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Populism and the Pandemic: A Collaborative Report



With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the public sphere in recent months and no aspect of social and political life left unaffected, it seems almost natural that this unprecedented public health crisis would soon be reflected on discussions around the other buzzword of our time: populism. This report aims at providing a concise yet rigorous global comparative mapping of populist politics in the context of the ongoing pandemic. This will not only shed further light on the specificities, the potentials and limitations of the phenomenon, but we also expect it to highlight its irreducible heterogeneity and diversity as a way of doing politics.The key questions that we posed to contributors in this report when looking at different countries across the world can be summarised as follows: • How have populist actors reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic when in government or opposition? • Has their ideological position on the left or right, or indeed somewhere inbetween, played a role to that reaction? • How have the rates of approval and vote intensions for populist actors developed during that period? • More generally, how have discussions around ‘populism’ and the role of ‘experts’ and ‘science’ developed in each country during this time? Have they reproduced standard anti-populist stereotypes? In order to shed light on these crucial aspects of the discussion and set the agenda for future comparative research as well as conceptual enquiry, we approached a series of well established scholars, along with several dynamic younger researchers specialising on both populism and the study of politics in different countries and regions. This gave us a sum of sixteen (16) case studies of countries and political actors from across the world, making the scope of our report truly global, extending from Australia to Sweden and from the Philippines to Brazil and the United States.
Populism and the Pandemic
A Collaborative Report
Edited by Giorgos Katsambekis & Yannis Stavrakakis
POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7 (special edition)
In collaboration with the Populism Research Group at
Loughborough University
June 2020
This collaborative report was compiled in the most extraordinary circumstances, with our
colleagues and contributors working from home, in conditions of confinement, while
transitioning to virtual environments of teaching and learning, delivering classes online and
trying to keep up with their research. We are immensely grateful for their willingness to make
time to be part of this project, producing highly original and insightful analyses in a very short
turnaround period and for being so welcoming of our feedback while working on their texts.
Their collegial and collaborative ethos during such strange times has made this project deeply
rewarding and indeed enjoyable and we would like to once more thank them for that.
Giorgos Katsambekis
Yannis Stavrakakis
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Acknowledgement ..................................................................................................................... 1
Populism and the pandemic: introduction and preliminary findings ......................................... 3
1. Argentina ............................................................................................................................. 10
2. Australia ............................................................................................................................... 13
3. Belgium ................................................................................................................................ 15
4. Brazil .................................................................................................................................... 18
5. France .................................................................................................................................. 21
6. Germany .............................................................................................................................. 24
7. Greece ................................................................................................................................. 26
8. Hungary ............................................................................................................................... 29
9. Italy ...................................................................................................................................... 31
10. The Netherlands................................................................................................................ 34
11. The Philippines ................................................................................................................... 37
12. Spain................................................................................................................................... 40
13. Sweden .............................................................................................................................. 43
14. Turkey ............................................................................................................................... 46
15. United Kingdom ................................................................................................................ 49
16. United States of America .................................................................................................. 53
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Giorgos Katsambekis & Yannis Stavrakakis
Populism and the pandemic: introduction and
preliminary findings
With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the public sphere in recent months and no aspect
of social and political life left unaffected, it seems almost natural that this unprecedented public
health crisis would soon be reflected on discussions around the other buzzword of our time:
populism. From the very early days of the outbreak, several pundits and commentators were
quick to conclude that the new coronavirus would ‘kill’ populist politics as this new
conjuncture was allegedly bringing once more to prominence the figure of the impartial
‘expert,’ the supposed opposite of the ‘populist demagogue.’
Referring to cases like Donald
Trump or Boris Johnson as characteristic examples, analysts have commented on how
‘populists’ were reluctant to face reality and that when they did, they only managed to do too
little too late, exposing to the public the supposed ‘hollowness’ of their populist promise.
Despite the early and sober cautioning of Cas Mudde, who rightly noted that populism, as a
highly diverse and heterogeneous phenomenon, would ‘not have one, unitary response to the
and thus its fortunes could not be predicted safely across the board, analyses and
commentary that made gross generalizations kept proliferating.
Indeed, if one looks at countries with populists in power, from Argentina to Hungary and from
the Philippines to Italy, they will soon realise that there is no common reaction to the
pandemic nor any coherent pattern regarding the success and/or approval ratings of such
governments. Some are doing quite well with fighting the pandemic and this is reflected in high
approval rates (e.g. Argentina, Fernández), while others seem to have followed catastrophic
and erratic policies, leading not only to terrifying death tolls, but also to a serious decrease in
their support in the relevant opinion polls (e.g. US, Trump). If we extend the scope to include
countries with significant populist forces in opposition, the picture becomes even more
diverse and complex. In Italy, for example, Matteo Salvini has tried to connect the COVID-19
virus to immigrants in a bid to further fuel xenophobic sentiments in the population, while in
Greece, SYRIZA has emphasised the need for generous social programmes to protect the
most vulnerable, including migrants and refugees. Interestingly, the ones that initially attempted
to link the pandemic to incoming migrants in Greece were actually politicians from the
supposedly moderate centre-right New Democracy party, currently in government.
Otto English, ‘Coronavirus’ next victim: Populism,’ Politico, 18 March 2020,; Walter
Russell Mead, ‘Will Coronavirus Kill Populism?’ Wall Street Journal, 23 March 2020,; Robert Patman, ‘Is Covid-19 turning
the tide against national populism?’ Newsroom, 15 April 2020,
populism (all accessed 1 May 2020).
Peter Bolton, ‘Coronavirus is making the fight against far-right populists even more urgent,’ the Canary, 24 April
right-populists-even-more-urgent; Paul Niland, ‘The Crisis of Incompetence,’ Byline Times, 19 March 2020,; Andrea Kendall-Taylor &
Carisa Nietsche, ‘The Coronavirus Is Exposing Populists’ Hollow Politics,’ Foreign Policy, 16 April 2020, (all accessed 1 May
Cas Mudde, ‘Will the coronavirus “kill populism”? Don't count on it,’ The Guardian, 27 March 2020,
(accessed 1 May 2020).
David Leonhardt and Lauren Leatherby, ‘Where the Virus Is Growing Most: Countries With “Illiberal Populist”
Leaders,’ The New York Times, 2 June 2020,
leaders.html (accessed 3 June 2020).
Ef.Syn., ‘The government is circulating new dangerous scenarios about refugees in the Aegean,’ Efimerida ton
Syntakton, 13 April 2020,
kybernisi-gia-prosfyges-sto-aigaio (accessed 3 June 2020) [in Greek].
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Aims, scope and theoretical background of the report
Despite these contradictions and the fact that public debate around the COVID-19 crisis and
populism has so far developed with often little or no touch with the crucial lessons that
scholarly research has accumulated over the past decades, we still consider this a crucial
discussion, the importance of which goes beyond the hype of merely putting the words
‘pandemic,’ ‘crisis’ and ‘populism’ in the same sentence. Indeed, the relation between ‘crisis’
and populism has been one of the most important themes in the relevant literature since its
very early stage back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Not only ‘crises’ are considered particularly
opportune environments for the rise of populist actors, as they usually designate moments
that exaggerate socio-political divisions, creating new rifts and potentially increasing the
distance between ‘people’ and ‘elites,’ government and the governed. In addition, populists
themselves, in most cases, invoke and perform some notion of ‘crisis’ in their own discourse
as they address popular grievances and frustrations in a bid to unify and mobilise broader
social strata against unresponsive political ‘elites’ that are rendered responsible for their
Finally, such populist crisis narratives are never alone in the public sphere; they
usually antagonise other, anti-populist crisis narratives, thus constituting a comprehensive
analysis encompassing both camps a priority if one is to understand the socio-political stakes
in a given conjuncture.
The fact that we are currently facing what, with no exaggeration, might be the worst global
crisis of a generation
makes discussion and critical reflection around the role and prospects
of populism extremely important, if not urgent. This is exactly what this report is aiming to
provide: a concise yet rigorous global comparative mapping of populist politics in the context
of the ongoing pandemic. This will not only shed further light on the specificities, the potentials
and limitations of the phenomenon, but we also expect it to highlight its irreducible
heterogeneity and diversity as a way of doing politics. As this is a report produced ‘in the heat
of the moment,’ while we are all still part of an unfolding crisis, we realise that it is extremely
difficult, if not impossible, to take a step back and assess the available data in the depth and
scope that would allow for the reflexivity necessary to produce viable generalisations. This
would be the aim of a future project. However, the foundation for this critical endeavour is
laid out here and we are hoping that this report will act as a common point of reference to
facilitate and inform relevant research, media reports and commentary as well as discussions
among stake holders.
For the needs of this report, we do not consider it necessary to enter into complex theoretical
discussions about the nature of populism, its normative status and the best way to categorise
it as a phenomenon. It makes little sense here to discuss whether populism is better
understood as a type of discourse, style, ideology or strategy. We see merit on all those
approaches, and we chose to build here on the accumulated knowledge in the field. In this
context, we prefer to adopt a ‘minimal’ understanding of populism for this report, based on
an emerging consensus that sees it as a kind of politics that champions ‘the people’ and their
sovereignty while antagonising unresponsive political ‘elites’ or a multifaceted ‘establishment.’
adopting such a ‘minimal understanding, we should stress at the outset that we do not
Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism, 1977, London: NLB.
Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, 2016, California:
Stanford University Press; Yannis Stavrakakis et al., ‘Populism, anti-populism and crisis,’ Contemporary Political
Theory, 17(1), 2018, pp. 427.
Stavrakakis et al., ‘Populism, anti-populism and crisis.’
Josh Zumbrun, ‘World Bank Sees 5.2% Decline in Global Economy in 2020 From Coronavirus,’ The Wall Street
Journal, 8 June 2020,
coronavirus-11591631209 (accessed 9 June 2020).
Benjamin Moffitt, Populism, Cambridge: Polity; Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short
Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Simon Tormey, Populism: A Beginner’s Guide, London: Oneworld
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
consider populism as a threat, nor, of course, as a panacea for reviving democracy. We rather
see it as a form of politics that has the potential to ‘democratise democracy,’ when enhancing
inclusion and expanding the scope of representation, but also to reverse democratisation
when it adopts an exclusionary understanding of the popular community and develops
authoritarian tendencies. In other words, populism indicates:
a dichotomic discourse in which ‘the people’ are juxtaposed to ‘the elite’ along
the lines of a down/up antagonism in which ‘the people’ is discursively
constructed as a large powerless group through opposition to ‘the elite’
conceived as a small and illegitimately powerful group. Populist politics thus claim
to represent ‘the people’ against an ‘elite’ that frustrates their legitimate demands,
and present these demands as expressions of the will of ‘the people.
Given the ambiguous potential of populism and the radically volatile times we have now
entered, that open up new possibilities and re-ignite hegemonic struggle at a global level, we
consider it crucial to develop such a comparative mapping and assess different responses to
the pandemic in order to intervene in a constructive and meaningful way in the ongoing debate.
This will not only give us crucial insight into the ever-malleable nature of populism, but it can
act as a springboard for reflection on the prospects for the ‘next day,’ especially in relation to
democracy and representation, emergency politics, the role of the state and party
competition, to mention just a few relevant areas of inquiry.
The key questions that we posed to contributors in this report when looking at different
countries across the world can be summarised as follows:
How have populist actors reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic when in
government or opposition?
Has their ideological position on the left or right, or indeed somewhere in-
between, played a role to that reaction?
How have the rates of approval and vote intensions for populist actors
developed during that period?
More generally, how have discussions around ‘populism’ and the role of
‘experts’ and ‘science’ developed in each country during this time? Have they
reproduced standard anti-populist stereotypes?
In this context, we are not merely interested in assessing the role, behaviour and prospects
of various populist actors in the context of the pandemic, but we also aim to discuss and
problematise the very use of the label and signifier ‘populism’ itself, as the COVID-19 crisis
seems to be amplifying certain trends related to the ‘populist hype’ and the mainstreaming or
euphemisation of the far right and authoritarianism that have already been registered in the
relevant literature.
In order to shed light on these crucial aspects of the discussion and set the agenda for future
comparative research as well as conceptual enquiry, we approached a series of well-
established scholars, along with several dynamic younger researchers specialising on both
populism and the study of politics in different countries and regions. This gave us a sum of
Benjamin De Cleen & Yannis Stavrakakis, ‘Distinctions and Articulations: A Discourse Theoretical Framework
for the Study of Populism and Nationalism,’ Javnost 24(4), 2017, p. 310
Jason Glynos & Aurelien Mondon, ‘The political logic of populist hype: The case of right-wing populism’s
“meteoric rise” and its relation to the status quo,’ POPULISMUS Working Papers No. 4, December 2016,; Katy Brown, Aaron
Winter & Aurelien Mondon, ‘“Populist” can be a weasel word for “racist,” and that’s dangerous,’ openDemocracy,
16 October 2019,
racist-and-thats-dangerous/ (both accessed 9 June 2020).
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
sixteen (16) case studies of countries and political actors from across the world, making the
scope of our report truly global, extending from Australia to Sweden and from the Philippines
to Brazil and the United States. Our aim when choosing cases was to cover the countries that
seem to be more prominent in public discussions across international media, but also others
that, despite remaining ‘under the radar,’ are still quite important for anyone wanting to
understand populist politics in all its diversity and scope. We are thus looking at countries
with populists in power and populists in opposition, countries with tighter lockdowns and
countries with more relaxed social distancing measures, countries with important populist
actors on the right and others with important populist actors of the left, countries in which
social unrest and frustration with government is already at a critical level and countries in
which governments still enjoy the benefits of a rally ’round the flag effect.
Some preliminary comparative findings
The picture with which we end up once we take into account the findings and insights from
this diverse, yet representative sample of case studies looks more like a mosaic and less like a
clear pattern. Indeed, populist responses to the pandemic have been as heterogeneous and as
context-dependent as the ideological profile and programmatic orientation of populist actors
themselves (something also applying to various types of anti-populists internationally).
However, it is possible to highlight some key comparative findings as well as some indicative
markers for future research:
1. No, COVID-19 is not ‘killing’ populists. One might be tempted to assume that
populist leaders like Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil will have a
bumpy ride ahead due to their catastrophic management of the pandemic so far and
the staggering death tolls in the two countries currently among the worst hit globally.
The former is now also facing an unprecedented uprising against racism and police
brutality that was probably amplified by ‘the dramatic immiseration caused by the
economic shutdown during the pandemic,’ as Joseph Lowndes notes. However, there
are other populist leaders like the Peronist Alberto Fernández in Argentina, currently
in power, who has managed to successfully contain the spread of the virus up to now,
while implementing a policy encapsulated in the notion of a social and ‘caring’ State,
as described by Paula Biglieri, leading to high approval ratings for his government.
Finally, there are populist actors in opposition who seem very likely to benefit from
the erosion of trust to governments that have been seen as handling the pandemic in
inadequate or problematic ways, as the cases of France and Italy exemplify.
2. No, not all populists have responded in the same way to the COVID-19
pandemic. As discussed in the beginning of this introduction, several pundits and
commentators have assumed from early on in the pandemic that ‘populists’ would
react as a more or less unified bloc, discrediting ‘experts’ and science, attacking
government when they are in opposition and aiming to score points against their
political opponents, employing demagogic and opportunistic strategies. Our report
shows that reality reveals a much more complex picture with populist actors
defending different policies and taking different positions vis-à-vis the pandemic, from
criticising certain aspects of lockdown as ‘authoritarian’ (e.g. AfD in Germany, Vox in
Spain) to castigating the government for being too relaxed (e.g. PVV in the
Netherlands), and from leaders of federal states like Trump in the US and Bolsonaro
in Brazil, that are vehemently anti-lockdown in order to ‘keep the economy running,’
even clashing with state governors that choose to implement lockdown measures, to
others like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines who has literally asked the police to
shoot down quarantine violators. Similarly, not all populist actors in opposition have
opposed governments for their key decisions at the peak of the crisis. In Greece, for
example, the populist left SYRIZA supported the centre-right government’s decision
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
to enter a tight lockdown, while some of its key officials have openly praised the
epidemiologist put in charge of emergency planning.
3. Ideology is a crucial factor that should not be overlooked. As stressed in
numerous studies that differentiate right- from left-wing populists or populist socialists
from neoliberal populists,
ideology is a key factor when assessing the responses of
populist actors to certain challenges. In other words, populism in itself does not have
the ideological/programmatic ‘thickness’ necessary to provide a concrete policy
framework encompassing most aspects of the economy and society, hence it is
combined with various ideological traditions and platforms, producing sub-types and
‘hybrids’ at various points of the political spectrum. In this sense, it should not come
as a surprise that populists on the left (e.g. Unidas Podemos in Spain, Fernández in
Argentina) have prioritised social cohesion and the support/protection of the most
vulnerable social strata while populists on the right have tended to prioritise the
economy, even if that seems to lead to unemployment and social devastation (e.g.
Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil). Similarly, populist actors on the left have been
vocal about protecting ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees during the pandemic
(e.g. SYRIZA in Greece), while populist actors on the far right have used the threat of
the pandemic to further scapegoat migrants and refugees as potential carriers and
transmitters of the disease (e.g. Salvini and the League in Italy, VB in Belgium), which
further demonstrates the importance of differentiating between inclusionary and
exclusionary types of populism.
4. In many cases, understanding the policies of certain actors through the lens
of ‘populism’ can be both inaccurate and misleading. The study of certain cases
that keep popping up in relevant analyses as examples of populism in the pandemic
reveals that in fact ‘populism’ as an analytical category explains very little of their
policies and general stance throughout this period. As exemplified by the cases of
Turkey and Hungary, it is authoritarianism along with nationalism/nativism that more
accurately captures the political experience of crisis management during the COVID-
19 pandemic, with Fidesz in Hungary castigating and effectively delegitimising parties
in opposition, including the far right Jobbik, as foreign-like and ‘anti-national,’ while
holding emergency powers under the so-called ‘Enabling Act.’ Similarly, nationalism
and nativism are at least as important as populism when trying to understand framings
of the pandemic by politicians like Trump in the US or Pauline Hanson in Australia,
who have both repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus,’ fuelling racism
and anti-immigrant (especially Sinophobic) sentiments in their countries. Establishing
the centrality of authoritarian and thus anti-democratic ideological framings and
policies along with nationalist and nativist discourses is crucial when trying to make
sense of the politics of certain actors during the pandemic. To put it in other words,
the overuse and abuse of the ‘populist’ label and the vague notion of a ‘populist threat
to democracy,’ often adopted in typical anti-populist discourses, seems to be diverting
attention from other imminent dangers to democracy, most importantly: nativism,
nationalism, authoritarianism, racism.
5. ‘Experts’ are not neutral actors that will save liberal democracy from ‘bad
populists. Despite the focus and hopes put on the figure of the impartial ‘expert’
that by virtue of their expertise and privileged access to knowledge will debunk the
hollowness of populist politics and restore faith to liberal democracy, the pandemic
Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, ‘Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary
Europe and Latin America,’ Government & Opposition, 48(2), 2013, pp. 147-174; Luke March, ‘Left and right
populism compared: The British case,’ The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 19(2), 2017, pp. 282-
303; Kurt Weyland, ‘Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe,’ Comparative Politics, 31(4), 1999,
pp. 379-401.
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
has rather revealed the deeply political character of scientific input in critical junctures
as well as the very political agency of experts themselves. Take for example the rather
contrasting cases of Anders Tegnell in Sweden and Professor Sotiris Tsiodras in
Greece, both epidemiologists that were put at key positions for shaping emergency
policies during the pandemic in their countries, gaining unprecedented visibility and
prominence in the public sphere. The former is well known for his heterodox views
and is regarded as co-responsible for Sweden’s more relaxed approach and reluctance
to enter a full lockdown, as most other European and Western countries have done.
The latter has been praised for his role in imposing a rather early and quite tight
lockdown in Greece. Tsiodras has been largely regarded as being in tune with World
Health Organisation (WHO) suggestions and the international expert community,
while he is described as being globally acclaimed for his contribution to containing the
virus in Greece. Tegnell, on the other hand, has become the symbol of Swedish
exceptionality in a country where a nationalist framing of the current crisis, ‘with
Sweden portrayed as more rational and less prone to panic and “alarmism” than the
rest of the world,’ as Liv Sunnercrantz notes, has become the mainstream narrative,
embraced by most parties and the media. If one includes the case of the UK here and
the role of certain experts in the management of the crisis, from Professor Neil
Ferguson and his group at Imperial College London to the once called ‘nudge unit,’
things become further complicated. It becomes apparent then that exactly as populists
do not form a coherent bloc in the pandemic, experts too cannot be treated as a
unified front,
thus the dichotomy ‘experts vs populistsis exposed as fundamentally
flawed once more in the context of the ongoing crisis. Moving beyond that to the
actual interaction between populists and experts in recent months, we observe that
the majority of populist actors in government have actually relied on expert
knowledge as well and aimed to ground their decision-making on expert consultation
and scientific input. Those that attacked heterodox experts, seem to have done so
driven more by their authoritarian tendencies and an intolerance to critique (e.g.
Erdoğan in Turkey), not in order to defend ‘the people’ against a supposed ‘expert
elite,’ which again brings us to the previous point about neglecting or downplaying
certain threats to democracy in the current conjuncture.
What’s next for democracy and populism in a post-COVID-19 world?
So, if this is how things seem to be morphing so far, what can one expect for democracy and
populism in a post-COVID-19 world, assuming that the optimist scenario prevails and we are
currently on a steady path towards an exodus from COVID-19 lockdown and a return to
some kind of social interaction that feels closer to ‘normal’? We are afraid that the
underwhelming response here is that there is no clear answer, no easy prediction that could
apply broadly. Given that populism is a complex and diverse phenomenon deeply embedded
in representative democracy, a lot will depend in the coming months and years on how the
socio-economic consequences of the pandemic are handled by governments, how the
economic burdens of the long road to recovery are allocated and how certain stimuli and aid
packages are distributed. If a sense of inequality and socio-economic injustice is cultivated in
certain countries, if citizens feel that decision making during the pandemic is lacking in
accountability, transparency and democratic legitimation, then one should expect that this
would create fertile ground for various populist actors to represent and unify social grievances
against the political elites held responsible if, of course, such credible actors do emerge. And
this might actually be a good thing for democracy, as long as such populist projects are
articulated with an inclusive and pluralistic vision of society. On the other hand, no one can
guarantee that accumulated frustrations will not be channelled through exclusionary
discourses that scapegoat immigrants or even target the more vulnerable members of society,
Jan Zielonka, ‘Who Should Be in Charge: Doctors or Politicians?’ openDemocracy, 21 April 2020, (accessed 9
June 2020).
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flirting with a dystopian social Darwinism (‘survival of the strongest/younger for the sake of
the economy’). This is why, drawing on the comparative findings of this report, we believe
that attention in the ongoing debate should shift from the vague and often misrepresented
‘threat’ of populism, to more imminent and tangible dangers, such as authoritarianism,
nativism, nationalism, racism and indeed the risk of the sedimentation of certain emergency
policies curtailing fundamental freedoms and rights currently enacted by both populist and
non-populist actors, by both radical and moderate governments across the world in the fight
against COVID-19.
* * *
Giorgos Katsambekis is Lecturer in European and International Politics at Loughborough
University, where he convenes the Populism Research Group. He recently co-edited the
volume The Populist Radical Left in Europe (Routledge, 2019). Contact:
Yannis Stavrakakis is Professor of Political Discourse Analysis at the School of Political Sciences
of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, where he directs the POPULISMUS
observatory. Contact:
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Paula Biglieri
1. Argentina
On December 10th, 2019, Alberto Fernández (AF) came into office in Argentina. A month and
a half earlier he had won the presidential elections, beating in the first round the anti-populist
(neoliberal/conservative) coalition led by Mauricio Macri (MM), who was attempting to be re-
elected. AF’s candidacy was decided by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
(CFK), who until that moment was leading the polls, but without being able to amalgamate the
whole variety of popular political forces and therefore avoiding a candidature. Once CFK
stepped aside to run as vice-president, a re-articulation of the popular field took place allowing
a new version of left populism to take power once again in the country.
The first policies implemented by AF (let us remember that in Argentina the executive involves
a one-person power) made clear that his government would operate within the populist
(Peronist) tradition of inclusion by expanding the local market and the scope of rights, creating
institutions to reinforce equality as the fundamental aspect of social justice. For instance, he
decided to re-categorize the areas of Health,
Labour, Science and Technology, and Culture
back to Ministries (MM had degraded them from Ministries to Secretaries following an
austerity programme) and also created the Ministry of Housing and Territory Development
(to mainly but not exclusively ameliorate the precarity of slums) and the Ministry of Women,
Gender and Diversity (to attend to the demands of the powerful feminist movement; in fact,
later on he announced that he would also send a bill to the National Congress to legalise
Among other socio-economic measures taken, his government launched a
programme to guarantee the right to feeding, ‘freezed’ gas and electricity rates, highway tolls
and public transport fares, raised the lower salaries of both the private and the public sectors,
raised the lowest pensions, and also launched a programme of tax deferral to facilitate small
and medium sized enterprises to face the problematic economic situation, etc. He also
announced a restructuring process concerning foreign debt to face the new crisis (MM had
the astonishing record of having ‘reprofiled’ this is the exact word that his Minister of
Finance used the foreign debt incurred during his own government and getting the IMF’s
biggest ever bailout of $56 billon).
This was the general context in which the populist government of AF found itself when it was
forced to deal with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 20th AF declared an
obligatory and strict lockdown for the entire population when Argentina still faced merely 128
cases of infection and three deaths.
This ‘early’ lockdown was decided on the basis of the
advice given by a ‘committee of experts’ created ad hoc for the pandemic (composed of
epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists
) and the political agreement reached with
Three months later with the outbreak of the pandemic, the decision to reinstate the Ministry of Health turned
to be an important factor of political benefit for the government.
Uki Goñi, ‘Argentina set to become first major Latin American country to legalise abortion,’ The Guardian, 1
March 2020,
american-country-to-legalise-abortion (accessed 13 May, 2020).
The Minister of Finance dealing with the restructuration of the foreign debt is Martín Guzmán, a disciple of
Joseph Stiglitz with whom he used to work until he accepted to be part of AF’s government. As a matter of fact,
Guzmán has recently received the explicit support of a group of world’s leading economists headed by Stiglitz
and followed by Thomas Piketty and Jeffrey Sachs among others. See LPO, ‘Nobel Prize winning economists
Stiglitz, Phelps endorsed Argentina’s debt repayment proposal,’ La Política On Line, 7 May 2020,
argentinas-debt-repayment-proposal/ (accessed 13 May, 2020).
The lockdown is still on (at the moment, May 2020, two months so far). However, it has been lighted in
different regions of the country free of COVID-19, not in Buenos Aires city and surrounding where the 86% of
the cases have been detected.
It is worth to mention that on March 1st, in the inaugural speech delivered by AF to open the year of ordinary
sessions of the National Congress, when he was highlighting the reinstatement of the Ministry of Science and
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
the governors of different provinces. If we observe the scene where AF announced the
extension of the lockdown on May 8th, we encounter, on the one hand, two scientists of the
committee sitting behind him and, on the other hand, two politicians sitting by his side (on his
left the governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, the Peronist Axel Kicillof and, on his right,
the governor of the City of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who belongs to the
moderate sector of the anti-populist coalition that took MM to the presidency in 2015). These
have been the two axes that functioned as a source of legitimation of the sanitary measures:
the political coordination with the different governors of provinces and cities including those
political opponents who have executive positions and the ‘committee of expert scientists’.
Polls have shown that they have worked quite well as they bring out very favourable numbers
for AF and the way in which he is dealing with the pandemic. The rates of approval for the
president are high, as well as, the rates of approval of the ‘scientists.’ The same can be said
regarding the decision of declaring a strict lockdown.
If we look at the general political orientation of the national government, we can affirm that
indeed it has to do with the way in which AF is dealing with the pandemic. The political
argument in face of the pandemic has been to counterpose the importance of a ‘caring State’
determined to intervene in different areas vs. the neoliberal logic of individual sacrifice for the
sake of the market’s health. In a way, the pandemic has reinforced the traditional importance
given by Peronism to the State to tip the scales in favour of the dispossessed. The best example
is the implementation of the Family Emergency Income, that is, an exceptional basic income
for all those who cannot secure one due to the lockdown.
Last but not least, although there has been a political agreement on how to deal with the
pandemic with governors who belong to the anti-populist political landscape of MM, the
antagonistic division of the social space into two positions of enunciation, two opposing camps
(us, the people vs. them, the oligarchy, the rich, etc.), has not come to an end. On the one
hand, along with different leaders and political activists of the populist field, AF has insisted on
the importance of a social and ‘caring’ oriented State and has harshly criticized MM’s former
government, blaming it for the cuts in the national health system, for the cuts in the Malbrán
Institute (the national institute for research in microbiology, which has been a key institution
to face the pandemic), for creating a new debt crisis, high inflation and unemployment, etc.
On the other hand, the response from the hard wing of the anti-populist coalition has been
marked by accusations against the government that they have usually associated with populism;
these have centred on: corruption (the government is paying high prices for the food
distributed to the most vulnerable popular sectors), authoritarianism (the lockdown indicates
an excessive disrespect for basic individual rights and an excuse to control production and the
markets or, at least, to sidestep the private sector), etc. For instance, on 30 April, a well
spread fake news warning about the massive release of prisoners unleashed an important pan-
banging in major cities. All in all, the populist-antipopulist division continues to be the main
political mark of Argentinean politics and has remained prominent during the crisis triggered
by the COVID-19 pandemic. Within this framework, the policies implemented by the newly
appointed President AF seem to directly contradict most of the stereotypes circulating
internationally on the way populism has dealt with the crisis and may also indicate the huge
distance between left and right-wing populism.
Technology, the president stated that ‘his government would be a government of scientists, and not of CEOs’
(antagonizing with former government of MM).
Cecilia Camarano, ‘La cuarentena sigue hasta el 24 de mayo con una reapertura progresiva en todo el país
menos en el AMBA,’ Ámbito Financiero, 8 May 2020,
mayo-una-reapertura-progresiva-todo-el-pais-menos-el-amba-n5101093 (accessed 13 May, 2020).
‘La encuesta que sigue Alberto Fernández,’ Página Política, 10 May 2020, (accessed 18 May,
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* * *
Paula Biglieri holds a Political and Social Science Ph.D. degree from the National Autonomous
University of Mexico (UNAM). She is a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical
Research Board (CONICET) in Argentina and she is also the head of the Cátedra Libre Ernesto
Laclau of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires.
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Kurt Sengul
2. Australia
With the need for global cooperation, technocratic driven responses, the prominent role of
scientific expert advice, large-scale expansion of government welfare programs, and the
central role of international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), all
in response to the COVID-19 crisis, it may have been safe to assume that this would be a
conjuncture ripe for populist politics. Indeed, anti-elite and anti-expert sentiments that are
frequently associated (often pejoratively) with populism have played a certain role in
Australia’s most prominent populist radical right (PRR) party. Yet One Nation’s and its leader,
Pauline Hanson’s response to COVID-19, has largely been characterised by nativism. Nativism,
which Cas Mudde notes, combines nationalism with xenophobia has been central to One
Nation’s response to COVID-19.
One Nation’s response to the crisis can largely be described as exploitation. Through their
political communication and policy announcements, One Nation have looked to aggressively
pursue a range of exclusionary nativist policies in reaction to the crisis. This should not come
as a surprise. It is widely accepted that the populist radical right are adept at both exploiting
and manufacturing crises for political purposes.
As Mudde rightly points out, the
contemporary populist radical right has profited politically and electorally from the
exploitation of the three most significant 21st century crises: The September 11 Terrorist
Attacks, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the 2015 ‘refugee crisis.’
It is clear that One
Nation viewed COVID-19 as an opportunity to legitimise many of their draconian and
exclusionary policies. In this sense, the party’s response to the crisis has followed a relatively
predictable script.
In particular, Pauline Hanson has revived the Sinophobic rhetoric that was prominent during
her first iteration as a parliamentarian in the late 1990s. Hanson has echoed Donald Trump’s
anti-Chinese language, almost exclusively referring to COVID-19 as the ‘The Chinese Virus”.’
Her Sinophobic and racist rhetoric has undoubtedly been the strongest in Australian politics.
While, at the same time, there have been numerous racist attacks targeting Chinese people in
the country.
Hanson’s rhetoric and the language of the PRR are consequential. The populist radical right
have been increasingly mainstreamed and normalised in the 21st century, with their ideas
gaining currency in mainstream circles. Despite their relatively modest electoral presence in
Australia, parties like Hanson’s One Nation are consistently given a disproportionately large
media platform to voice their ideas.
One Nation clearly seek to exploit and fuel anti-Chinese sentiment to prosecute their
longstanding nativist policies around immigration and foreign investment. Throughout the
current crisis, One Nation have called for Australia to withdraw from its free trade agreement
with China, have urged Australians to boycott products made in China, called for the
immediate suspension of all Chinese foreign investment into Australia, suggested that
backpackers and foreign workers should be denied welfare assistance, called for Australia to
Cas Mudde, The Far Right Today, 2019, Cambridge: Polity.
Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, 2016, California:
Stanford University Press; Cas Mudde & Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, 2017,
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mudde, The Far Right Today.
Jason Fang, Samuel Yang & Bang Xiao, ‘Racist coronavirus graffiti sprayed on Chinese-Australian family’s home
in Melbourne,’ ABC, 22 April 2020,
on-family-home-in-melbourne/12170162 (accessed 1 June 2020).
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cease all foreign aid, and floated the unfounded conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 virus
was developed in a Chinese laboratory.
Hanson’s populist rhetoric has been most frequently articulated through her attacks on
international organisations like the World Health Organisation and United Nations (UN).
Hanson has railed against ‘corrupt globalist bureaucracies like the United Nations and World
Health Organisation…[which] act as propaganda arm of the Chinese Government’ and has
called for Australia to ‘leave the UN’ and ‘take back our sovereignty.’ Further arguing that:
‘It’s time to call this out and make sure the United Nations and its left-wing allies can’t use
this tragedy to squeeze more money from struggling Australians.’
Yet, like many of her contemporaries on the populist radical right, One Nation’s response to
the COVID-19 crisis has been somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, Hanson and One
Nation have sought to exploit and capitalise on the crisis to further their nativist agenda, while
on the other, they have sought to downplay the severity of the virus and resisted social
distancing and lockdown laws.
While largely supportive of the Australian (centre-right) government’s economic response to
COVID-19, Hanson and One Nation have been more resistant to ‘ridiculous nanny state’
social distancing laws and lockdown enforcement. For example, Hanson has stated that: ‘No
premier of any state is going to tell me whether I can go and see someone or not [...] I’m going
to go and lie down in my paddock tomorrow, let’s see if they will turn up and fine me because
I’m out there in my paddock laying on the ground.’
One Nation NSW leader Mark Latham has echoed Donald Trump’s language around ‘the cure
being worse than disease,’ suggesting that the lockdowns have gone too far and that the
economic costs of COVID-19 will be more dangerous than the virus itself. Latham’s populism
has predominately manifested through his critique of the role of expert advice in the handling
of COVID-19, arguing that ‘our country has been a dictatorship of the health bureaucrats.’
As nations start to reflect on a post-COVID-19 world, it’s important to consider how the
populist radical right have historically exploited crises and scapegoated marginalised
As the economic implications of COVID-19 are further realised, with many
countries forecasted to experience significant financial downturns, we may see populist
responses of the left and right come to the fore. In the Australian context, One Nation have
already started the process of scapegoating immigrants and poor people, promoting welfare
chauvinism and hinting towards austerity measures. It’s unclear how successful the PRR will
be in profiting from the COVID-19 crisis, but the case of Australia shows that they will
certainly endeavour to exploit it.
* * *
Kurt Sengul is a PhD Candidate in the School of Creative Industries at the University of
Newcastle, Australia. His doctoral research focuses the communication of Australian populist
politician, Pauline Hanson and he has published in the area of populist communication and
political public relations.
Patrick Lenton, ‘Pauline Hanson has decided to lay in a paddock to protest social distancing rules,’ Junkee, 2
April 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
Ruth Wodak, The Politics of fear: What right-wing populist discourses mean, 2015, London: Sage.
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Benjamin De Cleen & Jana Goyvaerts
3. Belgium
Belgium has two parties for which populism plays a significant role: the radical right Vlaams
Belang (Flemish Interest, VB) and the radical left Partij van de Arbeid van België / Parti du
Travail de Belgique (Party of Labour of Belgium, PVDA-PTB).
Both of these opposition
parties have been vocal critics of the government’s management of the COVID-19 crisis, with
their arguments having a clear populist slant.
True to their reputation, during the pandemic both parties have shown themselves to be very
active in opposition. In COVID-19 times, they have targeted mainly the federal Belgian
government, which is the level at which decisions about the lockdown are made. The federal
government is currently made up of the francophone liberal party MR, the Flemish liberals of
Open Vld and the Flemish Christian-democratic CD&V. At the moment of the COVID-19
outbreak in Belgium, this government was a caretaker government left at the helm of the
country after the May 2019 elections, with negotiations on the formation of a new government
stalling. The caretaker government is far from having a majority in the parliament (38 out of
150 seats). To allow the executive to take exceptional measures, on the 15th of March, the
government acquired support for its actions related to COVID-19 for a six-month period
from all opposition parties, except for VB and PVDA-PTB, who were excluded from
Both parties have castigated the political elite as incompetent for its management of the
pandemic. The procurement of face masks, in particular, has been the object of much criticism,
as Belgium’s acquisition and delivery of masks faced numerous delays and problems. PVDA-
PTB and VB have presented themselves as the voice of the working people, demanding better
protection measures as well as more financial support for workers and small entrepreneurs.
They also procured protective masks and distributed these among (health)care workers.
PVDA-PTB’s strategy is clearly marked by its socialism.
The party presents itself as the voice
and protector of healthcare workers, particularly of the lesser paid categories. Like other
parties, the party speaks of healthcare workers as ‘heroes,’ but it demands higher salaries for
them and a better financing of the healthcare and elderly care system. Referring to the daily
routine of applauding healthcare workers, one of its slogans noted that ‘After the applause,
it’s time for a higher budget.’
This budget, argues PVDA-PTB, should come from the rich: ‘get the money where it really is,
at the top of society.’ A central demand of the party has been a ‘corona tax’ on what it calls
‘the super-super rich,’ proposing a one-time 5% tax on fortunes above three million euros.
Such a ‘corona tax’ is seen as a way to ensure that ‘ordinary Joe [Jan met de pet] doesn’t have
to pay’.
Following a distinctly populist strategy, the party also turned the salaries of politicians
into a symbol, demanding they give away half of their salary for May 2020 to help deal with
the COVID-19 pandemic. The party opposes the use of emergency budget for multinational
companies and the rich and speaks out against the easing of corona measures at workplaces
that would endanger workers’ health.
The VB too uses the COVID-19 crisis to highlight the political elite’s incompetence, castigating
the fact that Belgium has considerable trouble procuring facial masks but also accusing the
Pauwels, Teun, Populism in Western Europe: Comparing Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, 2014, London:
Routledge; Bram Wauters & Gilles Pittoors, ‘Populist Party Leaders in Belgium: an Analysis of VB and PVDA-
PTB,’ Polish Political Science Review, 7(1), 2019, pp. 1-23.
Pascal Delwit, PTB-Nouvelle gauche, vieille recette, 2016, Liège: Editions Luc Pire.
Raoul Hedebouw, Facebook video, 6 May 2020, (accessed 28 May 2020).
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government and virologists of lying to the population about the importance of these masks in
the early days of the pandemic. Indeed, much more so than PVDA-PTB, the VB questions the
legitimacy of the virologists leading Belgium’s pandemic measures. At the same time, in
demanding strict measures and even handing out facial masks, the VB’s response to COVID-
19 stands in marked contrast to that of certain other right-wing populists such as Trump and
Bolsonaro who have been accused of underplaying the health risks of the new virus and of
putting economic interests above public health.
Whilst presenting itself as the ‘voice of the people’, compared to the socialist PVDA-PTB, the
VB has less clearly defined (and much less redistribution-focused) recipes for dealing with
COVID-19 and its fallout on the socio-economic level. As a radical right party, the VB does
link COVID-19 to its nativist demands. As it does in discussions on every other political issue,
the party criticizes the federal government and uses COVID-19 to push for Flemish autonomy.
The party also calls the temporary and partial closure of intra-European borders as a proof of
how ‘borders save people,’ and criticizes China for its role in the pandemic.
VB has also attempted to bring its nativist rejection of diversity into the public debate on
COVID-19, by for example opposing the release of asylum seekers from closed asylum centres
(and of prisoners from prisons) where COVID-19 measures could not be maintained. The
party also shared videos of people of foreign descent not respecting social distancing measures,
calling out the double standards that are supposedly being applied in allowing these ‘foreigners’
more leeway than ‘the Flemish.’ Combining nativism with authoritarianism, the VB also
demanded a zero-tolerance policy and support for the police in dealing with ‘corona-spitters
(again, a term almost exclusively applied to people of migrant descent) and with young people
rioting in Brussels in response to the death of a teenager in a collision with a police car after
fleeing from a police control during the peak of the lockdown. Filip Dewinter also criticized
the use of Arab in posters informing citizens about protective measures. Some of these
demands show how the party’s concerns about health seem to not extend to certain
categories of people, or are at least subordinate to its nativist and authoritarian ideas.
Turning our attention to the broader public debate, Belgium has seen some discussions about
how populist governments deal with the pandemic and on the impact of COVID-19 on the
fate of populist parties. In the most important Dutch-speaking newspapers, in the period
between 13 March (the start of the lockdown) and 13 May we found a total of 99 articles
referring to populism.
One striking finding is that in these articles the term ‘populism’ is
hardly used to refer to the politics of VB or PVDA-PTB. More broadly speaking, VB and PVDA-
PTB are quite absent from the public debate in general: despite their efforts, the focus on
COVID-19 in public debate and the media has made the two parties less visible than in the
period right before the outbreak of the pandemic. This also holds true for other opposition
parties and is a consequence of the focus on the spread and effects of the virus as well as of
the temporary suspension of attempts to form a government (as corona measures are
loosened, ‘normal’ political debate has quickly returned).
Instead, many mentions of ‘populism’ refer to foreign populist political actors, mainly in critical
evaluations of populist leaders’ management of the pandemic, with Trump and Bolsonaro
getting most extensive attention. Other populist parties in government are much less
discussed in terms of populism, including the populist parties that are part of the governments
of two of the most hard-hit countries, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain.
As was the case elsewhere, Belgium also saw broader discussions on the impact of COVID-
19 on populism. Several articles speculate on how the world will be afterwards. Will we
‘return to normal’, and is that desirable or not? What will the post-corona world look like?
De Morgen (29), De Standaard (32), De Tijd (19), Het Nieuwsblad (11), Het Laatste Nieuws (8)
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Populism is a rather central element in these reflections, usually considered as a worrying
Another recurring theme in the debate is the supposed tension between populism and
scientific expertise. Populists are portrayed as the ones opposing the science-based
management of COVID-19. The authority of the expert panel (including scientists) appointed
by the government to develop an exit strategy is deemed to be threatened by ‘the populists.’
Some voices also occasionally warn against the increasing presence of these experts in the
public debate, signalling that they are taking over the role of politicians to a worrying extent.
All in all, and as was the case before the COVID-19 crisis,32 most usage of the signifier
‘populism’ during the COVID-19 pandemic is characterized by an anti-populist attitude that
sees populism as a threat to democracy, and that tends to use the term populism mainly to
refer to the radical right.33 The COVID-19 pandemic is seen as a watershed moment, and one
that stirs up hope about the demise of populism as well as fears about how populists might
exploit the crisis. At the same time, it has certainly not been a watershed moment in terms of
how populism is discussed in public debate. Nor has it had much visible impact on the
strategies of populist forces in Belgium or on their popularity. Even if it made them less
prominent in mainstream media and political debate temporarily during the peak of the
pandemic (March-May 2020), this did not result in a declining popularity, both of them scoring
higher than their 2019 election result in a survey undertaken in Flanders in April 2020.34
* * *
Benjamin De Cleen is Associate Professor at the Communication Studies Department of the
Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) where he is the coordinator of the English-language master
on Journalism and Media in Europe. His work has focused on radical right rhetoric, and on the
discourse-theoretical conceptualization of populism, nationalism and conservatism. Benjamin
is the chair of the Centre for Democracy, Signification and Resistance (DESIRE).
Jana Goyvaerts is a teaching assistant and PhD student at the Communication Studies
Department of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Her doctoral research focuses on
discourses about populism and on how the meaning of populism is constructed by journalists,
politicians and academics. She graduated in 2017 from the VUB with a thesis on the links
between populism and social media.
32 Jana Goyvaerts & Benjamin De Cleen, ‘Media, Anti-Populist Discourse and the Dynamics of the Populism
Debate,’ in Krämer, Benjamin & Holtz-Bacha, Christina (Eds) Handbook of Populism and the Media, 2020, Baden-
Baden: Nomos Verlag, pp. 83-108.
33 See also Yannis Stavrakakis et al., ‘Populism, anti-populism and crisis,’ Contemporary Political Theory, 17(1), 2018,
pp. 4-27; Benjamin Moffit, ‘The Populism/Anti-Populism Divide in Western Europe,’ Democratic Theory, 5(2), 2018,
pp. 1-16; Benjamin De Cleen, Jason Glynos & Aurelien Mondon, ‘Critical research on populism: Nine rules of
engagement,’ Organization, 25(5), 2018, pp. 649-661.
34 Jan-Frederik Abbeloos, ‘Het centrum verschraalt,’ De Standaard, 23 May 2020, (accessed 28 May 2020).
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Thomás Zicman de Barros
4. Brazil
As the proverb says, the best way to weather the storm is to be the storm. This may be a
good way to characterize populism as a political style, and Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s way of
governing in particular. It may also help to explain why the COVID-19 pandemic may put his
power in danger. Since his election, Bolsonaro had been capable of setting and framing the
political agenda in Brazil. As a populist, he was not only a product of an economic and political
crisis, but an actor actively triggering crisis.
His statements and actions are willing to choc,
to bring attention to a (frequently fictious) wrong in society, to deepen the antagonism against
adversaries and institutions he scapegoats and, in this way, to change the coordinates of what
is normal politics. The coronavirus pandemic, however, inaugurated a new situation. It has
operated as the psychoanalytic ‘real’ that Bolsonaro may not be able to symbolize, generating
a hurricane possibly beyond his control.
Despite the usefulness of the concept of populism to interpret Bolsonaro’s government during
the pandemic, this is not an uncontroversial notion. Although there is a growing agreement
within the Brazilian public sphere that Bolsonaro is a populist leader, there is very little
consensus on why this is the case. The reasons pundits label him as a populist do vary
immensely. Notwithstanding the careful advancements to define populism as a political logic
or style by specialists, in lay communication populism is simply a pejorative term. Its meaning
varies according to the smear one needs to assign to political adversaries at certain moments.
Nevertheless, instead of being a problem, this cacophony may contribute to an understanding
of Bolsonaro’s activity in the context of the pandemic.
For this text, I analysed all uses of the term ‘populism’ in two important Brazilian newspapers
Folha de S. Paulo and O Estado de S. Paulo from the first confirmed death by COVID-19 on
March 17th to May 17th 2020, when the country reached 20 thousand registered fatalities.
From this research, I can identify four main uses of the term: populism as anti-scientism,
populism as demagogic opportunism, populism as authoritarianism and populism as
irresponsive economic policies.
The presentation of populism in opposition to science is now frequent in Brazilian press, as it
is in many Western countries, but this has been something rather new for the country.
particular, this is due to Bolsonaro’s own approach to the pandemic. Initially, being informed
by far-right ideologues and inspired by Donald Trump, Bolsonaro simply dismissed the crisis
as ‘hysteria’ or a ‘little cold.’
He suggested that less than a thousand people would die because
of the virus. The most vulnerable, he said, could be easily healed by hydroxychloroquine.
Quarantine would unnecessarily hurt the economy. The president fired two health ministers
in less than a month because, following the advice of the World Health Organisation, they
defended social distancing measures and did not support generalized use of untested medicine.
All those who defended some kind of lock-down, including far-right populist governors who
had previously supported Bolsonaro, were attacked as ‘traitors’ and even ‘communists.’ That
said, the association between populism and anti-scientism is not always universally accepted.
For instance, some pundits indicate that other world leaders commonly considered as far-
Benjamin Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation, 2016, California:
Stanford University Press, pp. 113-32.
For one reading on the psychoanalytic notion of the ‘real’ applied to politics, check Yannis Stavrakakis, The
Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics, 2007, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 5-7.
Érica Fraga, ‘Coronavírus pode mostrar o risco de políticos que desprezam ciência, diz economista,’ Folha de S.
Paulo, 17 March 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
Jair Bolsonaro, ‘Pronunciamento Oficial do Presidente da República,’ 24 March 2020, 1:30-3:40, (accessed 1 June 2020).
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right populist had followed a different path, suggesting that there could be various degrees of
‘anti-scientism’ in populism.
The case for populism as demagogic opportunism comes from the idea that, foreseeing the
inevitable crisis, in a macabre calculation, Bolsonaro decided that saving jobs in the short-run
was more important than saving human lives.
