The COVID-19 pandemic has globally affected many things, one of which is the powers that hold congressional power in many countries. Many countries with democracies or core democratic elements, such as the United States, Italy, the UK, and others, have seen rising phenomena of populist parties gaining votes for congressional and house chairs. Many academics have researched the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and the popularity of populist, right-wing parties. Yet, there is not a large enough body of literature to comfortably say that there is a consensus on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the popularity of populist, right-wing parties. So, how did the pandemic affect our democracies?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries saw protests against governments for their unsatisfactory handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. These protests emerged from undesirable economic conditions caused by government-enforced shutdowns, public health mandates, or poor management on the part of government institutions. Many of these protests show a lack of trust for the incumbent parties of government in democratic countries like the US or France. This mistrust in government led to populist, right-wing parties increasing their vote share in general elections, especially with Italy’s Brothers of Italy Party, Spain’s Vox Party, and the Sweden Democrats.
The Brothers of Italy is a nationalist, conservative, and right-wing populist party in Italy, becoming the country’s biggest party by votes after the 2022 general election. The party holds many xenophobic and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments, some of which were heightened during the unstable years of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni, spread rhetoric of illegal immigration connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. They also accused the incumbent government of favoritism for immigrants while damaging Italian natives and their businesses in a show of hypocrisy. This rhetoric seems to have been effective at convincing the public to distrust the ruling party. During the 2018 and 2022 Election, the Brothers of Italy’s voter proportion saw a 21.75% increase in the Senate and a 21.65% increase in the Chamber of Deputies. In 2018, the Brothers of Italy had 7 seats (4.26% of the popular vote) in the Senate and 19 seats (4.35% of the popular vote) in the Chamber. In 2022, the Brothers of Italy had 34 seats (26.01% of the popular vote) in the Senate and 69 seats (26% of the popular vote) in the Chamber. The Brothers of Italy gained 27 seats in the Senate and 50 seats in the Chamber of Deputies between 2018 and 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic likely had a large impact on helping the populist party gain more Senate and House seats.
In Spain, the conservative, right-wing populist party is the Vox party. They hold many similar positions to Vox regarding abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and the pandemic. They had also been able to find success in exploiting fear and confusion during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Vox focused more on the discontent with the health and economic crisis than on anti-immigration rhetoric. In terms of their success in the elections, they saw a similar increase in electoral success for the Congress of Deputies but a less substantial increase in electoral success for the Senate of Spain. In 2016, Vox had no seats (0.20% of votes) in Congress and 0 seats (0.25% of votes) in the Senate. In November 2019, Vox had 52 seats (15.08% of votes) in Congress and 2 seats (5.08% of votes) in the Senate. Vox had gained 2 seats in the Senate and 52 seats in Congress between 2016 and November 2019. The percentage of votes for Vox increased by 4.83% for the Senate and 14.88% for Congress.
The Sweden Democrats are also a similar party to Vox and the Brothers of Italy. They are a right-wing conservative party holding many similar stances on immigration, economics, and the pandemic. While Sweden suffered an extremely high number of deaths compared to the other Nordic countries, the Sweden Democrats blamed it on the non-compliance of refugees and multiculturalism rather than the herd-immunity approach they attempted. Similar to the other parties discussed, they find political success, although minor, during the pandemic. However, the Swedish Parliament is a unicameral system consisting only of the Riksdag. In 2018, Sweden Democrats had 62 seats (17.52% of votes) in Parliament. In 2022, Sweden Democrats had 73 seats (20.54% of votes) in Parliament. The Sweden Democrats had gained 9 seats in Parliament between 2018 and 2022. The percentage of votes for the Sweden Democrats increased by 3.02%. It is clear that many populist countries around the world have been able to secure more votes during the pandemic.
The problem of the people’s trust eroding in incumbent liberal-democratic parties is that they elect populist parties that undermine the democratic systems and norms for their political benefit. Therefore, the legitimacy of a democratic regime, as Linz argues, is essential to their survival. Otherwise, a democratic breakdown can occur when the problems that the government is meant to solve become “unsolvable.” Linz also adds that these situations are usually within times of crisis, which the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government handling of it perfectly illustrates. Those distrustful of the government believe that economic problems and confusion regarding civil liberties are problems that the government should attempt to address first and foremost. Instead, the government amplifies these issues with their health mandates and business restrictions due to necessity in a pandemic. Then, the incumbent party loses legitimacy and the support of these people. A more responsive government would likely be the key to winning back legitimacy. However, the issue of whether you should platform and legitimize populist leaders who use the fears of the citizens in crisis comes into the conversation. While Levinsky and Zibat argue against engaging with them and only engaging with their core concerns, Müller argues against this alienation of populist leaders. Instead, he argues that this would only further prove the populist point of view that the bureaucracy is undemocratic. Alternatively, one should engage with them in debate with fact and reason. The COVID-19 pandemic has been the optimal condition for right-wing populists all over the world to join together in support of removing their incumbent ruling party. They used the public in times of crisis and turned them against the incumbent party out of mistrust. In hindsight, the COVID-19 handling could have been better in regards to keeping the public satisfied with greater responsiveness to vocalized fears and anxieties. The mistrust around masking was heavily influenced by guidelines from the CDC. The CDC strategically recommended people not to wear masks due to worries of shortages for medical staff. However, they changed their guidelines when the supply lines of masks were more stable. Due to this, many grew to mistrust not only the CDC but the incumbent government associated with the CDC. However, there is still a possibility that incumbent governments are able to find the data they need in this relatively new problem of pandemic mistrust to restore validity and prevent further democratic erosion at the hands of right-wing populism.