The new coronavirus constitutes a major threat to the lives of millions of people and has forced governments around the world to adopt radical lockdown measures that risk an unprecedented economic downturn. As a natural threat, the new virus strikes fear in the public and creates a demand for political authority. In many countries, support for governing parties has soared. Yet at the same time, measures to counter the spread of the virus draw upon a scarce resource: people’s discipline and endurance in putting their lives on hold while witnessing these measures’ negative effects on the economy. Once patience wanes and restrictions trigger a blowback, no democratic government can enforce strict lockdown measures against a majority of its citizens. The coronavirus crisis thus not only constitutes a challenge for governments to adopt the right measures at the right time and win popular support for them, an opportunity to show authority and the capability to act, but also a temptation to instrumentalize the threat and overuse authority, compromising liberal rights and democratic legitimacy. In Western democracies, we see examples for three distinct response patterns to the crisis.
The erratic-populist response: The United States and the United Kingdom“Both the US president and UK prime minister tried to downplay the virus as a ‘mild flu.’”
The initial responses to the coronavirus threat in the United States and the United Kingdom were remarkably similar. Both the US president and UK prime minister tried to downplay the virus as a “mild flu.” At a time when (inferring from subsequent fatality numbers) the virus was already spreading in their countries, they sought to picture it as an external threat to be contained by travel and immigration bans alone. While Boris Johnson—who in a symbolic twist of events ended up in intensive care with Covid-19 himself—has since been forced to take a U-turn and temporarily adopt strict “shelter in place” measures, Donald Trump’s communication remains highly erratic. With lockdown policies in the hands of state governments, Trump’s authority in the crisis is largely limited to Twitter comments and (now-discontinued) press conferences, where he voices bizarre (allegedly ironic) suggestions like injecting disinfectants and calls for the “liberation” of locked-down states. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the United States and the United Kingdom have seen rapidly rising infections and, to date, are listed in first and third place, respectively, for the highest number of reported fatalities, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
With government performance poor by such indicators, both Trump and Johnson have responded to the crisis in an almost ideal-typical populist style. As Nadia Urbinati points out in her recently published theory of populism, the populist leader proclaims political representation as embodiment.1Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020More Info → He asserts to act and decide not by mandate of a democratic majority, but to embody the real people: “Like a prophet in relation to God, the leader has no will of his or her own but is rather a vessel of the sovereign will—the mouth from which the vox populi manifests itself.”2Urbinati, Me the People, 125. Donald Trump does indeed seem to mouth the unthinking responses of his assumed voters, starting with denial (“mild flu”), anger directed at an external enemy (“Chinese virus”), and leading to the hope for simple solutions (“injecting disinfectants”). Although the attempt to protect the US economy from a further downturn in an election year is likely to be the more rational incentive behind Trump’s reluctance to embrace strict containment measures, the price paid for his indecisive and erratic strategy in fighting the virus seems to be high.
The authoritarian-populist response: Hungary and Poland
It is interesting to compare Trump and Johnson’s responses to those of other political leaders commonly characterized as “populist,” especially in Central and Eastern Europe. However, some qualifications seem in order for this comparison. Whereas Trump and Johnson have come into office as candidates of mainstream parties in consolidated democracies, leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic, or Jarosław Kaczyński and Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland lead right-wing populist parties in less consolidated democracies. Moreover, the Central and Eastern European states remain middle-income countries with relatively poorly equipped healthcare systems that put them in a difficult position to fight the new virus. Given the small number of intensive care units available, countries like Hungary had little alternative to quickly adopting strict lockdown measures in order to contain the spread of the disease. Infection and fatality numbers seem to prove the success of this strategy: with a population of roughly 10 million, Hungary has low 4-digit infection and 3-digit fatality numbers and small daily increases.“He effectively rules by decree now, largely bypassing the parliament.”
Its apparent success in fighting the pandemic, however, should not blend out the ways in which Orbán has used the coronavirus crisis to declare an open-ended state of emergency, in which checks and balances are abolished and civil rights severely curtailed. He effectively rules by decree now, largely bypassing the parliament. Thanks to these emergency laws, he has also introduced prison sentences of up to five years for journalists who publish “false news”—an instrument that can easily be used to silence political opponents and critics. It seems that Orbán has not only used the pandemic as an opportunity to bolster his authority but has adopted outright authoritarian measures that seriously infringe on liberal and democratic rights.
In Poland, the governing party PiS (Law and Justice) has also sought to increase its grip on power during the pandemic. It used its parliamentary majority to alter electoral laws prior to the recent election—in clear violation of constitutional law. One of the central aims of the PiS was to hold the presidential election without much delay despite the fact that election campaigns of opposition candidates faced serious challenges during the pandemic. Still, as President Duda faced a serious challenger, the party wanted to seize the opportunity, since the opposition parties struggled to get their own messages out during the crisis as public attention focused on the executive’s actions.
