The last global crisis paved their way to power. The question is whether the latest one can loosen their grip on it.
Fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown produced an electoral earthquake that upended postwar party politics, brought a new breed of populists to government and decisively shifted the balance among global powers toward China from the US. COVID-19 might prove just as disruptive.
It is too soon to predict which governments will suffer politically from their handling of the virus, as the death toll continues to grow and one-quarter of the world’s population remains in lockdown. Whether responses to COVID-19 unmask or entrench such leaders as US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini remains unclear.
So, too, whether China will succeed or fail in transforming a disease that appears to have spread across the globe from Hubei Province into a geopolitical opportunity, as it airlifts medical teams and supplies of masks and other equipment to burnish its image in countries such as Iran and Italy.
Yet what is already apparent is that for populist leaders who thrive on portraying their country as under siege, the coronavirus is proving a challenge.
This time the enemy is an invisible one that does not easily fit into a simple anti-elite, anti-migrant or anti-science narrative that has proven so politically fruitful before. Rather than fear others, people fear for themselves.
Not only is the coronavirus creating a Darwinist test of which systems and societies are better able to cope, more citizens are likely to put a premium on political decisions being underpinned by truth, said Ahn Cheol-soo, a former South Korean presidential candidate.
“It will eventually help build a political landscape in which the public isn’t swayed by populism,” said Ahn, who is trying to form a political group to mount a challenge in April 15 parliamentary elections. “That will eventually make populists lose ground.”
At the same time, some leaders have sought to tap into wider unease about a virus that has spread across a deeply interconnected globe at the speed of modern airliners. It has forced even governments that favor globalization to shut down travel and disrupt supply chains.
The course of the virus could yet be portrayed as vindicating nationalist arguments for a less connected world.
After initially dismissing the severity of the pandemic, Trump has since tweeted that “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!” He referred to the coronavirus as “Chinese” before backtracking.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban initially focused popular ire on a group of Iranian students who were quarantined and later tested positive.
As the virus took hold in the wider community, he then dropped the anti-immigrant theme that helped him win a third straight election in 2018.
Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord party, whose roots are in the hardest-hit north of Italy, linked the spread of the disease with migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to Italy from north Africa.
He did not provide any evidence.
A former Italian minister of the interior, Salvini has also portrayed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as doing too little too slowly to combat the virus, while at the same time accusing him of imposing the decisions of an elite without consulting parliament.
However, none of these arguments has gained traction to date, in a country struggling to cope with what is quickly becoming the world’s largest outbreak of the disease.
Italians are instead rallying behind their institutions in the emergency. Conte’s imposition of an ever-tighter lockdown has seen his government’s popularity reach a record high, backed by 71 percent of Italians this month, a Demos survey showed.
Yet whether that popularity can survive a postmortem of Conte’s handling of the crisis also remains to be seen.
A similar dynamic seems to be at play in Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her beleaguered Christian Democratic Union party were severely damaged in elections by the wave of refugees who fled to the country from the Syrian war in 2015 and 2016.
They are now seeing their popularity rise on the back of their coronavirus response. A recent poll showed support for the Christian Democrats has jumped by 5 percentage points.
The party joined traditionally fiscally cautious peers such as the US’ Republicans and Britain’s Conservatives in abandoning ideological commitments to cut budget deficits.
German Federal Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz called for a “bazooka” to be fired into the economy.
“The economic crisis, rising immigration, these are things you can easily blame on one group or the political elite, but this is a biological crisis — to stop it, you can’t just drain the swamp or block refugees from coming,” said Benjamin Moffitt, a senior lecturer in politics at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
Whereas Salvini has the luxury of opposition and risks at worst being sidelined, the stakes are higher for Trump and Bolsonaro.
Trump has come under attack from state governors for not acting quickly enough to contain COVID-19, despite the US$2 trillion aid package he signed on Friday last week.
He said that churches would be full again for Easter, which is less than two weeks away.
As of March 28, the US surpassed Italy in cases, with more than 100,000, and overtook China.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s insistence that life and business should go on as usual, despite the virus, has led to protests in the major cities with people hanging out of their windows to bang pots and pans. Already under pressure before the pandemic as scandal swirled around his family and a promised economic renaissance failed to materialize, Bolsonaro looks vulnerable.
“This crisis has knocked the government out of his orbit,” said Creomar de Souza, chief executive of Dharma Political Risk and Strategy in Brazil. “The characteristics he has that were seen as positive, like combativeness and obstinacy, are now being seen as a liability.”
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a populist from the left, has also downplayed the severity of the threat from the virus, telling people “to keep taking the family out to eat.”
Although Mexico still has relatively few recorded cases, a telephone poll by the owner of newspaper Reforma found that 44 percent of Mexicans now disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus threat, to 37 percent in favor.
On Thursday, he appeared to change his tone and called on companies to send their workers home.
In the UK, the urgency surrounding COVID-19 has even buried the debate over the terms of the country’s departure from the EU — and with it British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s flirtation with populism.
He deferred conspicuously to medical and epidemiological experts in his initial attempt at taking a measured approach to fighting the disease. During the Brexit campaign, experts were deliberately derided.
Yet the idea that fighting coronavirus will lead to a restoration of a pre-financial crisis faith is probably wishful thinking, Moffitt said.
That particularly goes for the US.
“Expertise, in terms of this idea of neutral knowledge, is dead in a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “You cannot spend a decade arguing that climate change is nonsense and that you don’t need vaccines, and then turn around and say actually, yes we need experts.”
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