Brazil can’t stop!,’ he said, hoping that a working
economy could preserve his approval ratings. Yet, the association between populism and
demagogy is problematic. Demagogy, usually linked to vague notions of manipulation and
insincerity, is hard to measure. In the case of Bolsonaro, even when confronted with the
severity of the crisis and Trump’s backtracking on dismissing the pandemic, he seems to
sincerely follow a far-right ideology that disregards human lives, banalizes death and advocates
for a society governed by the law of the strongest. Sincere or demagogic, though, what matters
is that prioritizing the economy was a failed strategy. By choosing production over health,
Bolsonaro did not protect jobs, but rather led deaths to skyrocket and further impacted the
economy. Consequently, despite his moves to deny his responsibility for the deaths My
middle name is Messias [Messiah], but I do no miracles! as well as for recession, Bolsonaro’s
disapproval ratings increased. While from the outbreak of the crisis until mid-May 2020 his
approval ratings only slightly decreased, namely moving from 29% to 24% on average, those
dissatisfied with his government moved from 37% to 54%. It led old allies to abandon him and
calls for his impeachment to multiply.
The idea of populism as authoritarianism grew due to Bolsonaro’s reaction to this increasing
Accosted, he organized rallies during the pandemic, mobilizing his basis against
Congress, the Supreme Court and other judiciary institutions currently investigating his family.
According to Sergio Moro, Bolsonaro’s popular but controversial former justice minister who
deserted the government at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, by threatening the
institutions the president has become a populistwho wants to be above the law’.
Bolsonaro even suggested arming his militants, constantly flirting with the idea of a coup d’état.
Howbeit, although this association between populism and authoritarianism is not new, it is
hard to sustain. Not only there are authoritarians who are not populist, but there are also
populists who are not authoritarian an obvious neighbouring example being Argentina’s
Alberto Fernández. In any case, it is worth noticing that authoritarian threats were not
Bolsonaro’s only reaction to his loss of support. To survive, his government split between two
strategies: rupture and normalization. Normalization, here, means that Bolsonaro an
outsider who packed his cabinet with military men instead of politicians may try to construct
a more solid parliamentary base. Curiously enough, on the very same day Bolsonaro claimed
to a crowd that he would never negotiate with Congress, he sat down with traditional crony
politicians and gave them control over key governmental agencies and their budgets.
The association between populism and irresponsible inflationary welfare measures is not new
in Brazil.
Currently, it resurfaces precisely because of the way that Bolsonaro dealt with
other political parties. The hypothesis here is that sharing power could possibly imply breaking
Fábio Zanini & Bruno Benevides, ‘Ao combater restrições, Bolsonaro se isola até entre aliados,’ Folha de S.
Paulo, 25 March 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
Affonso Celso Pastore, ‘Estadistas, populistas e a pandemia,’ O Estado de S. Paulo, 26 April 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
‘Golpista que mia,’ Folha de S. Paulo, 20 April 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
Sergio Moro, ‘Contra o populismo’, O Globo, 3 June 2020, (accessed 4
June 2020).
Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, ‘Populism and (Liberal) Democracy: A Framework for Analysis,’ in
Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (Eds) Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for
Democracy?, 2012, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 4-5n.
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with austerity. Hence, some pundits have indicated that Bolsonaro could only now make a
‘populist turn’, relaxing austerity in order to survive.44
If all four lay uses of the term in the press present conceptual and other problems while also
capturing the dynamics of the COVID-19 conjuncture, the last one is especially interesting.
This is the case because the hypothesis it invokes that of Bolsonaro moving towards some
kind of ‘normalcy’ and establishing, furthermore, a set of welfare policies – would demand an
unlikely transformation in the affective dynamics of his discourse.
Considering populism as a political style that opposes the people against the elites and can
assume many ideological contents, already from its inception, Bolsonaro’s government is
characterized by what one could call ‘austerity populism.’ It is true that Bolsonaro had never
adopted a pro-market attitude before the 2018 elections. He was simply a fringe far-right
reactionary congressman, praising the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil until the 1980s
and advocating for paramilitary violence to solve social issues. Still, Bolsonaro’s move towards
pro-market rhetoric to seduce big businessmen articulated a new pro-austerity discourse that
accentuated his appeal to the law of the strongest. This austerity populism was voiced by
Bolsonaro’s finance minister, who antagonized the parasites’, living on the state, the corrupt
bureaucrats and creatures from the political swamp who associated against the Brazilian people’.45
The main problem of this discourse is that it does not carry within it any constructive
proposition. It consists only in breaking with traditional politics and the left, undoing all that
was conquered in thirty years of democracy, and replacing it by some kind of ‘state of nature’.
In this sense, Bolsonaro’s movement should be interpreted as embodying an acephalous death
drive, a reinless will to power.46
Through eventual removal, increased authoritarianism or a certain step towards ‘normalcy’,
what is clear is that the storm caused by the coronavirus will mark a pivotal moment in the
choreography of Bolsonaro’s government.
* * *
Thomás Zicman de Barros is a college teacher at Sciences Po Paris and a PhD candidate in
Political Theory at the Center of Political Research (CEVIPOF). He develops his research
activity on the interdisciplinary articulation between Political Theory and Psychoanalysis,
studying pre-populist protest movements and the role of affects in the construction of
collective identities.
44 Fernando Canzian, ‘A pergunta agora é quanto Paulo Guedes dura,’ Folha de S. Paulo, 24 April 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
45 Paulo Guedes, ‘Cerimônia de transmissão de cargo ao Ministro da Economia,’ YouTube, 2 January 2019, 9:45-
10:00, (accessed 1 June 2020).
46 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Economic Problem of Masochism,’ in The Ego and the Id and Other Works, The Standard
Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 19, 1961 [1924], London: The Hogarth Press, p. 163.
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Laura Chazel
5. France
On 16 March 2020, Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, declared that his
country was ‘at war’ against the new COVID-19 virus, a declaration followed by the
implementation of a lockdown policy that partly ended on 11 May. Since the beginning of the
crisis, Macron had expressed his fears concerning the lack of coordination at the European
level which could lead to the consolidation of populism around the world. Simultaneously, he
recalled the irresponsibility and the lack of solidarity of populists that ‘don’t protect you [in
times of] crisis [and] don’t protect you the next day.’47 Following a minimal definition of
populism, based on people-centrism and anti-elitism,48 two populist parties can be identified
in France: Marine Le Pen’s radical right Rassemblement national (National Rally, RN) and Jean-
Luc Mélenchon’s radical left France insoumise (Unbowed France, FI). Both mobilize a
people/elite dichotomy to address the crisis, and construct each of those categories in an
exclusionary or inclusionary way depending on their respective ideologies. During the same
period, the political establishment increased its anti-populist discourse in a bid to give more
legitimacy to experts.
Both the RN and FI called for respect of the lockdown while still criticizing the government’s
reaction considered as disorganized by Mélenchon, and as too permissive by Le Pen. They
both consider that the COVID-19 pandemic validates their respective ideologies, and they see
the crisis as an opportunity to build a ‘new world.’ According to them, the crisis: (1) shows
the failures of neo-liberalism; (2) validates the importance of regaining France’s lost
sovereignty; (3) reveals the authoritarian tendencies of liberalism; (4) highlights the failure of
the European Union. Although they both develop a sovereignist, anti-establishment and critical
discourse regarding globalization, the projects they defend differ.
The RN identifies globalization and open frontiers as the main culprits of the pandemic. Le
Pen continues to draw a people/elite dichotomy associated with an exclusionary frontier
between ‘native-born French’ and ‘immigrants.’ She argues that the government mismanaged
the crisis by giving priority to ‘migrants’ over residential care homes for senior citizens
(Ehpad), and by increasing violence after allowing some early-release of prisoners. According
to Le Pen, this (dis)organization testifies the ‘collapse of the sovereign and managing functions
of the State.’ Therefore, the government effectively ‘contribute[d] to deepen[ing] the
confidence divide between the French people and their ruling elites.’49 She insists on the fact
that the lockdown is not respected in sensitive urban zones and draws a new frontier between
‘disciplined native French people’ and ‘unruly immigrants.’50
On the other side, Mélenchon considers that the pandemic is due to an ‘ecological crisis.’ He
warns against the ‘shock doctrine’, which could lead to an authoritarian liberalism by imposing
anti-social measures and by adopting measures that threaten freedom such as the state of
health emergency and tracking. One can observe an important shift in his speech. Whereas in
2017 Mélenchon chose to leave aside the rhetoric of the left,51 he now mobilizes signifiers
47 Victor Mallet & Roula Khalaf, ‘FT Interview: Emmanuel Macron says it is time to think the unthinkable,’ Financial
Times, 16 April 2020, (accessed 13 May
48 Cas Mudde & Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, 2017, Oxford: Oxford University
Press; Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, 2005, London: Verso.
49 Interview of Marine Le Pen, CNEWS, 27 February 2020, (accessed 12 May 2020).
50 Max-Valentin Robert, ‘Nationalism in times of pandemic: How the radical and extreme-right framed the
COVID-19 crisis in France,’ BiLGi Prime Youth blog,
how-radical-and-extreme (accessed 12 May 2020).
51 Paolo Chiocchetti, ‘Make way for the people! Left-wing populism in the rhetoric of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s 2012
and 2017 presidential campaigns,’ in Giorgos Charalambous & Gregoris Ioannou (Eds) Left Radicalism and Populism
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
from socialist ideology: collectivism, planning, requisitioning. He adds to this rhetoric a post-
Marxist and Green dimension, for instance by explaining that the future world should be based
on ‘ecological collectivism.’ He draws three oppositions. Firstly, he continues to rely on an
opposition between a ‘German Europe’ and its ‘rogue leaders’ versus a ‘Latin Europe’ of
‘sincere Europeans.’52 He also attempts a reversal of the stigma by opposing ‘ideologues’ (the
liberals blinded by their ideology) to ‘organized pragmatists’ (the opposition represented by
FI). Thirdly, he opposes ‘liberals’ (‘every man for himself’), represented by Emmanuel Macron,
to ‘collectivists’ (‘all together’), represented by his movement. He continues to construct ‘the
people’ in an inclusionary way by deploying a strategy of ‘common causes’ which targets ‘the
weakest, the most isolated, the most destitute’ citizens facing the neo-liberal offensive.
Since the beginning of the crisis, mass media have regularly pointed out the ‘blindness’, the
‘denial’, and the opportunism of populists who would have ‘take[n] advantage of the anger.’53
More generally, the French establishment has warned against the ‘populist threat’ in three ways.
Firstly, by accusing populist actors of merely criticizing without putting forward any concrete
solutions. Secondly, by further emphasizing the role of experts in the public space. Both the
RN and FI responded to this ‘technocratization’ of the debate by condemning the ‘lies’ of the
executive and asked, once the crisis is over, the government to be accountable to the citizens.
This rhetoric is fuelled, and largely justified, by the controversies linked to the executive’s lies
revealed by Mediapart in April 202054 negation of the shortage of masks and circulation of
false information on the worthlessness of wearing masks to slow down the pandemic.
Mélenchon has also, repeatedly, warned against the dangers of a ‘lockdown of democracy’ and
the ‘omniscience of experts.’ Thirdly, populists have been accused of spreading conspiracy
theories according to which the virus has directly originated from a Chinese laboratory. In
fact, contrary to Mélenchon who rejects such ‘theories,’ Le Pen declared it was legitimate to
‘doubt’ and 40% of her voters think the virus was created ‘intentionally’ (this view is adopted
by only 19% of Mélenchon’s voters).55
The controversy around Didier Raoult, an international renowned infectious disease expert,
Professor of microbiology in Marseille, illustrates the debates around populism and expertise
well. His figure has been highly operationalised within conspiracy circles but also by populist
actors. Raoult began to gain notoriety after claiming he had found a treatment for COVID-19
based on chloroquine. He quickly became one of the favorite public personas in France. Often
accused of ‘health populism,’ he divides the medical and political establishment, mainly because
of his scientific methods, and is sometimes described as a ‘charlatan,’ others as a ‘genius.’ Both
in Europe, 2019, London: Routledge; Philippe Marlière, ‘Jean-Luc Mélenchon and France Insoumise: The
Manufacturing of Populism,’ in Giorgos Katsambekis & Alexandros Kioupkiolis (Eds) The Populist Radical Left in
Europe, 2019, London: Routlegde.
52Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ‘L’Europe allemande frappe encore l’Europe latine’, Blog de Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 5 May
la-presse-europeenne (accessed 11 May 2020).
53 Alain Frachon, ‘Le virus, les populistes et leurs modèles,’ 7 May 2020, Le Monde,;
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt, ‘Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson: radiographie de l'aveuglement des populistes face au
coronavirus’, 17 April 2020; Nouvel Obs,
coronavirus.html; Lucie Soullier, Abel Mestre, ‘Coronavirus: La France insoumise et le Rassemblement national
veulent profiter de la colère,’ 12 May 2020, Le Monde,
national-veulent-profiter-de-la-colere_6039375_823448.html (all accessed 12 May 2020).
54 Yann Philippin, Antton Rouget & Marine Turchi, ‘Masques: les preuves d'un mensonge d'État,’ Mediapart, 2
April 2020,
etat?onglet=full (accessed 20 May 2020).
55 ‘L'origine perçue du Covid-19. Ifop pour Fondation Jean Jaurès et L'Observatoire du conspirationnisme,
Fondation Jean Jaurès, March 2020, https://jean- (accessed 14
May 2020).
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RN (in favor of a generalized prescription of chloroquine) and FI (Mélenchon considers Raoult
‘too hated by “important” people to not arouse interest’)56 took him seriously. Given his
growing notoriety, the government also showed interest in his research despite the
controversies surrounding him. On 11 March, Raoult was chosen as a member to sit on the
COVID-19 scientific council (although he eventually refused), and Macron visited him on 9
April, qualifying him as a ‘great scientist.’ However, the presidency then insisted that this visit
did not mean ‘legitimizing [Raoult’s] scientific protocol.’57
In contrast to other European countries, in France the confidence in the executive has fallen
during the COVID-19 crisis. At the end of April, 80% of French people considered that the
government had made ‘mistakes’ during the crisis, and only 39% of the population considered
that it ‘managed the crisis well.’ In the absence of any serious and recent study on voting
intentions, it is difficult to estimate if populist actors will benefit from this crisis or not.
However, recent polls showed that the COVID-19 crisis increased distrust towards
globalization and ‘exacerbated the social and political divide.’58 If this tendency is confirmed in
the near future, it could indeed boost the popularity of populist actors in the long run.
* * *
Laura Chazel is a Ph.D student at Sciences Po Grenoble and the University Complutense of
Madrid. Her research focuses on the (re)construction of the notion of populism in/by left-
wing political parties with a focus on two movements: Podemos and La France insoumise. She
recently published two articles on the populist strategy adopted by Podemos in European
Politics and Society and Pôle Sud.
56 Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ‘Billet d’enquête – Échange avec le professeur Didier Raoult,Le Blog de Jean-Luc
Mélenchon, 26 March 2020,
raoult (accessed 11 May 2020).
57 Alain Auffray, Stéphanie Aubert & Stéphanie Harounyan, ‘Macron en consultation surprise à Marseille chez
Raoult,Libération, 9 April 2020,
marseille_1784783 (accessed 14 May 2020).
58 Ibid.
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Lazaros Karavasilis
6. Germany
In 2017, Germany stopped being the exception to the rule of radical right parties in Western
Europe, as the elections of 25th of September brought the party Alternative for Germany
(AfD) in third place with 12.6% of the vote. At the same time, AfD’s victory signalled the end
of the German political system’s containment strategy towards the far-right, which included a
range of actions, from the exclusion of those forces from political coalitions to their total
exclusion from the political system.59 Since then, the AfD has seen an upward trend in electoral
support at local elections, while remaining consistent at the national level.
One of the reasons for AfD’s endurance has been its ability to develop a discourse that
combines nationalist and populist elements. The party has articulated a notion of ‘the people’
defined in nationalist terms, by using the controversial term of ‘Das Volk,’ juxtaposed against
German and European ‘elites’ as well as immigrants. In this sense, AfD’s success often relied
on criticizing Angela Merkel’s government and the EU regarding immigration policy on the
domestic and the European level. This was the case until the first months of 2020, when the
state elections of Thuringia not only put AfD in a difficult position but shook the entire
German party system to its core. This was caused by the decision of both Christian-democrats
(CDU) and AfD to support the liberal candidate Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) for the position
of State President. This choice, that was effectively mainstreaming the far-right, by providing
AfD with crucial political leverage, caused national protests, including Merkel’s condemnation,
leading also to the resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s successor in CDU.60
It also marked the beginning of a crisis for the AfD itself that would continue with the COVID-
19 pandemic. At the same time that the virus started spreading in EU countries, AfD’s most
radical wing (coincidentally, in Thuringia, where the party has gained its biggest electoral
support thus far) was characterized as an ‘extreme entity’ by Germany’s intelligent services
and was put under surveillance. In response, AfD leaders asked from their radical wing to
cease its activities, but without expelling its members, which created further intra-party strife.