To a varying degree, the Covid-19 pandemic offers authoritarian leaders the opportunity to further weaken democracy. In Poland and Hungary, the quality of democracy has deteriorated dramatically over the last ten years. In fact, recent measures of democracy do no longer count Hungary as a liberal democracy and Poland is following a very similar path.3Anna Lührmann et al., Autocratization Surges – Resistance Grows: Democracy Report 2020 (Gothenburg, Sweden: V-Dem Institute, 2020), 16. Viktor Orbán, for sure, does not want to let the crisis go to waste for his own authoritarian project.
The rational-technocratic response: Germany
Compared to the populist and authoritarian responses, Germany’s more balanced, rational response seems to constitute a model case for successful crisis management—although other countries, such as Greece, have actually done better. Following the advice from experts in virology and epidemiology, Angela Merkel’s government successfully coordinated lockdown policies of the 16 German Länder (states). Early and relatively extensive testing has probably detected a majority of infected individuals who could then be quarantined. While freedoms of movement and assembly were curtailed, the German lockdown measures were not as strict as those adopted in many other countries, still allowing people to leave their houses at all times. From the onset of the crisis, the government’s communication about the disease and the political measures adopted to contain it has been serious, rational, and well-informed, enhancing the government’s authority and winning a strong initial backing for and compliance with the lockdown strategy. As a result, infection rates in Germany have declined quickly and fatalities per one million inhabitants are considerably lower than in the United States and many other European countries.4Germany has seen slightly over 9,000 deaths, compared to over 30,000 in France, over 45,000 in the United Kingdom, and over 138,000 in the United States, per data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
In addition to the public health measures, Germany adopted an unprecedented economic rescue package to reduce the negative impact of the pandemic. The economic aid is available for many different kinds of businesses and employees. One of the core features is the so-called “short-time work allowance” (Kurzarbeitergeld), which subsidizes wages to pre-empt unemployment. This instrument was used successfully during the financial crises of 2008–2009 and sailed through the legislature within a few days. It is too early to tell whether the economic measures succeed but the speed of adoption was unprecedented, too. As the governing coalition holds a comfortable majority in the Bundestag, far-reaching decisions were taken with little public debate. As government officials and high-ranking figures from the administration explained the course of action on a daily basis, opposition parties all but disappeared from public attention. There was little debate about trade-offs or policy alternatives as the government managed to portray its stance as alternativlos (without alternative).“The downside to Germany’s rational but technocratic response strategy became apparent when, succumbing to pressure from the Länder governments, the federal government took first steps to ease the coronavirus restrictions.”
However, the downside to Germany’s rational but technocratic response strategy became apparent when, succumbing to pressure from the Länder governments, the federal government took first steps to ease the coronavirus restrictions. Having successfully followed the advice of medical experts in adopting containment policies, Merkel announced that steps to relax restrictions would be based on a report drafted by members of the Leopoldina, the German National Academy of Sciences. This depoliticization strategy, which had worked in coordinating the initial response to the coronavirus threat, reached its limits in a situation where competing interests and trade-offs had become apparent and a genuinely political decision was required. The Leopoldina report that had hastily been drafted by a disputable interdisciplinary group of (mainly male, senior) experts did little to help the weighting of competing values and provided insufficient justification for specific measures. In consequence, the discipline of the states’ prime ministers in coordinating their strategies dwindled, and the Länder have started to relax restrictions independently of the federal government’s strategy. In addition, several court rulings have modified some of the most far-reaching infringements on political and civil rights. For example, as long as participants adhered to the general rules of “social distance,” political demonstrations and church services were ruled to be permitted.
As the crisis progressed, Merkel’s communication took on, at times, a self-opinionated, paternalistic tone. For example, when she called for “discussion orgies” about opening up the economy to stop. Insisting that the government would follow the advice of experts on what the “right” measures to adopt were, Merkel seemed to see little room for public debate and processes of democratic will-formation where the weighting of competing interests and goods was concerned. Eventually, Germany’s success in fighting the pandemic might contribute to a backlash against the very measures that have enabled it. Recent weeks have seen a growing number of demonstrations, with protesters criticizing the lockdown as an overreaction and infringement on civil rights, and in part denying the coronavirus threat altogether.
In sum, none of the response strategies to the coronavirus has been without problems, although the costs incurred by erratic-populist and authoritarian-populist responses seem significantly higher than those of the rational-technocratic strategy. While timely, decisive, and coordinated lockdown measures and a careful exit from these seemed to have been essential in containing the first wave of infections, the success of containment strategies for second or third waves of infections will depend on support from a public that is already worn out. Moreover, in the near future, few countries across the world are likely to escape severe economic and political turmoil. While in the early stages of the pandemic optimistic voices believed the threat of the virus would have an equalizing effect that might spark a new sense of community and demand for a more considerate lifestyle, economic crisis is more likely to bring fierce conflicts of interest to the fore. Although in the eyes of many, the pandemic has unmasked the incompetence of populist leaders, public opinion may still shift as the crisis wears on. Today’s polls and levels of government support are unlikely to be indicative of election results in several months’ time—and optimism that the coronavirus crisis will mark the turn of the tide on populism might be premature.
Banner photo credit: European Commission.