Covid backlash: Europe’s populists eye opportunity in never-ending pandemic

There was live music, dancing and bottles of Sekt sparkling wine. The chancellor, the president, the mainstream party leaders and the media bosses were all there, in black tie and sequinned evening dresses.

What made last Friday’s gala extra exclusive, though, was that it was also the only legal party in the country — a charity fundraiser at Austrian state broadcaster ORF which, according to organisers, means that it counted as an “official” work event.

Four days earlier, the government had banned all other parties when Austria became the first nation in Europe this winter to reinstate a hard national lockdown. The new restrictions were coupled with a highly controversial announcement that vaccinations would be mandatory for all adults from February onwards. Austrians have to stay at home until mid-December, non-essential shops are closed and children can only to go to school if strictly necessary.

One political group and its leaders were conspicuously absent from Friday’s bash — Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).

As images of the gala circulated widely on Saturday morning, the leader of FPÖ Vienna, Dominik Nepp, held a press conference. Austrians are “locked up” in front of their TV sets, he thundered, but “our federal government is partying . . . without social distancing, without masks and, above all, without shame”.

Even before the emergence of the new Omicron variant, a number of European governments were facing growing resistance to pandemic-related restrictions that have been in put in place to deal with an early-winter surge in infections. The potential for political pushback is likely to increase as governments, nervous about a new variant that might be more resistant to vaccines, seek to impose new measures on their populations — potentially including more vaccine mandates.

In some countries, at least, the pandemic is now creating new political space for the politicians of the right and left who have spent the last decade trying to surf a wave of anti-establishment sentiment. Across the continent, populist parties are rethinking their strategies and casting themselves increasingly as the parties of vaccine scepticism and anti-lockdown libertarianism.

As public frustration grows, populist politicians are finding themselves singing from a well-known songsheet, with anger directed at hypocritical ruling elites and seemingly out-of-touch scientific experts. The pattern is most striking in central and eastern Europe, where vaccine scepticism has been higher than other parts of the continent and new social curbs, as a result of rising cases of Covid-19, have already begun to be reimposed.

Protesters at a rally held by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party against the measures taken to curb the coronavirus pandemic in Vienna last month © Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty

Until now, the pandemic has been regarded as bad for populist parties. A YouGov-Cambridge Globalism study found in November that populist beliefs had “broadly declined” in 10 European countries over the past three years.

But populist parties are starting to see opportunities in public discontent with a rapidly changing and seemingly never-ending pandemic. Shortly after the hard lockdown in Austria was announced last month, 40,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Vienna in one of the largest political protests in years. In the Netherlands, the same weekend, protests turned to riots in Rotterdam and The Hague, with dozens of arrests. Meanwhile in Brussels, 35,000 people turned out to demonstrate against new curbs on their lives, including mandatory homeworking for four days of the week. The Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland have all seen rallies in the past few weeks, with thousands in attendance.

Whether or not established populist parties can turn public frustration into political support will depend on the course of the pandemic, as well as the particularities of individual countries. So far, populist parties in Europe have had mixed success in funnelling public discontent into votes.

But some parties are beginning to seize the political opening presented by the pandemic. “The past three years may have been bad for European populists. But what is interesting now . . . is how populists are changing their nature and what that will mean for the future,” says the political scientist Ivan Krastev, chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. “Suddenly populists all over Europe have had a libertarian baptism.” 

The pandemic has taken Europe’s populists a step closer to their counterparts across the Atlantic, Krastev adds. In the US, nationalism has long been entwined with libertarianism as a powerful anti-establishment force. “I think we are going to have a very turbulent political decade ahead of us in Europe,” he says.

Mobilised youth

On a frosty Saturday in mid-November, thousands of protesters gathered at Zurich’s Turbinenplatz ready to march through the city centre. It was a ragtag assembly. Alongside supporters of the populist rightwing Swiss People’s Party were Buddhists and free-market liberals. There were Freiheitstrychler — “Freedom Ringers” — heavy-set men in traditional alpine dress carrying huge cowbells over their shoulders, and students from Zurich’s world-renowned technical university.