As the borders of EU countries started closing, AfD not only had to deal with internal issues,
but found itself in a peculiar situation. On the one hand, the closing of the borders seemed to
satisfy the party’s demands regarding uncontrolled immigration, as, according to the AfD, the
virus had proved the ‘failure of border-free globalization.’ On the other hand, the party was
effectively deprived of its most central point of criticism towards the Merkel government and
its key point of communication with parts of the electorate.61
In turn, the party reconfigured its discourse to focus on Merkel’s response to the pandemic,
accusing her of authoritarian behaviour based on the measures that were taken. Nevertheless,
this argumentation has not resonated with the party’s supporters who seem to have rather
resorted to conspiracy theories in order to explain the COVID-19 pandemic, rendering AfD’s
ability to act as an alternative political force, rather obsolete.62 On the other hand, Merkel’s
crisis management has left little room for contestation, as the Chancellor’s response to the
59 David Art, ‘The AfD and the end of Containment in Germany?’ German Politics and Society, 36(2), 2018, pp. 76-
60 Yasmeen Serhan, ‘A Far-Right Warning from Germany,The Atlantic, 19 February 2020,
(accessed 13 May 2020).
61 Emily Schultheis, ‘The Coronavirus Has Paralyzed Europe’s Far- Right,’ Foreign Policy, 14 April 2020, (accessed 14 May 2020).
Patrick Gensing, ‘Populisten und die Pandemie. Wenn plötzlich Sündenböcke fehlen,’, 23 March
2020, (accessed 14 May 2020).
62 Hans Georg-Betz, ‘In Germany, the radical right is hit hard by the virus,’ openDemocracy, 1 May 2020, (accessed 14
May 2020).
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pandemic has been well-received by the public, leading to a 74% rate of approval for her and
39% for her party, the CDU. Based on that, commentators have rushed to declare that
Merkel’s management has acted as a deterrent to AfD, arguing that ‘it is the hour of the
professionals and not populists’.63 In this direction, German media also project this assumption
to other countries, in order to make the argument that ‘dull populism has had its day’ and that
people have developed a renewed trust on experts, since ‘politics is no longer a game’ to be
In this context, it is true that developments in recent months have created an image of
stagnation for the AfD, as the party struggles with intra-party turmoil and its inability to
address the current crisis. However, despite its temporary setback, there is no guarantee that
the party will not be able to find its footing in the post-COVID-19 political environment, which
will likely render AfD a formidable force again.65 It is for this reason that there can be no
definitive conclusion until the crisis is over, which makes any argument about how the current
pandemic has managed to dismantle AfD or not rather impetuous. One thing is sure though:
mainstream media and political actors will continue to focus on how the alleged ‘populism’ of
the radical right has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to brand any
other actor even the left-wing Linke (The Left Party) which is already drafting policy
proposals on the post-COVID-19 political reality and focuses on the actual needs of ‘the
people’ – as ‘populist’ in a derogatory sense.
* * *
Lazaros Karavasilis is a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at
Loughborough University (UK). His thesis focuses on comparing right- and left-wing populism
in Greece and Germany. Among his main research interests are populism, political parties,
discourse analysis, as well as the connection between parties and movements.
63 Susanne Betz, ‘Die AfD in der Corona-Krise: Profis gefragt, nicht Populisten, BR24, 19 March 2020,
populisten,RtfyB7W (accessed 14 May 2020).
64 Bettina Schutz, ‘Politik ist plötzlich kein Spiel mehr,’ Zeit Online, 24 March 2020,
bekaempfung (accessed 19 May 2020).
Jan Ross, ‘Virus der Vernunft,’ Zeit Online, 11 March 2020,
vernunft-populismus-medien (accessed 19 May 2020).
65 Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, ‘The German radical right are not so hit by the virus: a reply to Hans-
Georg Betz,openDemocracy, 5 May 2020,
radical-right-are-not-so-hit-virus-reply-hans-georg-betz/ (accessed 14 May 2020).
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Antonis Galanopoulos
7. Greece
Many columnists and analysts worldwide rushed after the COVID-19 outbreak to associate
populism with the pandemic, more precisely with the mishandling of the crisis by specific
allegedly ‘populist’ governments. However, this type of discourse was not limited to
populism in government. It has often targeted forces in opposition, as the case of Greece
exemplifies. On the one hand, Greece is portrayed in national and international media as a
‘success story’ regarding the management of the pandemic. It is true that the conservative
government of (anti-populist) New Democracy (ND) adopted early the necessary measures
to contain the spread of the virus and imposed nationwide restrictions on movement. Most
often, liberal commentators accuse populism for its confrontational discourse and its
irresponsibility; now, it seems, many include mishandling the pandemic as a species of the
latter genus. If the Greek (populist) opposition has been often debated along these lines, can
we really identify such features in the political stance of SYRIZA during the pandemic?
On the contrary, Andreas Xanthos, former health minister in the SYRIZA government,
supported publicly in various occasions Professor Sotiris Tsiodras, the chairman of the
government advisory committee for the management of the pandemic. In March 2020, he
stated66 that if SYRIZA was in government, they would have also appointed Professor Tsiodras
to this crucial position. In April, he claimed67 again that Professor Tsiodras is an excellent
choice and that the recommendations of the scientific committee that he chairs are in the
right direction. This consensual spirit was evident even in the statements of Alexis Tsipras,
the leader of SYRIZA. In an article68 in late March, he argued that What matters, at the
moment, is that we all fight together, united in one front, so that there are as few casualties
as possible. That means that we calmly, and without panic, follow the instructions of the
Indeed one could argue that (populist) SYRIZA adopted a responsible stance, supported the
main choices of the ND government, helped in the formation of a unitary political front in the
face of an unprecedented crisis and clearly respected the scientific advice and policy
recommendations, debunking claims that populism is equated to anti-science or that it
necessarily rejects expert’s knowledge.
The situation started to change when Alexis Tsipras presented the package of measures
proposed by SYRIZA in order to address the (economic, social, etc.) effects of the pandemic
and even more when the public debate regarding the end of the lockdown measures started.
When the debate moved to how the state will manage the consequences of the pandemic on
the economy and society at large and whether the government adequately supported the
public healthcare system during the lockdown period, the dominant anti-populist discursive
repertoire returned in the public sphere and the old cleavage between responsible, rational
anti-populist politicians and the absurd, irresponsible, populist ones was rapidly re-activated.
Stelios Petsas, the Greek Government Spokesman, dismissed twice the proposals of SYRIZA
by employing the signifier ‘populism’ as an accusation, as a derogatory, pejorative label. The
following two statements are quite telling:
66 Andreas Xanthos, ‘If we were in government, we would have chosen Tsiodras too,TheToc, 22 March 2020,
18 May 2020) [In Greek].
67 Andreas Xanthos, ‘Tests are required in order to “loosen” the quarantine,TVXS, 6 April 2020, (accessed 18 May 2020) [In Greek].
68 Alexis Tsipras, ‘Front of life today, front of reason tomorrow,Ethnos, 22 March 2020,
logikis-ayrio (accessed 18 May 2020) [In Greek].
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The government will use every opportunity to support both workers and
businesses. It is the time for responsibility, not for cheap populism.69
He [Tsipras] is happy because Greece will face a recession this year, as will the
whole of Europe. Recession due to an unpredictable and unprecedented event:
the COVID-19 pandemic. Tsipras remains the same; divisive and populist.70
Greek mainstream media adopted their familiar anti-populist tone as well. The influential
column ‘Vimatodotis’ of the newspaper To Vima commented71 that the government has done
well so far, mainly because it doesn’t listen to the populist voices that champion an aggressive
programme of ‘benefits to everyone.’ In the newspaper Fileleftheros (Liberal), an analyst coined
the term ‘corona-populism’,72 a supposedly new threat, far more dangerous than the virus
itself. Even before the pandemic, populism was often described as a ‘disease’ or a ‘virus’ in
Greece, so it was not a big surprise that a commentator and former PASOK official described73
populism again as the ‘underlying disease’ of SYRIZA.
The ‘We Stay Standing’ programme of SYRIZA represents a combination of typical left-wing
and neo-keynesian economic policies (i.e. additional funding for the public health care system,
hiring additional medical staff, prohibiting foreclosures, social solidarity allowances, and state
coverage of salary for private sector workers). The social dimension of SYRIZA policies was
also evident in its emphasis on the value of public health for all, including the necessary care
for the refugees. The party issued a public statement74 denouncing the outrageous indifference
on behalf of the ND government for the lives of thousands of refugees in the detention
centres, asking for the substantial strengthening of the healthcare structures in these centres
and the immediate transfer of the refugee population to hotel accommodation, especially for
the vulnerable and the unaccompanied children.
What conclusions can we then draw from the Greek case? In short, populism is not necessarily
an irresponsible political force: populist parties are not opposing governmental decisions
merely for the sake of the opposition and populist politicians can and often do respect and
adopt scientific expertise. It needs to be stressed that the populist dimension does not suffice
to explain the type of politics adopted by a party at any given conjuncture. Populist parties or
politicians are never merely ‘populist’; their ideological component should always be taken
into account. Left-wing populist parties, in particular, seem to be much more interested in the
economic and social consequences of the pandemic and especially in the consequences on the
most vulnerable parts of the population (precarious workers, low-wage workers, the
69 Stelios Petsas, ‘Response by the Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister and Government Spokesman to the
announcement by the press office of SYRIZA,MediaGov, 26 March 2020,
tou-syriza/ (accessed 18 May 2020) [In Greek].
70 Stelios Petsas, ‘Statement by the Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister and Government Spokesman on the
post of the Leader of the Opposition Alexis Tsipras on social media networks,MediaGov, 6 May 2020,
tin-anartisi-tou-archigou-tis-aksiomatikis-antipolitefsis-aleksi-tsipra-meso-ton-koinonikon-diktyon/ (accessed 18
May 2020) [In Greek].
71 Vimatodotis, ‘Populism, Tsovolas and Roosevelt,To Vima, 27 March 2020, (accessed 18 May 2020) [In
72 Minas Analytis, ‘Corona-populism: A new threat,Liberal, 12 May 2020, (accessed 18 May 2020) [In Greek].
73 Giorgos Pantagias, ‘The underlying disease of SYRIZA,Proto Thema, 10 May 2020, (accessed
18 May 2020) [In Greek].
74 Department of refugee and migrant policy, ‘Refugees are in danger,Avgi, 10 April 2020,
(accessed 18 May 2020) [In Greek].
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unemployed) as well as on the marginalized and minority groups (i.e. immigrants and refugees).
Finally, as is well-known, populist discourse presents fluctuations over time. Arguably, while
SYRIZA is still correctly recognized as a left-wing populist party, its populist discourse was
admittedly toned down during the pandemic.
* * *
Antonis Galanopoulos is a PhD candidate at the School of Political Sciences, Aristotle
University of Thessaloniki. He holds a master’s degree in Political Theory and Philosophy and
a bachelor’s degree in Psychology.
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Seongcheol Kim
8. Hungary
Populism in Hungary has been a subject of international attention especially in the past decade,
one that began with Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz winning an unprecedented two-thirds majority of
seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections. While Fidesz had featured a social-populist discourse
pitting ‘the people’ and ‘the new majority’ against ‘the aristocracy’ in power following then-
PM Ferenc Gyurcsány’s infamous ‘Őszöd speech’ of 2006, Orbán’s outfit now shifted gears
onto an institutionalist75 discourse of national harmony rather than antagonistic division and,
following its landslide victory, declared in a parliamentary resolution that ‘national unity’ had
prevailed and that the voters had given the party a mandate to institute a ‘System of National
Cooperation’ (NER) founded on ‘peace, freedom, and accord.76 What has been characteristic
for Fidesz’s post-2010 discourse is an authoritarian institutionalism of enacting an exclusive
claim to the ‘nation’ in a methodical, administrative, largely non-antagonistic manner via two-
thirds majority while effectively ignoring or bypassing (rather than seeking direct confrontation
with) opposition. Populism takes on an instituting function for this institutionalism by making
the boundaries of the new order intelligible, having previously defined the Other of ‘the
people’ (albeit not in authoritarian terms at the time) as a small, privileged, discredited
‘aristocracy.’ Similarly, the ‘Stop Soros’ campaign that climaxed with the 2018 elections
represents a phase in which populism, in close conjunction with nationalism and nativism, re-
emerges in Fidesz’s discourse to re-define the identity of ‘the nation’ against ever newer
enemies in the form of the Soros ‘empire’ and its alleged agents at home and abroad.
In short, Fidesz’s post-2010 rule is characterized by a constant interplay between moments of
the political as antagonism (of which populism is one possible manifestation) and a non-
antagonistic institutionalized normality of ‘business as usual.’ The same holds for the
government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As widely reported in international
media, the two-thirds Fidesz majority in parliament adopted on 30 March a so-called ‘Enabling
Act’ granting the government emergency powers without any kind of built-in time limit, which
made the law unusual among its European counterparts. Importantly, the government decided
to put the bill up for an early vote on 23 March, requiring a four-fifths majority under the rules
of procedure, which it then predictably lost. By designing the emergency legislation so as to
make it unacceptable for the entire spectrum of opposition parties from Jobbik to the
Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and then forcing an early vote that it knew it would lose,
Fidesz effectively staged an antagonistic frontier of government vs. opposition as the founding
moment of the COVID-19 crisis regime: the government defending the emergency legislation
in terms of ‘national unity’ on the one hand, the opposition supposedly placing itself outside
‘the nation’ by opposing the law on the other and Orbán smugly telling opposition MPs that
‘we are going to resolve this crisis even without you.’77
It is in this discursive context that Fidesz’s otherwise run-of-the-mill, holding-together
institutionalism during the pandemic with slogans such as ‘Let’s take care of each other’
appears in a not so innocuous light: the ‘we’ or ‘us’ implies a founding exclusion of those who
refused to work in the interest of ‘national unity’ in the hour of greatest need. Fidesz politician
and president of the parliament László Kövér only made this implicit exclusion blatantly explicit
75 Understood here following Laclau as a conceptual opposite of populism: whereas the latter constructs an
antagonistic division in society (between a popular subject and a power bloc), institutionalism produces a non-
antagonistic image of society as a field of differences. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, 2005, London: Verso.
76 Office of the National Assembly, ‘The Programme of National Cooperation,’ 22 May 2010, (accessed 18 May 2020).
77 Marianna Biró, ‘Orbán: Ezt a válságot önök nélkül is meg fogjuk oldani,’, 23 March 2020, (accessed 18
May 2020).
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when he claimed in an April interview that [t]his opposition is not part of the Hungarian
nation’ for opposing the Enabling Act and courting international criticism of the government:
Above all, let’s recognize clearly that on this matter, the international objection
and the domestic opposition criticism do not differ. The two are one and the
same. The Hungarian left-liberal opposition is part of the global, anti-national
network, the Western European opinion-makers base their own propaganda
campaign on its deliberately false information and slander.78
To be sure, the logic of this exclusion is hardly a populist, but rather an authoritarian nationalist
one that delegitimizes opponents as foreign-like and ‘anti-national’79 a recurring strain in
Fidesz’s discourse since the 1990s. A conspiracist populism of accusing the global mega-rich
powers-that-be, such as Bill Gates or indeed George Soros, of spreading COVID-19 a claim
commonly heard in the weekly ‘Corona demonstrations’ in German cities – has not been the
message of the Fidesz government; instead, the latter’s accusations have been directed at an
opposition allegedly failing to stick with ‘the nation’ in the moment of crisis. This strategy is a
telling one given how party competition in Hungary has been slowly but surely shifting toward
a pro- vs. anti-NER logic, with the liberal parties and Jobbik rallying behind unity candidates to
score numerous successes in the 2019 local elections (as well as the parliamentary by-election
in Dunaújváros, Jobbik’s lone single-member-district win from the 2018 elections). Yet the
NER as a hegemonic formation is predicated on a differential, fragmented opposition that
cannot form a united front against Fidesz a barrier that now finally appears to be crumbling.
In designating the entire opposition as a unitary anti-national bloc including its erstwhile far-
right (and now increasingly de-radicalized) competitor Jobbik Fidesz is getting a head start
on what was already expected to be a dirty and hard-fought 2022 election campaign, in which
the reproduction of the two-thirds majority order against a more united opposition will be at
* * *
Seongcheol Kim is a Research Fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center. His research
is centered on the application of post-foundational discourse theory for the study of party
politics in a comparative European perspective, especially in relation to nationalism, populism,
and radical democracy.
