The Covid-19 Crisis as an Ideological Armory for the Populist Right in Spain and Italy
By Amélie Jaques-Apke
“… Until yesterday, it believed itself immune from the hereditary plagues of mankind. It could not credit the danger of being suffocated or infected by any sinister principle.”George Santayana in: David Bell, ‘The dispossessed’, 1962
“FdI and Vox are ultimately the only opportunities to (re-)unite the left today and to reconstruct an alternative political project to the current one that led (among other things) to the return of the far right”Professor Santiago Zabala, personal communication, November 2022
As Europe begins to emerge from a troublesome pandemic, we begin to evaluate the political damages. Italy’s recent elections in September 2022 and the triumph of the Fratelli d’Italia (extreme right, ECR in Europe) might indicate that populist right-wingers have acquired a different assertiveness. Over the past two years, scholars and analysts explored many facets of the Covid-19 pandemic and how this sanitary crisis has been (ab-)used by populist parties (e.g. Bol et al. 2021; Santana et al. 2020; Bobba and Hubé 2021; Jungkuntz 2021; Rennó and Ringe 2022). The comparative analysis of how populist radical right party leaders took advantage of the pandemic to adjust their political discourse and gain political power is however yet in its infancy (e.g. Wondreys and Mudde 2020, Katsambekis and Stavrakakis 2021). Exclusionary radical right populism and “post-truth” (Tallis 2016, McIntyre 2018) claim-making was and is still high up on political party agendas, as ideological, moral, and emotional distortions of reality, as the simplification and dramatization of facts, and the blaming of specific parts of society. However, one thing is sure: the pandemic is far from over.
In the XXI century, the phenomenon of populism has proliferated rapidly: we have observed a much greater diversity of its manifestations and new variants with varying degrees of exclusionary and inclusionary approaches. Whether being understood as an ideology, worldview, strategy, or discourse, there is every reason to believe that populist leaders have used and will continue to use crises to reinforce narratives that serve to singularize and construct new enemies of “the people” (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2017: 110). Key topics that are discussed in the literature on populism very often deal with their impacts on liberal democracies in rather normative terms (see, e.g. Albertazzi and McDonnell 2008; Mény and Surel 2002; Mudde 2007; Panizza 2005; de la Torre and Peruzzotti 2008): the rise of populist radical right parties (PRRPs) triggered scholars to draw attention to a possible instrumentalization of the current pandemic and the rise of populism in the “post-truth era” (Innerarity 2020) in liberal democracies (Speed and Mannion 2020; Lasco and Curato 2019; Betz 2020; Bruni 2020; Bruno, Downes 2020; Brubaker 2020; Gerbaudo 2020). Surprisingly, only a few studies are dealing with comparative and cross-regional approaches to the reactions of political populism and crises.
In the field of politics, many party developments have happened, mostly unnoticed, in Southern Europe. The European South has suffered more than most of the others, due to recent political party struggles, public debt, and heavy dependencies on tourism (EP 2021). The populist radical right (PRR) might have gained much from the crisis in Spain and Italy: these countries produce the worst indicators in terms of deaths and infection rates (Dombey 2020) and political polarization might have strengthened PRRPs, eventually emerging as winners from the current crisis. Empirically, the focus of this project lies on two Western-European cases in the 2020–21 period after the outbreak of the pandemic: the Spanish ultra-national newcomer ‘Vox’, which managed to grow into one of the most successful PRRPs in Western Europe in a short period (Mudde 2019), and ‘the League’ (La Lega; formerly the Northern League), a fully-fledged populist radical right party rooted in the post-fascist tradition which emerged in the late 1980s (Albertazzi, Giovannini, Seddone 2018). Born as a regionalist counterforce in Northern Italy against the elites ‘of Rome’ (Albertazzi and Vampa 2021), Salvini’s party leadership managed to replace its regionalism with other considerations, such as nativism (the belief that natives should have priority in all aspects of life, excluding foreign-born groups) and authoritarianism (law and order), to please Italians in the entire country. Moreover, the attitudes of these two parties show different but also typical Covid-19 trajectories. They also appear to incarnate different types of populist challengers emanating around the world: entrepreneurial (Heinisch and Saxonberg 2017) and ultra-national (Rama et al. 2021) populism on the radical right side of the political spectrum. Both parties offer to comparative scholars to investigate respective PRR positionings and developments, especially since Italian and Spanish states have a set of political, cultural, economic, and public health similarities (Raffini and Penalva-Verdú 2022). They are also adequate cases for undertaking further exploratory research and elaborating conclusions to be tested in the future.
