On average, populist governments record significantly lower increases in popularity in the coronavirus crisis than non-populist ones, even though they usually introduced similar policies to contain the pandemic. At the same time, however, populists are making greater use of emergency laws to weaken democratic competition and institutions in their country, according to an evaluation by researchers at the Kiel Institute. In the long run, the success of populist governments is likely to depend on the economic consequences of the crisis and whether emergency legislation is withdrawn once the pandemic ends.
While non-populist governments on average recorded a significant increase in their support in the initial phase of the coronavirus crisis, the increases for populist governments were much lower. “This difference is noteworthy as populist governments were more popular than non-populist governments before the crisis,” said Kiel Institute researcher Michael Bayerlein. Together with his colleague Győző Gyöngyösi, he published a study entitled “The Impact of Covid-19 on Populism: Will it be weakening?” that examined the differences between the two types of government.
According to this analysis, populist governments were less able to capitalize on the crisis than non-populist governments at the beginning, although the populists’ crisis policies to contain the pandemic were similar to that of other governments, with few exceptions. The researchers were able to prove this with the help of a catalogue of policy steps that had been introduced. The difference could, among other things, be due to the fact that the blame for the pandemic cannot so easily be ascribed to “the elite” as populists often successfully do, the researchers suspect.
Nevertheless, populist governments are not necessarily weakened by the crisis, because they simultaneously increased their powers in the political system with the help of emergency laws. “Emergency legislation allows populist governments to implement controversial policies that limit political competition by suspending the political system’s checks and balances. Five out of six analyzed populist governments introduced laws that pose a medium or high risk to democratic institutions,” said Bayerlein. According to the researchers’ analysis, the governments Orban (Hungary), Modi (India), and Bolsonaro (Brazil) were particularly active in this respect.
“The findings suggest that populist governments will not be weakened by the crisis in the short-run,” said Bayerlein. “Whether they will be weakened in the long-run will heavily depend on the economic policies implemented to counter the economic fallout of the crisis. Although blaming ‘the elite’ is less credible for the COVID-19 crisis itself, blaming the elite for the mismanagement of the economic fallout of the pandemic is more straightforward, and could lead to a surge of populist governments.“