/ 15 May 2020

The pandemic creates ideal conditions for the rise of populism

Liberalism's Hold On The Political Imagination Loosens As New Forms Of Populism Surge
The state of politics and geopolitics has been exacerbated, rather than stabilised, by the coronavirus crisis. (John McCann/M&G)


Prior to the coronavirus pandemic the world’s political climate was darkening. Rising and deepening levels of authoritarianism, protectionism, nationalism, xenophobia and unilateralism, coupled with anti-expertise attitudes, characterised the style of government policies and leaders, as well as the political identities and sentiments held by voting nations. 

Scholars of populism have long identified national crises as a key factor in ensuring populism’s success — whether a crisis is generated by populists themselves to create a sense of conflict in the public sphere or as a result of increasing public discontent towards the government’s failure to perform. 

In moments of crises, populists make majorities feel like minorities under siege. Covid-19 has afforded populists a biological crisis with which to work and cement themselves onto the political landscape. This has left many asking: Will the coronavirus be populism’s next victim? 

While vast amounts of public money in the form of stimulus packages, solidarity funds and the like are being committed to global economic recovery, it has not stopped economic analysts from referencing the Great Depression of the 1930s and the 2008 financial crisis as potential outcomes for the global economy. As the pandemic worsens, these references may be inadequate in the face of incomparably greater levels of impoverishment coupled with pre-existing tendencies toward decoupling and deglobalisation. 

In the face of this volatile economic climate, political observers note the relationship between economic crises of the 20th century and ideological shifts toward Nazism and communism, as well as populist politics following 2008. It may be presumptuous to project a necessary link between the current economic challenges brought on by Covid-19 and the potential rise of populist politics, but populists are leveraging the crisis.

More specifically, as decisive political action has been taken over recent weeks across the global political spectrum, it seems that some of these actions may unintentionally play into the hands of the populist radical right. Regulations such as closed borders, market protectionism, anti-immigrant attitudes and calls to “put the nation first” are in line with populist right-wing manifestos. This has extended into vindicating nationalist arguments for a less globalised, less connected world. 

If these measures are extended over long periods of time and become almost normalised, they can legitimise the long-held positions of populist parties and politicians. Examples of this may be seen in the recent statement by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán when he equates the coronavirus and migrants as a “two-front war”, stating further that “there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement”. More recently, Austria’s President Alexander van der Bellen’s televised speech was addressed to “Austrians” and “those who live here” only. As coronavirus puts up invisible walls, populist politicians follow suit as they incorporate the challenges and vulnerabilities associated with the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic into their playbooks.  

There have been stereotypical responses by some populist leaders, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and even Mexico’s left-wing populist leader, Andrés Obrador, consisting of blatant denialism toward the reality and effect of the virus, distracting the public with conspiracy theories, “business as usual” attitudes and offering up half-hearted policies aimed at quelling the public’s growing concern about their health. 

These leaders join other populist politicians in attacking, questioning, criticising and discrediting the media, government information agencies, experts and academics seeking to inform the public of the facts and figures concerning the coronavirus. More notably, and alongside backtracking on his views about the coronavirus, United States President Donald Trump has not only directed public outrage and blame toward China for the coronavirus but has also taken the opportunity to instrumentalise the pandemic toward consolidating his power and bid for re-election.  

A few populist leaders have used the legal conditions of states of emergency or national disaster Acts as a means to push through authoritarian agendas disguising them as “emergency measures”. Orbán has yet to slow down his efforts to institute an authoritarian regime, as he instils further draconian measures and promotes conspiracy theories in attempts to contain the effect of the coronavirus on the Hungarian people. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the coronavirus as a means to execute a self-coup in Israel, thereby suspending the functioning and use of both the courts and Parliament. Orbán and Netanyahu have joined other populist leaders in doubling down on populist efforts to undermine traditional authority and legitimate checks and balances. 

Much of the rhetoric and many of the structural and socioeconomic problems manipulated by populist politicians predate the coronavirus and owe their existence to neoliberalism among other factors. Perhaps then, it may be too soon to predict the full extent to which governments will suffer politically as a result of their chosen crisis-management strategies. 

More crucially, given the lack of a clear and uniform response by populist leaders and movements, it is unclear whether Covid-19 will make populism its “first ideological casualty” or further entrench populism across the ideological spectrum. Leftist populism manifests in calls for solidarity among those experiencing a common struggle of economic and social vulnerability, and in turn insufficient action by governments, in favour of a change in authority. 