To overcome the regional isolation of radical right and exclusionary populism since Covid-19 in political science, this exploratory and interdisciplinary research project sheds light on the new populist radical right discourse triggered by the Covid-19 crisis in Spain and Italy. It asks whether and to what extent its rhetoric can be substantiated by analyzing how right-wing populist parties can corrode liberal democracies in times of crisis. As such, the objective of this study is to reflect critically on the interplay between democracy and the rule of law and to analyze the very recent discourse development of the parties and respective political power relations, which are linked to the exogenous shocks provoked by the pandemic. This paper also contributes to the study of PRRPs in times of Covid-19 and by extension to the investigations of how the radical right uses crises to gain political power. Although the first part concentrates on the theoretical categories useful for defining the relationship between the PRR and crisis, its focus is primarily the understanding of populist claims since the outbreak of the pandemic until mid-2021. During the year 2020–21, I conducted twenty informal and semi-structured interviews with Spanish and Italian scholars, professors, and party members.
Crises à la carte?
The Covid-19 pandemic is universally perceived as a shock that hit countries around the world, stable democracies, authoritarian states, and societies where populists are on the rise (e.g. Inglehart and Norris 2019). Looking back to medieval times when rulers were considered supreme healers (Murray et al. 2016) we can see that promises related to health crises are not new. However, the ongoing “polypandemy” (Munich Security Report 2020) appears as a potentially unique crisis-driven environment that undermines trust in elites and builds new identitarian links between the crisis and the people. This link points to several assumptions: First, populism is generally expressed by claims that describe (a) ‘the people’ as a morally pure and single homogenous entities, (b) sources of threat, related criticism, and blame directed towards ‘the elite and/or others’, (c) promises to provide deliverance through change (Mény and Surel 2000). Central to the appeal and message of populist figures is bringing change (Canovan 2005: 81-82), which can take many forms (systematic, vague, or clear strategies, demands for policy or polity change, etc.). The disentangling of common denominators of the various political strands subscribed to an approximate heterogeneous right-wing populist tradition needs at this point some clear distinctions between post-war far-right politics and the populist right. The latter term has been greatly overused (Jaques-Apke 2023: 2). Being inspired by Paul Taggart’s definition, I examine populism as a “political, empty-hearted, chameleonic celebration of the heartland in the face of crisis” (Taggart 2000: 5), combining far-right extremism and a populist worldview that assumes ideas to express the popular will at large (Heinisch 2003: 96). Following a “relational structure-agency approach” (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2017: 117), this paper argues that populism can be heuristically observed across contexts and time (Aslanidis 2017) through its inherently ambivalent, vacillating claims; as a frame disseminated by moral, and political entrepreneurs and change makers with the ultimate objective to gain political power through the challenge of the status quo, in favor of elite change and popular sovereignty.
Second, this pandemic can be considered a fast-burning crisis (compared to other longer-lasting crises such as climate change or the so-called migration crisis), which seems to favor common approaches of populism towards crisis politics: offering simple and quick solutions to complex societal and public policy problems. Societies realized more than ever what establishments and elites are capable of, in terms of control of the system, internal security, and of societies.
Third, the boundary between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’ (or other outsider groups such as ‘establishments’) adapts to conjunctures when a society expresses low trust in politicians, institutions, and/or elites, due to many factors such as collective anxieties, malaise, or societal schisms, just like now during the pandemic. Hence, any actor may use populist claims as a tool to discursively create ‘new’ crises of representation, but also mainstream actors and parties. Surprisingly, the relationship between crisis and populism is still undertheorized (Moffitt 2015). While scholars see an intrinsic connection between populism and crises (e.g. Capoccia and Kelemen 2007; Laclau 2005; Mouffe 2005), others assume that the populist claim is not necessarily a pathological symptom of the crisis, but rather a tool to provide an efficient response to obtain political power (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2017: 115). Yet, populist actors may also have a hard time in politics when they use outdated emotions or promises of change in discourse for example. However, I claim that populism is only able to turn crises politically and electorally into an opportunity when actors can frame a crisis as a systemic and general failure of representation: A failure that is portrayed as a direct result of incapable elites and other mainstream actors to provide the promised change to the people.
In many countries in Western Europe, public confidence has been severely damaged, unfurling heavy disappointments because of national and EU responses to the crisis (OECD 2021). Some new regulations, such as vaccine obligations, also aggravated radicalization (Neumann 2021). Now, more than ever, we must understand how radical right populist groupings design their message toward vulnerable, crisis-shaken groups. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, different and common responses shaped populist performances around the globe, such as pharmaceutical messianism (Lasco and Yu 2021), or the simplification, dramatization, and blaming of other parts of society. While almost all political parties – from left to right – spoke about a war on Covid-19, the direct authoritarian confrontation became the usual money within the radical right discourse (Mudde 2020).