A group of anti-vaxxers protest outside the ministry of justice during a press conference by the government announcing new pandemic restrictions last month in The Hague, Netherlands
Anti-vaxxers protest outside the justice ministry during a press conference by the government announcing new pandemic restrictions last month in The Hague, Netherlands © Pierre Crom/Getty

The peaceful protest, which drew an estimated 2,000 people, according to police, was the latest of dozens across Swiss cities in the past month. The protester’s target was a November 28 referendum on the government’s legal powers to enforce the use of vaccine and Covid test certificates. The government won. But 38 per cent of the population voted against it.

Switzerland is rich, efficiently governed, with an economy that has barely been hit by the pandemic and with a well-resourced healthcare system that has kept Covid-19 deaths notably low. Yet it has seen an upswell in support for campaign groups and movements opposed to both vaccinations and, more broadly, to any restrictive measures imposed by the government.

It is, as such, an interesting example of how the pandemic is galvanising a populist backlash in some surprising ways.

“We’re fighting against forced vaccination,” said Isidore Kasper, a young carpenter from Biel from a middle-class family, who describes his politics as “green and ecological”. He supports the “Free Left”, a protest movement broadly opposed to vaccines and lockdowns that emerged in the summer and is unofficially led by Simone Machado, a green city councillor from Bern. “I know of someone who had the vaccine and two days later he had a blood clot. He’s not been the same person since,” Kasper added, as he set up his stall to make crepes for rally attendees. “This is a huge issue. If things don’t change then we will go and live in Mexico.” 

Just how young many attendees at protest rallies in Switzerland, Germany and Austria have been is striking.

A recent pan-European poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations teased out the generational divide: 57 per cent of those under 30 said their lives had been affected by the pandemic, compared with just 35 per cent of over-60s. Moreover, 43 per cent of under-30s said they were suspicious of government motives in introducing lockdowns, compared with 28 per cent of over 60s. 

Some of this anti-government sentiment is fuelling emerging movements on the right and left. “We are a movement of the youth, by the youth, for the youth,” says Nicolas Rimoldi, one of the organisers of Mass-Voll, a Swiss group set up to protest coronavirus restrictions. “We are a civil rights movement,” he adds. “All the things that are normal for young people have been robbed from them by governments.” 

People with candles walk along Marktstrasse to Domplatz during a protest against coronavirus measures in Thuringia, Germany
People with candles walk along Marktstrasse to Domplatz during a protest against coronavirus measures in Thuringia, Germany © Martin Schutt/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

The limits of extremism

The growth in support for populist groups is a far from uniform phenomenon in Europe. Across the border in Germany, the loose coalitions of lockdown opponents and vaccine sceptics that have sprung up have not yet translated into ballot box success for established populist parties.

For much of the pandemic, the far-right Alternative for Germany has been the most outspoken opponent of coronavirus measures in politics. Its politicians have railed against what they call the “corona dictatorship” and campaigned vociferously for a lifting of the long lockdown last winter.

The party’s position has gained it some support in a country where vaccination uptake has been slow compared with other parts of Europe. In Germany, 68.5 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, compared with 79.4 per cent in Spain.

A survey carried out by Forsa, a polling company, after the federal election in September found that 50 per cent of unvaccinated voters had chosen the AfD, indicating that it had become strongly associated with vaccine resistance. Meanwhile, the German public has become increasingly dissatisfied with the government’s response to the crisis. According to the YouGov-Cambridge poll, 27 per cent of German responders said their government was doing a bad job of handling the pandemic in 2020. That rose to 52 per cent this year. In Spain and France, by contrast, support for government pandemic policy has increased.

But the AfD’s image has been tarnished by its strategy. Its association with anti-vaxxers and coronavirus conspiracy theorists turned off the more traditional rightwing voters it had previously won cautious support from with its tough stance on immigration. In September’s election, the AfD’s share of the vote fell from 12.6 per cent in 2017 to 10.3 per cent.

“The AfD discovered that it was harder to mobilise voters with opposition to the corona lockdowns than it was with the issue of immigration,” says Hans Vorländer, a political scientist at the Dresden University of Technology.

The party’s extreme positions were opposed to those of the liberal Free Democrats, who did not support the lockdown but didn’t deny the severity of the pandemic and was behind the vaccination campaign from the start. Political analysts say the FDP was able to scoop up the votes of moderate coronavirus sceptics and is now part of the new government coalition that should be sworn into office this December.