Right-wing populists may mobilise secure members of the middle and upper classes in favour of scapegoating the blame for Covid-19 on anyone and anything outside of national borders. Ultimately the path taken will depend on a number of factors including who the majority public seek to blame for this “new normal”, how exactly they are mobilised against their target and what their intended goal is. 

What of South Africa? The Ramaphosa administration has been lauded for leading an admirable and largely decisive response to the coronavirus. Much of this has included strict national lockdown regulations, increased standards on provincial healthcare systems and capacities, waves of reassuring media campaigns by politicians and media personalities, and nationwide broadcasting of both the scientific methods and processes driving the command council’s decision-making as well as reassuring updates from the president on the plans to contain the spread of Covid-19. 

Additionally, Ramaphosa has broadcasted his contact with a number of world leaders as a means to not only show South Africa’s solidarity and commitment toward a global recovery from the effect of the coronavirus but also, one can only assume, to strengthen diplomatic ties in a highly volatile political climate. The actions and decisions of the Ramaphosa administration have, to a large extent, been a change from his usual lead-from-behind approach to governance. Even more so, considering his endearing response to the coronavirus as chairman of the African Union.

But South Africans’ support for the Ramaphosa administration and its decisions on the management of the coronavirus have been challenged. The public has gone from cooing over the president’s “God bless South Africa” messages to challenging the way in which the government has curtailed basic rights and freedoms through stringent lockdown regulations and enforcement — regardless of this being done in the name of national safety.

As droves of seaside residents and surfers alike call for the government to reconsider their access to public spaces and freedom of movement entirely, South Africans are made starkly aware of the plight of the majority poor and lower class as lines for food and grant distribution lengthen. Various outbreaks of public discontent include people in townships, among established and informal business sectors, and beach-goers. 

This situation is not unique to South Africa. Analysts caution that this reality is highly susceptible to the makings of populist politics. Notably, calls for economic nationalism have already been made by local economists and influential politicians in South Africa. 

In the case that the South African government is incapable of addressing the needs of its people as well as the present emergency, not only will we see increasing social unrest, but a fundamental questioning of the government’s legitimacy. Perhaps it is not about questioning how long national solidarity will last but whether the Ramaphosa administration and South African democracy can withstand tests of legitimacy. 

Recently the leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, said, “If you don’t end it, the people of South Africa will take charge and end it for you.” 

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s controversial comments about the restructuring of South Africa’s economy after lockdown must be mentioned. The minister proposed the introduction of new policies that prioritise South Africans, pointing to an underlying nationalist sentiment that may come at the expense of foreigners in Mboweni’s “new” Mzansi. 

Not assuming that the DA nor Mboweni are populist, it’s likely that populists will increasingly be given the opportunity to argue for the nationalisation of industries and institutions, expropriation without compensation and far more decisive, perhaps even authoritarian, leadership. 

What has been clear since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it is not simply a health crisis but one also of national and global governance. This has led to a near global call for co-operative and co-ordinated international responses to the numerous problems brought on by the pandemic. Unfortunately, the recent G20 ministerial meeting in Saudi Arabia failed to heed the call. More so, the Trump administration has shown little interest or support for an international response. Rather, he took the opportunity to de-emphasise the risks of Covid-19 and subsequently criticised the efforts of the World Health Organisation. As many academics, policymakers and experts have noted, this is not what the world needs right now. 

Rather, this crisis has both presented the opportunity and demand for strong diplomatic action from every country, as governments must recognise the major political, social, economic and security implications of the spread of coronavirus. No country can single handedly survive this crisis. 

It is not enough for countries to simply send medical protective gear in exchange for future diplomatic favours, undertake unhealthy manufacturing competition for a vaccine or adopt an ”every man for himself”’ mentality of protectionism.

National and international healthcare organisations, private and public actors as well as governments must coordinate efforts toward a sustainable and accessible global response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Such a response may include agreements on best practices for containing the spread of Covid-19 globally and within national borders, shared resources, lifting sanctions, streamlining regulations on travel, economic activity, social distancing and even healthcare systems. 

Countries face varying constraints and because of this, there is an even stronger need for international co-operation to limit not only the global sense of panic but also the negative implications associated with this virus. Perhaps it is this very call that will challenge populism because it emphasises the need for expertise, consensus, social cohesion, established institutions and a global community able to undertake a single and unified response. 

Aaliyah Vayez is reading towards a master’s in social science, specialising in international relations, at the University of Cape Town. She is a Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Foundation master’s scholar and research intern at the South African Institute for International Affairs.