However, PRRPs generally responded very differently to the ongoing crisis. Despite Cas Mudde’s early restraint foreseeing that populism would “not have one, unitary response to the pandemic,” (Wondreys and Mudde 2020), analyses that made generalizations kept proliferating. In an environment of deeply disputed claims over governmental policies in response to Covid-19, rivaling populist political actors generally represent deeply diverging understandings of crises as their material, political and symbolic dimensions greatly differ (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2018). Distrust of – and discontent with – evidence–based policy interventions, discrediting professional and technocratic expertise, and the promotion of simplistic or emotional responses, often through social media, can be handled as one of the many reactions of the PRR to this crisis (Speed and Mannion 2020; Friedman 2019; Wondreys and Mudde 2020). Proposing political change through the salvation of the people and mobilizing new issues to break established party dominance, PRRPs responded very differently to the current pandemic (see Bol et al. 2021; Bobba and Hubé 2021; Jungkuntz 2021; Stavrakakis and Katsambekis 2020: 3; Wondreys and Mudde 2020; Santana et al. 2020). Their trajectories have been shaped by various parameters as well. Since populist claims are not only a discursive phenomenon, intrinsically variable and ambivalent (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2017: 108), they need to be assessed regarding their impact on political practice (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2021: 172). However, there is no unitary epidemiological or anti-scientific populist right-wing response, nor any coherent pattern regarding the success and/or approval ratings of populist governments (Stavrakakis and Katsambekis 2020: 3). In some cases, such as in Hungary or Turkey, illiberals became eventually profiteers of the pandemic and increased authoritarianism in their countries. However, it remains uncertain whether this development is due to populist features. As a reminder of the above, pandemic mitigation policies, which have sometimes been classified by the media as populist, were also often adopted by non-populists or the mainstream. Most importantly, inefficient, anti-scientific, harsh measures, policies, or strategies proposed by populist actors are not necessarily populist in nature, nor are they sufficient to indicate a populist character. Populism across the board is “not primarily characterized by hostility to scientists” (Müller 2020) since anti-scientific solutions to the pandemic have also been part of non-populist agendas.
Hence, it is no surprise that inclusionary and exclusionary types of populism proposed very different solutions during the pandemic, such as immigration, social cohesion, unemployment, in- or exclusion of minorities (Stavrakakis and Katsambekis 2020) or the national centralization of power. Some PRRPs who are or were deeply critical of the lockdown measures – such as Vox and sometimes The League – appear to have taken a radically different view on the crisis compared to the populist left (e.g. Katsambekis and Stavrakakis 2021). Labeling Covid-19 mitigation policies as inhibitions to personal freedoms, liberties, or rights and at the same time invoking rights to sovereignty, citizen’s rights, social rights, and economic rights (Alekseev 2021), Vox and the League, like many parties and political actors, seem to refer to science-related issues in very different ways. Consequently, we should be able to detect commonalities of various typologies of populism employed by actors and parties concerning the Covid-19 pandemic.
National political races are rooted in a defined constituency whereas regional, systemic, and epistemic differences produce different outcomes. Thus, the great concern about PRRPs’ likely long-term impacts on political practice through ideologically charged, nativist, authoritarian, and sometimes even illiberal claim-making (Falkenbach and Greer 2018: 15). In fact, Vox’s and the League’s PRR narratives objectively demonstrated a good appetite for ideological references, which leads to the assumption that the natural ambivalence of the PRR has been transformed in some cases (Galanopoulos and Venizelos 2021).
There are several structural reasons why populists’ ideological positions play a crucial role, especially now during pandemic politics (Katsambekis and Stavrakakis 2021). Depending upon whether parties are in government or opposition (Galanopoulos and Venizlos 2021: 10) and political positionings, ideology eventually defines how parties interpret crises and the world. As mentioned above, ideological positions define whether populist actors frame crises as failures of representation, and how policies are used in the populist discourse. On the one hand, populist actors are very much concerned with policies and agendas connected to their ideological narratives (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2017: 105; Katsambekis and Stavrakakis 2020: 12). Numerous studies have shown that ideology is a key factor when assessing populists’ responses to endogenous and exogenous challenges. On the other hand, we should avoid applying the normatively laden label of populism as a(n) (thin or thick) ideology to populist actors and I argue in favor of examining populism from an anti-essentialist point of view (Aslanidis 2015: 7). Because of socio-economic, political and cultural changes may by themselves not explain populist claim-making, I ultimately argue that populism is simply the most efficient claim-making type as such, employed by political actors when pursuing to gain political power (Heinisch and Mazzoleni 2017: 115), including mainstream parties.
About the author
Amélie is a Political Analyst and Researcher with extensive experience in the public sector, including roles at the Franco-German Office for Youth, the French Parliament, the French Ministry of Interior, and the Delegation of the EU in Washington D.C. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the SIS American University in Washington D.C. and serves as the CEO and founder of the think- and do-tank Young Security Conference. With a background in International Affairs, Security, and Diplomacy, Amélie is pursuing her Ph.D. in International Politics. She has a strong international background, having studied at Sciences Po Paris and King’s College London, lived in more than 10 countries across the Americas, Europe, and Africa, and conducted research projects in various countries. Amélie was a re:constitution Fellow in 2020/21.
Citation: Amélie Jaques-Apke, The Covid-19 Crisis as an Ideological Armory for the Populist Right in Spain and Italy, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.10.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48999