However, the emergence of the new variant could lead to a sharpening of political tensions in Germany over the pandemic. On Tuesday, chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz said he was in favour of mandatory vaccinations for everyone. If the Bundestag now adopts such a requirement, it could galvanise the anti-vaxxer movement in Germany and potentially lead to a wave of social unrest.

Like in Germany, established populist parties in the Netherlands have had mixed success in winning voters. Following a campaign against lockdown measures in the general election this year, the Freedom for Democracy party of Thierry Baudet — dubbed the Donald Trump of the Netherlands — won eight seats in parliament. It then lost three of them to political defections after MPs reacted in disgust to a party poster comparing lockdown to the Nazi occupation of the country during the war.

Health workers at a hospital in Trencin, Slovakia
Health workers at a hospital in Trencin, Slovakia © Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters

‘Gene of resistance’

The new wave of infections has been a particularly difficult issue for the government in Poland, which is led by the populist Law and Justice party (PiS). Early in the pandemic it responded relatively strongly, closing the country’s borders in March 2020, introducing lockdowns and mandating mask-wearing in public places.

But as cases have soared again in recent weeks it has been reluctant to take similarly aggressive measures, even though the country’s relatively low level of vaccination has sparked fears that the health service will again come under heavy pressure.

“We’re a slightly different country . . . we are set up differently culturally,” deputy health minister Waldemar Kraska explained on the radio station RMF FM. “I think that we approach restrictions, which are imposed by our government, with a big dose of caution. For many centuries, we have had in our genes a gene of resistance.” 

Ryszard Luczyn, an analyst at Polityka Insight, says that the government’s reluctance to introduce stronger curbs was being driven by several factors, ranging from fear of upsetting its voters — most of whom do not want new restrictions — to worries about the cost of another lockdown.

“No one wants to take the responsibility for implementing strong measures,” he says. “It’s a perfect storm of a lack of leadership, lack of support for tough restrictions, and lack of money.”

Another factor, he adds, is that PiS was also wary of allowing Confederation, a far-right grouping that entered parliament in 2019, to build its position by hoovering up the support of anti-vaxxers and lockdown opponents.

“There is pressure from anti-vaxxers both inside and outside the parliament,” he says. “PiS has always tried to prevent anyone emerging to the right of them, and Confederation is there now, and PiS really, really don’t want to strengthen them.”

A man waits to get a Covid-19 vaccine at a centre in Vienna, Austria
A man waits to get a Covid-19 vaccine at a centre in Vienna, Austria © Vadim Ghirda/AP

In Austria, too, it was the emergence of a new party opposed to vaccine restrictions, People-Freedom-Rights (MFG), that appears to have pushed the FPÖ into taking a harder line. MFG won 6 per cent of the ballot in regional elections in September — drawing a large proportion of its support from former FPÖ voters.

A new populist wave?

The key question for the months ahead, says Austrian political commentator Thomas Hofer, is whether populist parties will be able to fuse the various and growing strands of anger and discontent circulating in pandemic-weary populations into something more durable.

“Can they transfer this issue about freedom and personal rights to other issues? The potential is there and I wouldn’t underestimate it,” he says, pointing to Austria. “Can the Freedom Party close the circle? They could perhaps, if you imagine them taking this anti-establishment message built around personal rights and freedom from the establishment and join that up with taxes, with the cost of living, with the cost of heating, with the burden we are going to see imposed because of the climate transition.”

Already, Austria’s Freedom Party has seen its poll ratings begin to steadily rise. If there was a federal election tomorrow, FPÖ is on track to win 20 per cent of the vote, up from 10 per cent at the beginning of the year.

“I think we are most probably facing a new cycle of political instability,” says Krastev. The pandemic, he says, has fractured parts of the European liberal consensus without many governments yet really having realised it.

The certainties that Europe arrived at in response to its last big three crises have all been revisited, he says. In the war on terror, Europe argued for privacy and civil liberties, but the pandemic ushered in the biggest restrictions on personal freedoms in a generation. With the financial crisis, Europe pledged to maintain fiscal discipline and control spending, but national debt has soared since Covid emerged. And with the migration crisis, Europe championed open borders and integration, whereas coronavirus has made it a fortress.

“The pandemic is a decisive moment,” Krastev says. “But maybe not in the sense of the train changing direction, but rather, speeding up.”

Additional reporting by Javier Espinoza

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