78 ‘Bunkerben várják a csodafegyvert,’ Demokrata, 28 April 2020,
varjak-a-csodafegyvert-2-237021 (accessed 18 May 2020).
79 For the conceptual distinction between populism and nationalism, see also Benjamin De Cleen & Yannis
Stavrakakis, ‘Distinctions and Articulations: A Discourse Theoretical Framework for the Study of Populism and
Nationalism,’ Javnost, 24(4), 2017, pp. 301-319.
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Luca Manucci
9. Italy
We need more time to assess how populist actors have reacted to the pandemic. Looking at
US, Brazil, and UK one might be tempted to jump to conclusions, but for now it is more
advisable to focus on a less ambitious though compelling question: is COVID-19 exposing
the weaknesses of populism, or rather reinforcing it? Looking at the case of Italy, the answer
is: it depends, since there are populist actors both in power and in opposition. After a very
predictable rally ’round the flag effect in March and April, Prime Minister Conte remains very
popular and trusted while the two parties in government, the center left Democratic Party
(Partito Democratico PD) and the populist Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle
M5S), are losing consensus.
Indeed, the political and social ramifications of the emergency seem to constitute an advantage
for opposition parties like Matteo Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy
(Fratelli d’Italia – FdI). Meloni criticized the government for ignoring the opposition and
therefore undermining democracy, which is ironic for a party that does not disown Italy’s
fascist past (to the point that a party leading figure, Ignazio La Russa, suggested to replace
handshakes with fascist salutes to stop the diffusion of the virus). FdI has been extremely vocal
in criticizing the government in the last months and recently protested in front of the
parliament, wearing masks with the colours of the Italian flag, to ‘give voice to the common
people,’ the ‘silent majority’ whose future is at risk.80 FdI is the party that, according to the
polls, gained most since the beginning of the pandemic.
The League, in a similar fashion, occupied the Italian parliament in April to protest against the
government and to ‘bring the voice of many abandoned Italians into the palace of power.’81
Overall, the party’s line on the emergency has been volatile. First, Salvini followed his most
congenial script and attempted to politicise the topic by implying that migrants are responsible
for the virus’ outbreak and asking Conte to resign ‘if he is not able to defend Italy and Italians.’82
In the following weeks, the League incoherently switched between requests to restore
normality and reopen economic activities, on the one hand, and critiques for the excessive
permissiveness of the lockdown, on the other.
Moreover, Salvini promoted himself as a devoted super-Catholic, to the point that he asked
to reopen churches for Easter while even the Pope was more cautious on the matter. His
devotion went as far as reciting a prayer for the victims of COVID-19 while on live TV asking
the Virgin Mary to protect Italians.83 On the European Stability Mechanism, the League argued
that accepting money via this route would inevitably lead to establishing ‘a dictatorship in the
name of the virus.’84 The party, however, has not been able to capitalize on the emergency
80 Mauro Bazzucchi, ‘Il flash mob (modello Israele) di Fratelli d'Italia davanti a Palazzo Chigi,’ AGI, 28 April 2020, (accessed
30 May 2020).
81 Federica Valenti, ‘La Lega occupa le Camere. Salvini “Qui a oltranza”,’ AGI, 30 April 2020, (accessed
30 May 2020).
82 Lorenzo Tondo, ‘Salvini attacks Italy PM over coronavirus and links to rescue ship,’ The Guardian, 24 February
rescue-ship (accessed 30 May 2020).
83 Hans-Georg Betz, ‘After COVID-19: will Matteo Salvini lead Europe’s radical right?’ Open Democracy, 20 April
europes-radical-right/ (accessed 30 May 2020).
84 Daniele Albertazzi and Mattia Zulianello, ‘Populism and the Collapse of Italy’s Coronavirus Truce,’ EA
Worldview, 21 April 2020, (accessed
30 May 2020).
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despite the favourable conditions, and the polls indicate that the League suffered a significant
setback since the beginning of the pandemic.
If we were to vote today, the polls say, the two far right populist parties currently at the
opposition, Lega and FdI, together would collect over 40% of the votes. In particular, Melonis
party reached an unprecedented 14% that will be hard to confirm in elections but shows how
much FdI gained consensus during the pandemic.85 Given that in the following months the
opposition could profit from the inevitable unfolding of a new economic crisis, it is not hard
to imagine that a far-right populist coalition will win the next elections.
The only party that could prevent this scenario is M5S. Compared to League and FdI, M5S is
currently in power and cannot rely on its classic anti-establishment rhetoric. One might be
tempted to predict the imminent demise of the party, but the issue requires a deeper
reflection for several reasons. First, situations of emergency and crisis are the party’s cup of
tea. In 2011, the two leaders Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio wrote a book titled
‘We are at war: For new politics,’ and the movement always insisted on the idea of a looming
ecological, political, and social crisis. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic fits the party’s war rhetoric,
with its own heroes on the front line (‘the people’) and powerful elites that plot against them
(the ‘frugal four’ Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands together with EU
Second, the EU lack of solidarity will fuel Eurosceptic sentiments without the need of much
work from populists, and M5S can establish a Manichean dichotomy between the protection
of ‘people’s interests’ and the threats coming from external hostile forces. The party could go
back to its hard Eurosceptic positions, softened and mitigated in the last years, and could
possibly restart a campaign for a referendum to leave the Euro. In line with this idea, some of
the party’s MPs recently voted against the adoption of the European Stability Mechanism
(ESM), together with the far right.
Third, the party’s right wing is in line with the populist far right also when it comes to migrants:
several MPs voted against a decree that would have granted permits to irregular migrants
working in farms and as carers.86 The opposing factions within the party might be a sign of
fragmentation, but at the same time, they could allow M5S to retain some anti-establishment
credibility, by showing that a faction within the party opposes the measures proposed by the
Finally, M5S has another ace up its sleeve: it can combine its populist rhetoric with technocratic
elements. Given the pandemic, Italian voters might privilege political actors that seem to foster
expertise over ideological partisanship, and M5S is equipped for such a scenario. Indeed, the
M5S-PD government is operating through task forces and extraordinary commissioners,
bypassing the parliament. Most decisions have been delegated to a ‘technical scientific
committee’ composed of twelve experts, subsequently supported by a ‘technological task
force’ composed of seventy-four experts that are supposed to evaluate and propose data
driven technological solutions to help the government against the pandemic. Thanks to its
ideological flexibility, M5S is a Swiss army knife ready to face any situation, including a techno-
populist management of the pandemic.87
85 Giovanni Forti, ‘Simulazione YouTrend: un anno dopo le elezioni europee, chi vince comune per comune,’
YouTrend, 26 May 2020,
europee-chi-vince-comune-per-comune/ (accessed 30 May 2020).
86 Angelo Amante, ‘Migration issue opens rift in Italy's coalition amid COVID-19 crisis,’ Reuters, 12 May 2020,
amid-covid-19-crisis-idUSKBN22O2IY (accessed 30 May 2020).
87 Luca Manucci and Michi Amsler, ‘Where the wind blows: Five Star Movement’s populism, direct democracy
and ideological flexibility,’ Italian Political Science Review, 48(1), 2017, pp. 109-132.
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The Italian case shows that populist actors, both in power and opposition, can exploit the
inevitable fear that a pandemic generates by using emotional, dramatic or messianic tones to
attack other parties and supranational institutions. Moreover, in a situation where scientific
disagreements are normal, populist actors can easily accuse the elites of incompetence, opacity
and manipulation.88 All this while spreading conspiracy theories that reduce the cognitive
chaos and deliver to the people a simple message. Several M5S members are against
compulsory vaccinations and Sara Cunial, ex M5S, even claimed that Bill Gates is developing a
vaccine for COVID-19 to enslave the world’s population.89
While left wing populism continues to be virtually non-existent in Italy, it seems that in the
aftermath of the pandemic it will be the populist far right to reap the benefit. The inevitable
economic crisis, as we already observed after the Great Recession, will redirect the public
debate towards the topics most congenial to League and FdI. In conclusion, the pandemic is
generating plenty of opportunities for populist actors to stage the classic populist fight
between the ‘silent majority’ and national as well as supranational elites. Whether they will be
able to profit from it depends on the strategy of each party as well as the credibility of the
* * *
Luca Manucci is a post-doc researcher at the University of Lisbon. He received a PhD in
comparative politics from the University of Zurich, and his research focuses on populism,
authoritarian legacies, political parties, and media systems.
88 Catherine Fieschi, ‘Europe’s populists will try to exploit coronavirus. We can stop them,’ The Guardian, 17
March 2020,
salvini (accessed 30 May 2020).
89 Ryan Broderick, ‘Bill Gates Conspiracy Theories Have Circulated For Years. It Took The Coronavirus
Pandemic To Turn Him Into A Fake Villain,’ Buzzfeed, 22 May 2020, (accessed 30 May
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Tjitske Akkerman
10. The Netherlands
During the COVID-19 crisis, the reactions of populist leaders like Trump and Orban have
reasserted widespread stereotypes of populists. Namely, that they exalt popular wisdom over
expertise, distract the public from reality by offering scapegoats and conspiracy theories or
exploit the crisis by introducing authoritarian measures. However, populist leaders have
reacted in diverse ways to the current crisis. Indeed, the reactions of the populist parties in
the Netherlands do not conform to this stereotype.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in the Netherlands diminished traditional divides in the
Dutch parliament, but the radical right populist parties did not soften their opposition role.
While the rest of the parties, including the left-wing populist Socialist Party (SP), made a truce
with the government, the populist radical right parties Party for Freedom (PVV) and Forum
for Democracy (FvD) refused to support the measures taken by the Rutte cabinet on 12
March. The populist radical right leaders Geert Wilders (PVV) and Thierry Baudet (FvD)
criticized these measures as being far too relaxed and presented a motion on 18 March to
impose a hard lockdown. They stood alone; all the other parties positioned themselves as
‘responsible players.’
Unlike neighbouring countries, like Belgium, France and Germany, the Dutch government
favoured a relatively mild approach to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. When a so-
called ‘intelligent lockdown’ was announced on 23 March, meaning that shops were allowed
to stay open and people could go out for a walk or visit others with no more than two persons
together, Wilders (PVV) held on to his critical position, but Baudet (FvD) switched to
supporting the lockdown. Wilders consistently held up a confrontational position and style.
He often attacked prime minister Mark Rutte in a very direct way. On 17 March, for instance,
he twittered: ‘All of Europe is in lockdown except for the Netherlands of #Rutte, because
Rutte prefers to play with the lives of people rather than saving them. Dangerous man.’90 As
there is little prospect of a future coalition with Rutte after the latter ostracized the PVV in
2017, Wilders does not have much of an incentive to spare the prime-minister.
PVV and FvD struggled to set the agenda during the COVID-19 crisis. With the pandemic
dominating the news, the key issues of the populist radical right parties were relegated to the
margins. Their nationalist ideology did not provide much guidance during the crisis. Although
PVV and FvD, like other populist radical right parties, emphasized the need for border
protection, they were mainly operating on uncharted terrain. The diverging reactions of
neighbouring parties suggest that context rather than ideology was guiding their approach.
While the two Dutch parties promoted a stricter lockdown in opposition to the relatively
relaxed approach of the government, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany
criticized the stricter regime of the German government for being too authoritarian.
Moreover, the PVV and FvD hardly had the opportunity or the will to link the crisis to
immigration issues. While Matteo Salvini in Italy suggested that African immigrants ‘imported’
the virus, the PVV and FvD leaders did not single out immigrants or minorities as potential
sources of infection. However, when the EU planned a rescue fund for the member-states
affected by the crisis, the PVV and FvD were back on familiar terrain and highlighted their
Nexit positions. The left-wing SP had more difficulty to address this issue in clearcut terms;
its message was a mix of euroscepticism and international solidarity. Lilian Marijnissen, the
leader of the SP, avoided the subject on social media.
90 Geert Wilders, Twitter post, 17 March 2020,
(accessed 1 June 2020).
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FvD and PVV realized that the government had broad popular support for the way it handled
the COVID-19 crisis. Yet, their electoral success was also dependent on fierce opposition to
the government and distrust of ‘elitist’ media and knowledge institutes. Their reactions were
exploratory, sometimes following and sometimes deviating from the populist pattern. Experts
played a central role in the Netherlands, as in many other countries, in advising governments
on how to combat the virus. Especially in the first stage of the pandemic, from mid March to
mid April, when healthcare sectors were (almost) overburdened, experts were wheeled to
central stage. Virologists and other experts became well-known faces to a broad public thanks
to their prominent role in talkshows. Although populists are often characterized as being
averse to expertise, the messages that Baudet, Wilders and Marijnissen launched on social
media during the height of the crisis do not accord with this idea. Wilders, for instance,
referred to Italian experts and the World Health Organization to substantiate his motion,
submitted on 18 March together with Baudet, for a stricter lockdown. Although Wilders and
Baudet did not question the central role of experts as such, they were highly critical of the
guidelines issued by the National Institute for Public Health and Environment.
Baudet and Wilders changed their message in the course of April. They started to press for
more freedoms in order to support various economic sectors. Baudet recently twittered that
the Dutch approach was too strict: ‘1 million people working in and around the catering sector
fear they might lose their jobs. Because the Netherlands is 30% stricter than neighbouring
He also tweeted that the rule of keeping a distance of 1.5 metre, advised by the
World Health Organization and adopted by the Dutch government, should be done away
with. To underscore his position, he invited a survey researcher with TV fame to vent the
theory that COVID-19 is not contagious in the open air or in well ventilated rooms.
supported this message.
Baudet and Wilders apparently have abandoned their initial
prudence, and now endorse amateurish ideas that contradict any advice widely supported by
To conclude, the reactions of the Dutch populist parties to the COVID-19 pandemic show
that even within one country there is not a clear populist pattern. First, there is a clear divide
between the reactions of the right-wing and left-wing populist parties. While the SP made a
truce with government and remained consistent in its position, the PVV consistently and the
FvD incidentally chose confrontation. Right-wing and left-wing populist parties differ with
respect to core ideology, but this does not explain the different reactions.
All the populist
parties lacked an ideological guide when they were confronted with this new crisis. The
variation in reactions shows that populism is a matter of degree; for the SP it is more a
rhetorical device, while the PVV and FvD are more fundamentally distrusting of government,
knowledge institutes and media.
Second, the PVV and FvD are opposition parties and
therefore hardly comparable to populist leaders like Turmp, Bolsonaro or Orban, who are in
power. Even as opposition parties, however, their reactions depend to some extent on their
prospects of office. Wilders has been politically isolated since the PVV has been ostracized by
all the mainstream parties in 2017. There is little incentive for Wilders to moderate his
confrontational style and harsh criticism of the government. The FvD, in contrast, has not
Forum voor Democratie, Twitter post, 14 May 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
Forum voor Democratie, Twitter post, 15 May 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
Geert Wilders, Twitter post, 19 May 2020,
(accessed 1 June 2020).
Tjitske Akkerman, ‘Populist Parties Under Scrutiny One Common Vision or a Scattered Agenda?’ in Sascha
Hardt, Aalt Willem Heringa & Hoai-Thu Nguyen (Eds) Populism and Democracy, 2020, Den Haag: Boom, pp. 53-
Stijn van Kessel, ‘Dutch Populism during the Crisis’, in H. Kriesi & T. Pappas (Eds) Populism in the Shadow of the
Great Recession, 2015, Colchester: ECPR Press, pp. 109-124.
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been ostracized. Its prospect for office is highly dependent on a coalition with the two
mainstream right-wing parties that are in government at the moment. These different
prospects may explain why the PVV has been more consistent than the FvD in its opposition
to the government approach of the COVID-19 crisis.
Populists are supposed to fare well in times of crisis, but at least in the short term, the COVID-
19 pandemic has the opposite effect. While those in power have profited during the COVID-
19 crisis, the support for populist radical right parties has declined. In the Netherlands, prime
minister Rutte has gained substantial electoral support for his People’s Party for Freedom and
Democracy (VVD). The other Dutch parties in the coalition government have hardly profited.
Of all the parties in parliament, the FvD suffered most. Overall, there are no signs yet that the
Dutch populist parties will profit from this crisis, but it is still early days.
* * *
Tjitske Akkerman is affiliated as a researcher to the Department of Political Science at the
University of Amsterdam. She has widely published about populist radical right parties in
Western Europe and her publications have appeared in Journalism, Patterns of Prejudice, Political
Studies, West European Politics, Party Politics, Acta Politica, Journal of Political Ideologies and
Government and Opposition. She is the co-editor of Radical Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western
Europe. Into the mainstream? (Routledge 2016).
