Untamed and Close to Power: How Europe's Populist Parties Are Navigating Coronavirus

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Expect them to go back to their pre-pandemic noisy selves in a few weeks (if they have not already done so), as the devastating economic and social impact of the lockdowns come to light.”

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We have recently asked the members of our Populism in Action team to write one article each explaining the impact of the pandemic on the countries covered by our research: Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, and Finland. The team has focused in particular on the strategies adopted by populist parties within these countries to either challenge their governments’ responses to the pandemic, or support them.

Judith Sijstermans on Belgium’s Flemish Interest: Coronavirus Shapes Belgium’s Government and Populist Opposition

Adrian Favero on the Swiss People’s Party: Coronavirus Brings Rare Unity Among Switzerland’s Parties

Mattia Zulianello and Daniele Albertazzi on Italy’s League: Populism and the Collapse of Italy’s Coronavirus Truce

Niko Hatakka on the Finns Party: Coronavirus Aftermath Is Likely to Unite Finland’s Right-Wing Parties

Now that we have the four articles on our website it is possible to offer some very brief comparative thoughts. What becomes apparent reading these analyses is the extent to which the parties we study remain fundamentally “other” vis-à-vis their competitors, refusing to “toe the line” for longer than a few weeks, even in times of crisis. Hence any moderation of tones and “rallying behind the flag” caused by the pandemic has in the end been rather short-lived. 

The Swiss People’s Party, the League and the Finns Party have all initially chosen to back the efforts of their governments, as the Coronavirus hit their countries. Hence the Swiss People’s Party (itself a member of the power-sharing executive) turned down the volume, recognising a yearning for unity among the population and the business community; similarly, the Finns Party and the League refrained from causing major clashes with their opponents, and in the Finnish case, even actively tried to rein in their ranks so that they would not take aim at the government’s efforts to contain the spread of the epidemic.

According to our researchers, the key to understanding this behaviour is these parties’ aspiration to govern (with the exception of the Swiss People’s Party, which is already in government). Hence, while they still need to be seen to be responsive to what they perceive to be their constituents’ needs, they also want to build a reputation for responsibility. And yet, in every country, the “truce” between populists and the government has been short lived. Shortly after our articles went on our website, both the Swiss People’s Party and the League have started calling for a very speedy end to the lockdown, criticising their governments in the process for not doing this fast enough. The Swiss People’s Party continues to serve in government while at the same time attacking the classe politique (the political establishment). Meanwhile, from the opposition benches, the League is again raising its voice on EU-related issues, as the first details were made public of an agreement EU governments are reaching on how to respond to the crisis caused by the pandemic.

Populist parties have realistic chances to govern in many European countries. The Swiss People’s Party is a long-standing member of the Swiss power sharing executive, and the League has accessed government five times during the last twenty-five years (although it finds itself in opposition right now). Treating them as “challenger parties”, while defining their opponents as  “mainstream/established”, has clearly become an anachronism today. However, this does not mean that they have been “tamed”, either in terms of their rhetoric or policy proposals.

Watching what is happening in Finland helps to reflect on this situation, whereby populists are increasingly the “new mainstream”, and yet are not compromising on their ideology and communication strategy. Here the Finns party was declared unfit to share government responsibilities by its potential allies as recently as 2017, due to a change of leadership. As the country entered into lockdown, the party leader told activists and supporters to avoid online confrontation and turn down the volume. And yet this has likely contributed to a re-thinking of the strategy of marginalisation by the centre-right Coalition Party that may well open the door to closer collaboration in the future, while the Finns party is no less radical now than it was in 2017.

The most obvious example of a party that was not even tempted by the idea of signing a short truce with its country’s government is that of the Flemish Interest: the party has never served in government so far due to a strict cordon sanitaire put in place by its opponents, and was not invited to any of the negotiations around the emergency government that was set up in Belgium to address the pandemic. The Flemish Interest has never relented its attacks against the emergency executive, accusing the government of incompetence and highlighting what it said were the many mistakes that the latter had made in handling the crisis. Yet, only a year ago it moved closer than ever to joining a government coalition, as our article explains, and the need to transition from opposition to government was explicitly addressed in the most recent book written by their party’s leader: “And now it is up to us”.

To conclude, while populists are increasingly parties of government, this is not having any noticeable taming effect on them. The opposite is in fact increasingly the case, as non-populist parties take a leaf out of the populist box of tricks and imitate their more vociferous competitors in countries such as, for instance, the UK, Austria, France, and the Netherlands, to name but a few. Populists now have a substantial media presence and increasingly shape the public agenda in contemporary Europe. Expect them to go back to their pre-pandemic noisy selves in a few weeks (if they have not already done so), as the devastating economic and social impact of the lockdowns come to light. Also expect their competitors to keep co-opting their style and ideas as they try to keep up with them.

Daniele Albertazzi is Reader in Politics at the Department of Politics and International Studies of the University of Birmingham. He is the Principal Investigator for “The survival of the mass party: Evaluating activism and participation among populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Europe”, funded by ESRC.

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