The Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and US president Donald Trump are perhaps the two best known populist leaders in the world. Yet populism isn’t all they have in common. Both have repeatedly treated Covid-19 as if it wasn’t a serious threat and have continued to spread disinformation about it while tens of thousands of their citizens have died.
This might lead to a seductive conclusion: that populists don’t handle crises well, and that Covid-19 has exposed this underlying weakness. But is it true? Are the responses of Bolsonaro and Trump representative of all populist leaders’ responses?
In our new report on how populist leaders around the world have handled the Covid-19 crisis, we found that Trump and Bolsonaro’s responses are not representative. Of the 17 populist leaders currently in power, according to our database, only five of 17 have downplayed the crisis. This means that most populist leaders - 12 of 17 - have taken the crisis seriously. These include Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose age-targeted lockdown has been praised by public health experts, Narendra Modi of India, who instituted one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, and Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic, who required that all citizens wear masks in public in mid-March.
But while most populist leaders have taken Covid-19 seriously, they have differed in how liberal their response has been. Only four of these 12 leaders, those in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy, and – perhaps surprisingly - Venezuela, have taken a liberal response to the crisis, meaning that we found little evidence that they invoked excessive emergency powers or cracked down on the political opposition.
We classify three of our 12 leaders - those in Israel, Serbia, and Sri Lanka - as having taken an intermediate response. This means that of the 12 populist leaders who have taken a serious response to Covid-19, five have taken an illiberal response to the crisis. These have included the leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey, and India.
The Polish government introduced controversial abortion legislation during the pandemic to avoid public protest, while Prime Minister Orban of Hungary invoked indefinite emergency powers that allowed him to circumvent Hungary’s separation of powers. President Duterte of the Philippines and Prime Ministers Erdogan and Modi of Turkey and India have taken harsh enforcement measures, including cracking down on social media users and journalists who have criticised the leader or tried to report on excessive police enforcement measures.
While one might feel reassured that most populist leaders have taken a serious response to the crisis - and that those who haven’t have been struggling in polls - there are several reasons to think that populism will survive the Covid-19 crisis and may even emerge strengthened in some places.
Populist leaders who have taken the crisis seriously have been performing well in polls, which may embolden those who have taken an illiberal response to further restrict liberal democratic freedoms and reduce checks and balances to their leadership.
And while many European populist parties have seen a recent decline in their polling numbers because of their perceived lack of competence relative to mainstream parties, they may benefit in the long-run from a prolonged, global economic downturn. The possibility of such a downturn is high and research has shown that populists have done well in response to similar circumstances over the last 150 years.
Some European populist leaders have been savvy about using the virus to highlight their core themes - opposition to immigration and globalisation. This may put populist politicians who aren’t currently in power in a particularly advantageous position where they can criticise the country’s political establishment for a prolonged downturn and say that it was the result of excessive global integration, of which they’ve been critical all along.
Dr Brett Meyer is a research fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
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