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Nicole Curato
11. The Philippines
‘Shoot them dead’ has been President Rodrigo Duterte’s response to many problems the
Philippines faces.96 Whether this is the issue of illegal drugs or urban crime, local communist
insurgency or global terrorism, the President has been consistent in using and acting on threats
to solve complex problems. The COVID-19 crisis is no exception.
The Philippines COVID-19 story started with a proud declaration from the country’s health
minister that the Philippines is a model countryin fighting the pandemic. But this self-
congratulatory tone did not last long. On March 16, Duterte declared an ‘enhanced community
quarantine’ in the entire island of Luzon after local cases of transmission were reported.
International flights were banned, military men were deployed in checkpoints, non-essential
services were shutdown, healthcare workers were prohibited from working overseas.
Duterte formed an all-male COVID-19 interagency taskforce, mostly composed of former
armed forces chiefs and high-ranking military officers.97 Today, Manila is in the running for the
world’s longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdown.
Duterte’s initially ambiguous ideological position became clear four years into his term. Having
rid his cabinet of progressive politicians and populating them with retired military generals,
Duterte’s illiberal project is getting consolidated as time goes by. The pandemic gave Duterte
the justification to further tighten the control of security forces especially in the capital. The
protest of urban poor communities against ineffective government response to the crisis was
violently dispersed by police in full riot gear. Incidents of police brutality were reported
nationwide, with violators of the lockdown arrested, humiliated and beaten up.98 Citizens who
speak up against the regime’s handling of the pandemic were arrested as well, raising serious
concerns about the curtailment of free speech at a time when public scrutiny is most needed.99
Meanwhile, the politics of double standards continue. High-profile violators of quarantine rules
remain unpunished. A key Duterte ally and former Senate President flouted quarantine
protocols and accompanied his wife to the hospital, despite testing positive for COVID-19.100
The National Capital Region’s police force shamelessly posted photos of their chief’s birthday
bash on their Facebook page, violating rules on mass gathering, social distancing, and liquor
ban. And then the preferential treatment of Chinese investors. Among the ‘essential services’
given the exemption to operate during the lockdown are offshore gambling operations serving
clients in China.
That the pandemic did not halt but instead furthered Duterte’s illiberal project is best
instantiated in the shutdown of ABS-CBN a media giant Duterte singled out in his previous
speeches for its alleged bias against him. The last time the network went off air was in 1972
96 Mark Thompson, ‘Bloodied Democracy: Duterte and the Death of Liberal Reformism in the Philippines,’ Journal
of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35(3), 2017, pages 39-68.
97 Raisa Robles, ‘Coronavirus: is Covid-19 task force Duterte’s ‘Rolex 12’ in plan for Marcos-style martial law in
the Philippines?’ South China Morning Post, 28 April 2020
asia/politics/article/3081939/coronavirus-covid-19-task-force-dutertes-rolex-12-plan-marcos (accessed 1 June
98Jamela Alindogan, ‘HRW: COVID-19 lockdown violators in Philippines abused,’ Al Jazeera, 29 April 2020.
200429080703660.html (accessed 1 June 2020).
99 Melissa Luy Lopez, ‘Police acted on 'good reason' in arresting online critics of Duterte PNP’ CNN Philippines,
15 May 2020.
(accessed 1 June 2020).
100 Alan Robles, ‘Coronavirus: Duterte ally Koko Pimentel blasted for putting health care workers in danger as
more doctors die,’ South China Morning Post, 26 March 2020,
environment/article/3077162/coronavirus-duterte-ally-koko-pimentel-blasted-putting (accessed 1 June 2020).
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during the Marcos dictatorship. The network was forced to go off air at the height of the
pandemic because its franchise was not renewed. There are many implications of the
network’s shutdown. Aside from curtailing press freedom, ABS-CBN’s absence means many
Filipinos living in far-flung and vulnerable areas have no access to news and information not
only about the pandemic but also about forthcoming disasters including the destructive
Typhoon VongFong.
The implications of COVID-19 to Duterte’s popularity will be hard to ascertain. Before the
pandemic, polling firms reported that the President’s popularity just hit a new high.’101
Pollsters, however, had to stop field research during the lockdown, and so precise,
comparable, and time-sensitive figures will be impossible to get.
Social media sentiments may serve as proxy for the public’s pulse. After all, the Philippines is
one of the world’s top users of social media because of its huge diasporic population that uses
Facebook and messaging services to maintain connections in the country. Quick impressions
lead to a murky picture though. Online conversations are disrupted by fake accounts that
actively defend the President’s #WeHealAsOne policy to COVID-19. These accounts also
harass critics of the President, including high-profile celebrities starring in ABS-CBN’s top-
rated telenovelas who were vocal in defending press freedom. In response, seemingly organic
campaigns appear to be successful in countering Duterte’s propaganda machine.
#OustDuterte was one of several hashtags critical of Duterte that trended at the height of
the pandemic.
One possible test to Duterte’s popularity is the impending economic downturn. Popularity
ratings of Philippine presidents often dip when unemployment or inflation is high. How this
will affect the President remains to be seen. In the meantime, Duterte’s performative populism
and authoritarian rhetoric remain, with his rambling late-night press conferences that Filipinos
now call The Late Late Show with Rodrigo Duterte. His crass and macho political style
continues. This time, Duterte threatened to slap the virus if they meet face-to-face.102
However, unlike populists like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsanaro who have expressed disregard
for expert knowledge, Duterte has been largely receptive of the advice of scientific experts
and health authorities. The challenge, however, is the extent to which these experts are
supported and held accountable. The accuracy of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines can only
be read with utmost scepticism given that there remains no mass testing to date. Getting
tested has also been politicised, with VIPs like politicians and their relatives jumping the queue,
getting ahead of health workers and front liners. The number of fatalities with the health
community is alarming, with physicians comprising one of ten COVID-19-related deaths due
to the lack of PPEs.103
One could also raise questions about the hierarchy of credibility among experts within
Duterte’s circles. With a heavily securitised approach to the pandemic, it seems that experts
in security could wield more power than experts in health. For many Filipinos, however, the
101 Andreo Calonzo, ‘Duterte’s Popularity Hits New High, Pollster SWS Says,’ Bloomberg, 22 January 2020,
(accessed 1 June 2020).
102 Ronald D. Holmes and Paul Hutchcroft, ‘A Failure of Execution,’ Inside Story, 4 April 2020, (accessed 1 June 2020).
103 Julie McCarthy, ‘Pandemic Claims The Lives Of Doctors In The Philippines At Startling Rates,’ NPR, 3 April
the-philippines-at-startling-rates (accessed 1 June 2020).
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challenge is as simple as it is threatening. Follow Duterte’s orders and they will live. Otherwise,
the police is tasked to shoot them dead.104
* * *
Nicole Curato is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global
Governance at the University of Canberra. Her latest book, Democracy in a Time of Misery:
From Spectacular Tragedy to Deliberative Action (Oxford University Press, 2019) examines the
possibilities and constraints of democratic action amidst widespread suffering.
104 Lynzy Billing, ‘Duterte’s Response to the Coronavirus: “Shoot Them Dead”,’ Foreign Affairs, 16 April 2020, (accessed 1
June 2020).
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Emmy Eklundh
12. Spain
Spain is currently led by a coalition government between the social-democratic Partido
Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and the left-populist Unidas Podemos (UP). This coalition
was formed after two general elections in 2019 (April and November), which both failed to
produce a clear majority for either side of the political spectrum. After some initial reluctance
from PSOE to accept the leader of UP as part of the cabinet, the current government was
installed. Pablo Iglesias, for many the beacon of Podemos, is currently serving as Second
Deputy Prime Minister in the Cabinet of Ministers led by the PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez.
The political implications of the COVID-19 pandemic began in the week commencing March
9, 2020, with a closing of schools and cancellation of flights to and from Italy. On March 14,
the government declared an official state of emergency, which indicated the beginning of the
lockdown. Spain instituted one of the strictest quarantine legislations in Europe, where activity
outside the home was only allowed when buying food or medicines.105 Podemos supported
this lockdown, as it was part of the government’s response. On March 16, Salvador Illa, the
health minister, made the decision to nationalise all private hospitals and healthcare related
companies, such as pharmaceutical providers.106 This did not mean that the structure of all
hospitals or companies was immediately changed, but it gave the Autonomous Communities
(the administrative units responsible for health care) the capacity to utilise private spaces in
the public interest. Illa is a member of PSOE in Catalonia (PSC), but this policy is very much
in line with the official Podemos agenda.
The government has implemented a series of measures to aid the economy. Spain has to some
extent recovered from the serious financial crisis in 2008, but still carries the scars from this
period. While the 2008 crisis was heavily driven by the housing sector, structural factors make
Spain more vulnerable to economic fluctuations. In some areas, Spain is weaker than 12 years
ago, and has now higher national debt levels, unemployment at 14% instead of 8%, and a deficit
of 3% of GDP instead of 2%. On the other hand, the Spanish economy is better in terms of
higher GDP, a higher level of exports (35% vs 24%) and a lower level of inflation.107 This gives
the government more space for manoeuvre to support the economy. The economic measures
have had a clear ambition to support citizens and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), such
as the decision to offer unemployment support to workers who had previously been ineligible
and also to extend support to those who would still be ineligible for traditional unemployment
benefits, such as temporary workers. Moreover, the government has imposed a fiscal stimulus
package, which should, according to the calculations, release up to €1,100 millions of liquidity
for SMEs.108
Podemos are working for a more socially equal society promoting a traditionally socialist
agenda, having long advocated more state-led intervention to that end. The party supports
increased minimum wage, an expansion of social housing, and an end to the privatisation of
public services, including health care. The privatisation of hospitals is something which
105 Boletín oficial de Estado, Número 67 2020, 14 March 2020,
A-2020-3692.pdf (accessed 15 May 2020).
106 Nuria Ramírez de Castro, ‘El Gobierno ordena la “nacionalización” de la Sanidad privada,’ ABC, 16 March
coronavirus-202003152113_noticia.html (accessed 18 May 2020).
107 José Luis Aranda, ‘La nueva crisis pilla a España con menos margen pero con nuevas armas,’ El País, 7 April
armas.html (accessed 18 May 2020).
108 Gobierno de España, Medidas económicas y sociales en la crisis del COVID-19, 2 April 2020, (accessed 18 May
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Podemos has long opposed.109 The fact that private hospitals can now be used for public
purposes is clearly a development in Podemos’ favour.
The crisis has also revitalised the discussion around Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Spain.
Podemos has consistently argued for UBI,110 but in the current proposals from the
government, it seems as though a proposal of a minimum income level are more likely to be
agreed. In line with one of Podemos’ flagship policies around decent housing conditions,
evictions have also been halted for 6 months.111 The crisis has also had a clear effect on
immigration policy. In the end of March and early April this year, the Ministry of the Interior
decided to close the most high-profile detention centres, in order to halt the virus, which has
long been a policy of Podemos, who argue that effective imprisonment is not an adequate way
of handling migration.112
As a contrast, the extreme-right VOX party, which has also been labelled as populist by some
scholars and commentators, is taking a radically different view on the crisis. The party has
accused the government of eroding democracy, of being surgeons killing people on the
operating table, and of wrecking the economy, and have organised several marches to protest
what they label inhibitions to personal freedoms.113 The party is deeply critical of the lockdown
measures, while they have left the cross-party commission for rebuilding Spain after the crisis,
after the government announced a further reform of the labour market.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been quite limited movement in the
polls. Generally, the trend points to that support for the two traditional parties, PSOE and
the conservative Partido Popular (PP) is stable or slightly surging. In the latest figures (mid-
May 2020), PSOE is polling at around 27%, which is similar to their result in the 2019 general
election (28%). PP, on the other hand, has experienced an increase, with figures now standing
around 25%, compared to the 2019 electoral result of 20.8%.114 Support for specifically
populist parties, such as Podemos and VOX, has decreased. Podemos gained 12.9% in the last
election and is now polling at around 11%. VOX had support of 15.1% but is now polling at
14%. Admittedly, these changes are quite minor and could simply be normal fluctuations.
Spain has bad memories from the 2008 financial crisis, when so-called technocrats affirmed
that austerity was the only way out of the crisis, which had profound negative consequences
for the Spanish economy and its citizens. This time around, the political leadership of the
country is wary not to make the same mistake and the foreign minister María Aránzazu
González Laya has argued that ‘this is a time for politics, not for technocracy’.115
The government’s critics have, however, also made use of this rhetorical figure and argued
that when decisions are based on science, one must ask what science this is, and to what
political ends it is being employed. Political commentators on the right are at the same time
109 Unidas Podemos, Programa: 218: Poner freno a la mercantilización de la sanidad, 2020 (accessed 15 May 2020).
110 Unidas Podemos, Programa: 213: Ingreso Básico Garantizado, 2020
justicia-social (accessed 15 May 2020).
111 Max Jiménez Botías, ‘El Gobierno impedirá los desahucios durante seis meses,’ El Periódico, 30 March 2020,
7910815 (accessed 15 May 2020).
112 Unidas Podemos, Programa: 146: Cerrar los centros de internamiento de extranjeros, 2020. (Accessed May 15 2020).
113 Miguel González, ‘La Extrema Derecha busca su 15-M,’ El País, 20 May 2020,
05-19/la-extrema-derecha-busca-su-15-m.html (accessed 15 May 2020)
114 Electrocracia ‘Todos los sondeos electorales’, 18 May 2020 (accessed 15 May 2020)
115 Bernardo De Miguel, ‘Arancha González Laya: “Es tiempo de política, no de tecnocracia”,’ El País, 14 May
(accessed 18 May 2020).
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issuing warnings about the ‘simple solutions’ of populists to this very complex crisis and are
also signalling the need for fiscal prudence in the face of a looming economic crisis. Some are
very critical of Podemos, arguing that they are manipulating Sánchez, and are governing by
invoking emotions and fear.116 Overall, the debate around populism in Spain is multifaceted.
Countries with right-wing populist in government are labelled as less effective in their battle
against the virus, whereas there is simultaneous criticism against the Spanish government, and
in particular Podemos, for playing on people’s fear and offering simple solutions. Populism is
seen as both the cause of under-reaction, as well as over-reaction.
Spain is one of the European countries heaviest affected by COVID-19 and have implemented
far-reaching measures to combat the health crisis and the economic crisis. The left coalition
government are clearly looking to also deliver their electoral promises as much as possible,
and not to repeat mistakes made during the 2008 financial crisis. These measures are likely to
be heavily disputed by their political opponents.
* * *
Emmy Eklundh is a Lecturer in Politics at Cardiff University, where she researches populism
and challenges to democracy in southern Europe. She has co-edited the volume The Populist
Manifesto (2020, Rowman and Littlefield International) and has recently published her first
monograph Emotions, Protest, Democracy: Collective Identities in Contemporary Spain (2019,
116 Mario Garcés, ‘De la fantasía a la pesadilla populista en España,’ El Mundo, 29 April 2020 (accessed 18 May 2020).
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Liv Sunnercrantz
13. Sweden
The Swedish response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been exceptional. Unlike its Nordic
neighbours, Sweden did not legislate for lockdown, quarantine or social distancing. Authorities
issued recommendations that were less severe and always later than neighbouring countries.
In the first of two public speeches, the Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven
addressed ‘the Swedish people’ and emphasised individual responsibility, solidarity and efforts
‘for our society and for Sweden.’
He described a crisis and a national ‘us’ but not in contrast
to an outside elite or establishment. The outside that united the ‘us’ was either the vulnerable
other, a threatening crisis, or COVID-19 itself.
Like a shadow following Löfven, the Sweden Democrats’ (SD) leader Jimmie Åkesson
presented his own ‘speech to the nation,’ the latest example of Åkesson’s attempts to usurp
Löfven’s position. Åkesson downplayed political antagonisms in favour of national unity: ‘We
go through this crisis as a united country, as a nation, as a family.’
His speech was ridden
with emotive appeals to fear and worry, and Åkesson positioned himself among ‘elected
politicians’ – an ‘us’ rather than an unresponsive elite. For years, SD have successfully played
the role of the underdog, oppressed by cultural and political elites. In the current media
climate Sweden and Swedish authorities have instead become the underdog in a global arena.
