COVID -19 and the Rise of Populist Movements, by Flamur Gruda

By Flamur Gruda, student at the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria

Although it may be too early to tell, the rise of populist movements might continue to occur during these very trying times. Due to theCOVID-19 pandemic, populist parties might try and gain more influence in citizens after the situation becomes a bit more stable. They may be able to do this because of the financial constraints that the virus is causing on local and also global economic markets. It can already be observed that industries such as the banks and airlines will need bailouts due to massive losses. Even though the major airlines actually had plenty of capital last year, they had used it in order to do stock buy backs.

This means that they used the profits that had been gained in order to buy back public shares so as to divert from giving out dividends to the current shareholders. This is problematic especially during a crisis like the one we are all currently in because now they are on the verge of going bankrupt. Since these corporations are so large and employ thousands of individuals, they have already started asking national governments for money or bail out packages and the governments might be inclined to do it. This I believe will be a step in the wrong direction since there is now millions of citizens that have also lost their jobs and have no source of income. If national governments decide to instead bail out the large airlines and banks, this will trigger a lot of anger and disappointment to local citizens because they need the money more. It can also be argued that the airlines and banks would have been able to maintain their fiscal responsibilities if it were not for their greedy decisions to buy back their shares.

I believe that once the dust settles, the populist parties will rise in a lot of different countries, especially in Europe and North America because the citizens will feel even more disenfranchised. On top of already being isolated and filled with fear from COVID-19, citizens will have built up anger towards their respective governments because of the bail out packages. This will be a great scapegoat for the further rise of populist parties, and they can argue that the current governing regimes have let down the people. Instead of caring for the ordinary citizen, they again chose to follow the traditional capitalist model and bail out the large corporations in the hope that trickle-down economics would work, and money would eventually go to the hands of ordinary citizens. If it were not for COVID-19, I think citizens would have accepted that stark reality and would not have questioned it. However, these are truly difficult times for most people in the world and I believe the level of patience and tolerance will be running very thin, and because of this, the rise of populist parties will occur and whole governments will collapse.

Populist parties will gain power and continue to instill fear onto the populace. Borders now are being closed in most countries and I think that will continue to occur even further and there is a real risk of the Schengen to collapse for a very long period of time, maybe even for good. The traditional values that the populist parties preach will be highlighted even further and the idea of globalized society and diverse cultures will become even harder to grasp. Although this pandemic should unite humanity and makes us realize that we are very similar as citizens of the world, I am afraid that populist parties will use this to do the exact opposite.

2 replies
  1. Giulia Gagliano
    Giulia Gagliano says:

    I think this an incredibly interesting commentary on the socio-political ramifications that are predicted to unfold as the effects of the provisions taken in the handling of pandemic start to reveal themselves in the public eye.
    As mentioned in the post, I think that once the dust of the pandemic settles, citizens will have the ability to focus on their anger towards their respective governments in the policy priorities taken. This is particularly significant as this is exactly the type of disillusionment that populist leaders and populist parties exploit in their rhetoric.
    Indeed, I think that this will be a strategic opportunity for various ideological subgroups of populism in Europe and in North America (in particular in the U.S., who has already once been torn by the right wing populism of Trump and left wing populism of Sanders). Not only can the pandemic be seen as revealing the capitalist concerns of governments through their prioritization of massive bailouts for corporations and banks rather than adequate social welfare provisions, but it also can be used to critique progressive globalized liberal policies that slowed down the country’s willingness to shut down borders. I think this will particularly true in the case of the EU, with many member states criticized for not acting more quickly in the stopping of the freedom of movement between the Schengen members.
    I think that the potential fuel that the pandemic gives to right wing national populists in Europe is particularly concerning due to the already precarious and unstable future of the supranational organization. Speaking from personal experience, I have already witnessed a huge surge of vitriolic criticism and disillusionment towards the other EU member states by Italian citizens, who experienced the first virus epicenter outside of China. There has been significant circulation of how the notion of European solidarity and commitment between member states advocated by the EU is merely a facade that crumbles in actual times of crises. Such a narrative is merely another articulation of the same sentiment that emerged during the Great Recession of 2008 and the Migrant Crises of 2016, both in which Italy suffered relatively hard compared to other member states.
    Although there have been flickering instances of international or regional solidarity throughout the development of the COVID19 situation, I think that once we emerge out of the crisis and face the economic consequences that will inevitably affect every single person, people will be more likely to develop nationalist and protectionist sentiments for the purposes of prioritizing the economic and social rebuilding of their own country’s infrastructures. Such feelings are the exact type of narratives that anti-establishment nationalist populists will be able to thrive off of.

  2. Maya Gay
    Maya Gay says:

    Maya Gay, Undergraduate Student at the University of Victoria

    In the midst of Covid-19, leaders globally are struggling to deal with the high risk pandemic. Populism and populist leaders are now being put to the test to see if they can stand the major consequences that are becoming more and more inevitable. Populist Leaders like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are scrambling to control the spread of the virus and the public eye is watching. This wave of populism is dangerous to the pandemic as these populist leaders scurry to have their voices heard, often before ensuring their facts are truthful. This constant stream of dialogue keeps media and citizens busy with trying to prove if it is in fact truthful, as doctors and experts scramble to correct their statements.

    Populist leaders are struggling with the pandemic as it threatens their control over the media and dialogue. Global leaders are under the spotlight as citizens watch to see how they will respond to the huge global issues that are arising because of the pandemic. It’s not uncommon to see these leaders trying to twist the headlines to make them about themselves. President Donald Trump is under heat for his constant deflection of responsibility for the major outbreaks in the states. He discusses the medias coverage inducing hysteria and how it is an attempt to make him look bad from the democratic party. These statements, which are all too frequent, are a half hearted attempt at spreading the blame and diverting the attention he is under elsewhere.

    The credibility of these populist leaders are now being questioned by their citizens more than ever. The constant media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic is creates an issue for them as people are educated and constantly scrutinizing the leader’s actions. The availability of facts and statistics makes it much harder for these leaders to maintain their stance that everything is under control.  The populist wave has been focusing on maintaining the front that they have the pandemic handled and there is no need to worry. Unfortunately, the actions of the governments and the rapidly rising number of cases proves otherwise. As Europe officially has half of the world’s cases of corona virus, and UK’s prime minster Boris Johnson remains in the ICU for Covid-19, the public’s trust of the EU and their global leaders is also faltering. The handling of this epidemic is showing the cracks and shortcomings of electing populist leaders as the global death toll rises while global leaders divert and point fingers.

    This growing lack of credibility has citizens searching for the real expert advice. Self isolation gives people more time to be online and absorbing media coverage. This is seemingly irritating some of these populist leaders as they are being openly contradicted by people who have the facts. The constant fact checking of these leaders is a continuous undermining of their power, as scientists and doctors call out the accuracy of their statements. For example, many countries are giving statements drastically underestimating the length of this pandemic and instead focusing on the economy and ensuring the economy isn’t taking a hit. President Donald Trump is an example of this when he promised a vaccine that will work for Covid-19, which is for malaria, and people died because of the misinformation he was spreading. Covid-19 has and will continue to be a historical event that has citizens already questioning their populist leaders. This event could be a major change in the way the world elects leaders in the future and its opinion towards populism.

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