make it stronger? Would populists in government be ‘exposed’ for their alleged inadequacy and incompetence? Would liberals finally triumph, boosted by a newfound faith in ‘expert knowledge’ and the heralded failure of their populist opponents?

“Those discussions, as often happens in the public sphere, tended to oversimplify things, missing the variety of responses to the pandemic by both populists and non-populist actors and thus failing to offer an adequately nuanced account of the situation.

“This is exactly what we have tried to do in this report.”

The report, Populism and the Pandemic, highlighted five key findings.

1. COVID-19 is not ‘killing’ populists

Despite the catastrophic way some populist leaders have handled the pandemic – Trump in America and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, where staggering death tolls have reflected the slow and inadequate responses – other populist heads of state have managed to handle the situation well and emerge in a positive light.

Argentina’s Alberto Fernández has boosted his approval ratings with his successful containment of the coronavirus spread.

2. Not all populists have responded in the same way to the COVID-19 pandemic

Many commentators initially assumed that populists would all act in a similar manner, discrediting ‘experts’, attacking opposition forces to score points against political opponents, and opportunistically exploiting the situation for their own furtherment.

However, the report reveals a much more complex picture, from Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines who gave police permission to “shoot dead” quarantine violators to Donald Trump who at first vehemently opposed any kind of lockdown in order to “keep the economy running”.

3. Ideology is a crucial factor that should not be overlooked

Populism as a type of political discourse or style is characteristically malleable and can thus be combined with a variety of ideologies, policies and political standpoints which may conflict and oppose each other.

The report shows that in order to understand political responses to the pandemic it is important to take into account the accompanying ideological persuasions and programmatic agendas of populist actors (neoliberalism and socialism, pro-market solutions and welfarism, internationalism and nativism, to name but a few orientations) which significantly influence their stance on certain issues and challenges.

4. Understanding the policies of certain actors through the lens of ‘populism’ can sometimes be inaccurate and misleading

The authors also suggest that because of this, trying to understand certain policies or general political stances through the lens of populism can be both inaccurate and misleading.

Just as the left-right spectrum influences decisions, actions and political strategies, so do nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism.

Framing the pandemic as the ‘Chinese virus’, which both Trump in the US and Pauline Hanson in Australia have repeatedly done, fuels nationalism, racism and anti-immigrant sentiments in their respective countries.

The report argues that nationalistic and racist discourse such as this is often wrongly labelled ‘populism’, when in fact its roots lie much deeper, hidden below the surface.

Similarly, in Turkey and Hungary, it is authoritarianism along with nationalism that more accurately capture the political experience of crisis management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

5. ‘Experts’ are not neutral actors that will save liberal democracy from ‘bad populists’

The varied, conflicting, and unaligned policies, actions and discourse of populist actors is mirrored equally in the one group often charged with ‘saving’ liberal democracy – the experts.

Despite the hopes put on the figure of the impartial ‘expert’, that by virtue of their privileged access to knowledge will debunk the hollowness of populist politics and restore faith to liberal democracy, the pandemic has instead revealed the underlying political character of science.

The report highlights, among others, epidemiologists Anders Tegnell in Sweden and Professor Sotiris Tsiodras in Greece. Tegnell, known for his unorthodox views, was behind Sweden’s reluctance to enter a full lockdown.

He has defended the move in light of international criticism despite the country’s subsequent large death toll. Prof Tsiodras on the other hand has been praised for his part in Greece’s early and tight lockdown strategy.

Based on this and other examples, the report suggests that exactly as populists do not form a coherent bloc in the pandemic, experts too cannot be treated as a unified front.

Therefore, the dichotomy ‘experts vs populists’ is exposed as fundamentally flawed once more in the context of the ongoing crisis.

Dr Katsambekis said: “What our report reveals is a much more complex picture than usually assumed. Not all populist actors reacted in the same way in response to the pandemic and thus their role, future prospects as well as possible impact on democracy will significantly differ.

“Some, like Trump in the US, have prioritised the economy and opposed strict lockdown measures, fuelling nativism and conspiracy theories along the way, while others, like Fernández in Argentina, have supported tight lockdown measures and at the same time prioritised social cohesion.

“Far right populists in opposition like Salvini in Italy have tried to link COVID-19 to migrants and refugees, while left populists like SYRIZA in Greece has been vocal about protecting ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees during the public health crisis.

“So, instead of reducing everything to a simplistic populist or non-populist spectrum, we consider it more productive to take into account a series of crucial factors and variables, such as: positioning of populists on the left/right spectrum, their place in power or opposition, different input from and role attributed to experts in various countries, and finally the significance of contributing ideological elements along with populism, like nativism and authoritarianism, or socialism and welfarism.

“In this way, we can have a more meaningful and reflective discussion about populism in the pandemic while remaining alert about the true dangers for democracy.”


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 20/111

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