New Delhi: Mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic has eroded the support base of “populist” parties and politicians across the world, though some leaders, such as Narendra Modi, “responded early with wide-ranging and far-reaching policies”, according to a study that looked at the attitudes of over half a million people across 109 countries since 2020.
The study, by a team from the University of Cambridge in the UK, said there are clear signs of a turning tide for the “populist wave”, as inept handling of the Covid crisis by populist leaders starts to move public opinion. Countries where populist parties were in power suffered more deaths in the pandemic than those that had mainstream parties in office, the study noted.
However, the study did not elaborate on how the support base of Modi or his Bharatiya Janata Party had since eroded.
Released Tuesday from Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy (CFD), this is the first global overview of how the Covid-19 crisis has affected political beliefs, according to the team.
However, this decline in support for populists hasn’t resulted in a corresponding, renewed faith in liberal democracy, the study pointed out.
“In countries where populist parties were in government, approval of the government’s handling of the pandemic started lower, and declined further, than in countries where mainstream parties held office,” the study said.
The study listed the following as countries with populist leaders and parties in government — United States (Donald Trump, till January 2021), Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro), Philippines (Rodrigo Duterte), Italy (Mario Draghi, with help from the populist Five Star Movement), Spain (the populist Unidas Podemos party, which is in power in a coalition led by Pedro Sanchez), and India (Narendra Modi’s BJP).
“The story of politics in recent years has been the emergence of anti-establishment politicians who thrive on the growing distrust of experts,” said Roberto Foa, co-director of the CFD and the report’s lead author, in a statement.
According to the researchers, the desire for stability has also led to a decline in “polarising” attitudes in some countries.
‘Acted less, acted later’
“Though some, such as Narendra Modi or Viktor Orban (of Hungary), responded early with wide-ranging and far-reaching policies, on average populist leaders acted less, acted later and saw an excess mortality rate of 10 percentage points higher than in countries with non-populist governments,” the study noted.
“From Erdogan and Bolsonaro to the ‘strong men’ of Eastern Europe, the planet has experienced a wave of political populism. Covid-19 may have caused that wave to crest,” it added.
In the aforementioned countries, the approval of the government’s handling of the pandemic started lower than other countries like France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Finland, the study stated.
On average, populist leaders have seen a 10 percentage point drop between the spring of 2020 and the last quarter of 2021, while ratings for non-populists returned to around pre-pandemic levels.
“Electoral support for populist parties has collapsed around the world in a way we don’t see for more mainstream politicians. There is strong evidence that the pandemic has severely blunted the rise of populism,” said Foa.
‘Rallying round the flag’, then decline
The researchers noted that in the first months of the pandemic, many political leaders got a boost in ratings as people wanted to ‘rally round the flag’ in troubled times.
The ‘rally round the flag’ effect is a concept used in political science and international relations to explain the short-term popular support of a country’s government or political leaders during periods of international crisis or war.
However, the approval ratings of populist leaders the world over began declining almost as soon as Covid-19 hit, and have continued to sink ever since, the study said.
Electoral support also plunged for populist parties. This was seen most clearly in Europe, where the proportion of people intending to vote for a populist party has fallen by an average of 11 percentage points to 27 per cent.
Support for Europe’s opposition populist parties also fell over the pandemic — by five percentage points on average to 11 per cent — while it rose for non-populist opposition.
The team suggested there are several factors for populism’s fading appeal, but poor handling of the pandemic by populist governments was a chief reason.
Favouring ‘non-political’ experts
The report’s polling showed the public considered populist leaders to be less trustworthy sources of virus-related information than centrist counterparts.
In June 2020, approval of government handling of the crisis was 11 percentage points lower on average in countries with populist leaders than in those with more centrist governance. By the end of 2020, this gap had widened to 16 points.
However, this decline in faith in populist governments has not renewed faith in liberal democracy, according to the researchers. Perhaps tainted by the record of populists in office, support for democracy has also waned. Instead, citizens increasingly favour having “non-political” experts take decisions.
“Satisfaction with democracy has recovered only slightly since the post-war nadir of 2019, and is still well below the long-term average,” said Foa.
“Some of the biggest declines in democratic support during the pandemic were seen in Germany, Spain and Japan — nations with large elderly populations particularly vulnerable to the virus,” he added.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)