In previous crises populist rhetoric has aided, first, the social democratic hegemony that began
in the 1930s, and second, the transition to a neoliberal hegemony around 1990.
dismantling of the welfare state, declining class politics and a market-liberal consensus among
established parties followed. SD challenged this status quo with populist practices. Despite
their Nazi past and a trail of scandals, SD’s popularity increased dramatically through the
2010s. Their rhetoric constructed an ethnically homogenous ‘us’ threatened by an immigrant-
friendly political establishment and politically correct intellectual elites. Attempts to form
government among established parties who (initially) agreed to block SD from power have
been fraught with crises since 2014.
Law, order and migration dominated media before the pandemic. SD received ample attention
and soared in the polls, threatening the lingering Social Democrats’ dominance and surpassing
the conservative Moderates. When the pandemic turned into a crisis, news media changed
foci and polls showed increased support for the Social Democrats and Löfven.
conjunction with media shifting attention to healthcare, financial and labour market politics,
the public’s main concern also shifted from integration/immigration to healthcare, state
Stefan Löfven, Tal till nationen, 22 March 2020,
nationen-den-22-mars-2020 (accessed 18 May 2020).
Jimmie Åkesson, Tal till Nationen, 26 March 2020,
(accessed 18 May 2020).
Liv Sunnercrantz, Hegemony and the Intellectual Function: Medialised Public Discourse on Privatisation in Sweden
1988-1993, 2017, Lund: Media-Tryck.
Jens Rydgren & Sara van der Meiden, ‘The Radical Right and the End of Swedish Exceptionalism,’ European
Political Science, 18(3), 2018, pp. 439-455; Juha Herkman, ‘Old Patterns on New Clothes? Populism and Political
Scandals in the Nordic Countries,’ Acta Sociologica, 61(4), 2018, pp. 341-355; Emilia Palonen & Liv Sunnercrantz,
‘Nordic Populist Parties as Hegemony Challengers,’ in Anu Koivunen, Jari Ojala & Janne Holmén (Eds) The Nordic
Economic, Social and Political Model: Challenges in the 21st Century, Routledge [Accepted/In press].
For election results, rates of approval and voter intentions cf. Örjan Hultåker, ‘SKOPs Väljarbarometer, 11
May 2020,’ SKOP, 11 May 2020; Toivo Sjörén, ‘Väljarbarometern,’ Kantar Sifo, 15 May 2020,; Statistiska Centralbyrån,
‘Partisympatiundersökningen,’ 10 December 2019,
amne/demokrati/partisympatier/partisympatiundersokningen-psu; Torbjörn Sjöström, ‘Novus/SVT april 2020: S
fortsätter öka, SD och L tappar significant,’ Novus (blog), 23 April 2020,
arkiv/novus-svt-april-2020-s-fortsatter-oka-sd-och-l-tappar-signifikant (all accessed 20 May 2020).
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finances and education
. Party-political antagonisms, opinion polls, and discussions around
populism were toned down. Löfven was referred to more as prime minister and government
representative than party leader. References to opposition parties decreased. News and social
media framed SD and Åkesson in more negative terms, while the Social Democrats gained
more positive mentions.
Nationalism has become more prominent in public discourse, with
Sweden portrayed as more rational and less prone to panic and ‘alarmism’ than the rest of the
world the dominant theme being that Sweden is the only country doing (mostly) the right
thing. In this context, it is difficult for the nationalist SD to oppose what has become the
‘Swedish’ strategy.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has become a central reference point in pandemic
discourse. A personification of the technocratic expert, Tegnell has been presented as rational,
impartial and serious. He appears variably as un-attached expert, the face of authorities, or a
popular ‘national icon.’
When Donald Trump criticised the Swedish strategy, media
interviewed Tegnell not Löfven. Tegnell invoked professional expertise to re-assert the
truth: ‘we who work with infectious diseases know that […] this is the only way.’
In this
context, the government has largely deferred decision-making to Tegnell, making him a
potential scapegoat should their strategy fail.
Instead of pitting experts against common sense, ordinary people, or politicians, Swedish
media have pitted Tegnell and Swedish exceptionality against domestic and foreign experts to
generate conflict narratives in the news coverage.
In public debate, medical experts who
demanded political intervention
were met with ridicule and anti-intellectualism by
commentators defending Tegnell.
Rather than antagonising experts, SD have retrospectively
lamented the lack of political decisiveness early in the crisis.
In colloquial and mass-media discourse, ‘populist’ has become an insult equated with popular
demands, racisms and far-right politics: the will of the uneducated and irrational majority. In
the Corona-spring, oppositional populist actors have toned down and re-framed their
rhetoric. SD have appealed to the authority of dissident experts rather than the state-
epidemiologist. Still, Swedish exceptionality must be understood in context. Individual freedom
is fundamental to the existing neoliberal hegemony, which draws its legitimacy from the
sanctity of individual rights, freedom and independence. It is hard to argue for incursion in that
freedom. The Social Democrats have addressed popular grievances and frustrations without
threatening these values. Although there are signs that they might reassert their dominance
against the populist challenger SD, the outcome is still unclear.
Cf. Per Söderpalm & Ulla von Lochlow, ‘Mediamätaren: Hur politik diskuteras i media,’ Kantar Sifo, 27 April
2020; Martinson, Johan & Ulrika Andersson, ‘Svenska Trender 1986-2019,’ Göteborg: SOM-institutet, 2020.
Söderpalm & von Lochlow, ‘Mediamätaren: Hur politik diskuteras i media.’
Lena Melin, ‘Anders Tegnell – på väg att bli nationalidol,’ Aftonbladet, 21 March 2020, (accessed 19 May 2020).
Prescilia Haddad, ‘Tegnell om Trumps utspel: Man ska inte ta det på allvar,’ SVT, 8 April 2020,
(accessed 20 May 2020).
‘Här möts två forskare om den svenska linjen i coronakrisen,’ Mötet, SVT, 9 May 2020.
Marcus Carlsson et al., ‘Folkhälsomyndigheten har misslyckats - nu måste politikerna gripa in,’ DN.SE, 14 April
2020, (accessed 20
May 2020).
Victor Malm, ‘Coronahaveristerna är en skam för Sverige,’ Expressen, 15 April 2020,; Alex Schulman, ‘Ett
intellektuellt haveri,’ Expressen, 15 April 2020,
intellektuellt-haveri (both accessed 20 May 2020).
Jimmie Åkesson - Vi behöver politisk handlingskraft nu, 12 March 2020, (accessed 19 May 2020).
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* * *
Liv Sunnercrantz is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Media and Social Sciences at
the University of Stavanger where she has recently co-founded the research group Populism,
Anti-Gender & Democracy. Liv received her PhD in sociology from Lund University for the
dissertation Hegemony and the Intellectual Function in 2017.
Populism & the Pandemic Report POPULISMUS Interventions No. 7, 2020
Halil Gürhanli
14. Turkey
The first reported case of COVID-19 infection in Turkey was registered on March 10th 2020,
and as of May 2020, Turkey is one of the top ten countries with the most confirmed cases
and ranks 14th when it comes to COVID-19-related deaths. Despite these figures and the
country’s average test capacity (38th out of 85),
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other
officials of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) insist that their competent
handling of the crisis has resulted in Turkey being one of the countries that are least affected
by the pandemic.
Having come to power in a landslide election victory in 2002 and ruling the country single-
handedly ever since, Erdoğan usually in the same breath with other usual suspects such as
Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump is often listed among the typical examples of populist
leaders of the 21st century. This has been the case especially since the 2013 Gezi Events,
when his authoritarian response to the anti-government protests, which he labelled as a
conspiracy instigated by Turkey’s foreign enemies to overturn the nation’s will, decisively
dispelled the ‘conservative democratic’ image his party had carefully cultivated in the preceding
decade. Throughout those earlier years, hardly anyone in academia or media called Erdoğan
and his government populist, although the widespread appeal that the party generated was
largely thanks to its archetypically populist politics which championed the forgotten, ordinary
people of Anatolia and their right to popular sovereignty against a small clique of corrupted,
power-hungry, ultra-secular elite and their tutelary regime.
In the post-Gezi era, however,
Erdoğan and his government have taken a decisive turn towards nativism and the radical-right,
articulating the political fault-lines between ‘native and national’ [yerli ve milli] in-groups and
their domestic and foreign enemies (out-groups).
Interestingly, it was only when the AKP
transformed its early populism with an undeniably authoritarian and nativist discourse,
effectively turning into a populist radical-right party, that ‘populist’ became a common adjective
used to describe both the party and its leader.
In any case, since the Gezi events in 2013, the AKP government rearticulated each crisis
through the same authoritarian and nativist discourse and the current global pandemic has
been no exception. On April 13, Erdoğan typically declared: Some media and politicians are
more dangerous than the virus. They attack and criticise the government instead of supporting
it in these hard days, but our country will get rid of those viruses in media and politics very
Although it seems reasonable to suspect that the Turkish government has been trying
to systematically ‘hide a wider coronavirus calamity,’
hundreds of citizens who doubt,
ridicule or in any way publicly undermine the official policies and relevant statistics are taken
in custody on charges of terrorism and are often accused of causing public unrest. Investigative
accounts from abroad that have drawn attention to the discrepancies in official figures were
Max Roser, ‘Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19),’, (Accessed 14 May 2020).
Umut Özkırımlı (ed.), The making of a protest movement in Turkey: #Occupygezi, 2014, London: Springer.
S. Erdem Aytaç and Ezgi Elçi, ‘Populism in Turkey,’ in Stockemer D. (ed.) Populism Around the World, 2019,
Springer, pp. 89-108.
Halil Gürhanli, ‘Populism on Steroids: Erdoğanists and Their Enemies in Turkey, in Urpo Kovala (eds),
Populism on the Loose, 2018, Jyväskylä: Jyväskylä University Press, pp. 53-80; Benjamin De Cleen and Yannis
Stavrakakis, ‘Distinctions and Articulations: A Discourse Theoretical Framework for the Study of Populism and
Nationalism,‘ Javnost - The Public, 24(4), 2017, pp. 301-319.
‘Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan, ‘Kabine Toplantısı‘nın ardından açıklamalarda bulundu,’ Turkish Presidency's
Directorate of Communications, 13 April 2020,
erdogan-kabine-toplantisinin-ardindan-aciklamalarda-bulundu (Accessed 17 May 2020).
Carlotta Gall, ‘Istanbul Death Toll Hints Turkey Is Hiding a Wider Coronavirus Calamity,’ The New York Times,
20 April 2020, (Accessed
17 May 2020).
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dismissed as ‘nothing but an expression of hostility against Turkey.’136 In his weekly ‘Address
to the Nation,’ Erdoğan has repeatedly accused opposition parties and leaders of national
treason for casting doubt on the official figures and criticising the government’s handling of
the crisis.137 Due to the authoritarian practices that the Turkish government has been
perfecting in the course of recent crises, such as the failed coup d’etat attempt in 2016, the
AKP has been able to largely control information related to the pandemic, monopolise public
narratives and present itself as the only actor capable of dealing with the crisis. Consequently,
Erdoğan’s approval ratings have rocketed from the record low of 42% in February to a four-
year high of 56% in March 2020.138
The Turkish case is also a stark reminder that there is no singular division between populists
and experts, for it largely depends on the way in which the latter group is framed by particular
actors. That is to say, experts in general do not stand as a monolith out-group of scientific
elites targeted by the Turkish government only those who diverge from the official narrative
are attacked as such. Those who scrutinize Turkey’s official statistics and shed doubt on
government policies related to the pandemic are labelled as nefarious ‘traitors’ and are even
persecuted.139 On the other hand, scientists seating at the state-sanctioned Coronavirus
Scientific Advisory Board are treated with the utmost respect as long as their findings and
statements stay in line with the official narrative. One good example is the case of the Turkish
Medical Association (TMA), the country’s largest independent medical and health professional
organisation representing 80% of its doctors. As an outspoken critic of the AKP government,
the TMA has been at the receiving end of its push against left-leaning professional groups for
quite some time, having its senior members detained for opposing Turkey’s military campaign
in Syria a few years back. On that instance, Erdoğan had accused the TMA of treason, declaring
it as ‘unworthy of the notion of Turkishness’ and thus promising to enact a new law to ensure
the group ‘will not be able to use the notion of Turkishness, nor the name Turkey’ in its
title.140 Thus during the coronavirus outbreak, TMA has not only been excluded from the
decision-making process, but also targeted by the latter through a proposed law that threatens
to diminish the independence of professional associations.141
Lastly, a point not to be overlooked while examining the Turkish case is that, rather than
public health, economic concerns over the sinking currency and Turkey’s domestic
consumption-driven model of growth seem to largely determine the government’s handling of
the crisis.142 Most strikingly, of all measures taken to tackle the spread of coronavirus, the
first one to be dropped has been the closure of shopping malls, which were reopened just
two months after the first confirmed case of infection. Despite warnings from the scientific
136 Fahrettin Altun, ‘Turkey is the flagbearer with its aids in the world,’ Turkish Presidency’s Directorate of
Communications, 6 May 2020,
with-its-aids-in-the-world (Accessed 17 May 2020).
137 ‘Erdoğan, normalleşme planını açıkladığı ulusa sesleniş konuşmasında yine CHP'ye yüklendi, Cumhuriyet, 4 May
yine-chpye-yuklendi-1736861 (Accessed 17 May 2020).
138 ‘Erdoğans approval rating bolstered by coronavirus pandemic Metropoll,AhvalNews, 7 April 2020,
(Accessed 17 May 2020).
139 ‘Turkish doctors issue apologies for coronavirus statements,’ AhvalNews, 30 March 2020, (Accessed 17
May 2020).
140 Tuvan Gümrükcü, ‘Medical association to lose Turkish tag over criticism of Syria campaign,’ Reuters, 8
February 2018,
lose-turkish-tag-over-criticism-of-syria-campaign-idUSKBN1FS2KI (Accessed 17 May 2020).
141 ‘From İstanbul Medical Chamber to Erdoğan: We Demand Respect for Physicians’ Will,’, 13 May
physicians-will (Accessed 17 May 2020).
142 Mustafa Sönmez, ‘Why is Turkey prioritizing shopping malls in reopening plan?,’ Al-Monitor, 8 May 2020,
(Accessed 17 May 2020).
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community and a subsequent rise in the number of cases, these 454 malls have stayed open
when public spaces such as parks have remained closed. Similarly, plans for resuming
international flights already by the beginning of June to resuscitate the sinking tourism industry
remain unchanged even in the face of warnings of a looming second-wave of virus spread
Overall, the way in which the AKP government has been handling the COVID-19 pandemic
stands witness to the party’s long rightward swing, highlighting authoritarian and
nationalist/nativist, not populist, elements of its politics. As Erdoğans success in his quest to
become Turkeys most powerful figure negated the basis of his claim to represent the
oppressed people against an illegitimately powerful elite, authoritarian nativism towers above
the partys early anti-elitism, determining its framing of the pandemic as not a public health
crisis but yet another war of independence where the nation has to fight for its survival against
domestic and foreign enemies.
* * *
Halil Gürhanli is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Political and Economic Studies,
University of Helsinki. His dissertation focuses on the phenomenon of Islamist populism in
Turkey, especially populist hegemony and extreme political polarization. Besides his
contributions addressed to wider public on Turkish politics, Gürhanli also teaches on populism
and democratic theory at the University of Helsinki.
143 ‘Turkish Airlines plans to resume limited number of flights in June,’ TRT World, 6 May 2020,
(Accessed 17 May 2020).
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Simon Tormey
15. United Kingdom
Notwithstanding a vociferous debate concerning whether Boris Johnson can or cannot be
considered a populist, his victory in the general election of 2020 owed a great deal to a
recognisably populist strategy.144 It offered a strikingly reductive, simplistic solution to an issue
that had bedevilled Britain’s elites since 2016. It said, quite simply, ‘Get Brexit Done.’ The
phrase spurned the complexity, the nuance, the calculations of national income, the opinions
of experts in favour of three words that promised an end to a hurtful saga, and a tortuous
one as far as many British citizens were concerned.145 A simple solution to a complex problem
in order to develop the hegemonic base for his non-specific brand of One Nation Toryism;
yet, one that could claim to honour people’s choice in a referendum, something no populist
is supposed to ignore.
Assuming we can agree that a hallmark of populism is the radical simplification of the terms of
political antagonism in a way seen as honouring popular sentiment, the Brexit election
demonstrated the efficacy of an approach based around a condensation of political messaging,
affective appeals to ‘common sense’ and charismatic leadership with a core pitch of ‘I
understand what you the People want; they (i.e. other parties, the elites, the technocrats, the
experts etc) don’t.’ This moment of triumphant univocity was, however, rudely punctured by
the outbreak of the pandemic, a complex phenomenon requiring scientific expertise, careful
deliberation and multiple insights to resolve. Would this be the end of the UK’s flirtation with