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Why the Pandemic and Populism Still Work Together


Hopes that the pandemic would kill off populism in Europe were always optimistic, and the second wave is likely to definitively put an end to this idea.

The public health and economic response to the first wave of the pandemic appeared to provide some vindication of centrist technocrats against claims from anti-establishment populists in Europe, and this was supported by opinion polling in the first half of 2020.

During the first wave, populist challenges floundered as there seemed little relation between the approval ratings of heads of government and countries’ relative performance on health outcomes or economic metrics.

Leading radical right populist parties such as the Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats and the Lega in Italy saw decreases in their support in polls, with one poll pointing to a decrease in populist attitudes across a number of European countries, seemingly due to an increase in trust in experts, scientists and politicians.

Even in a badly-hit France, President Emmanuel Macron saw a slight uptick in his approval rating while his main populist challenger, Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, failed to gain traction after aligning with anti-lockdown forces.

But this decrease in support for populist parties is transitory and may reverse soon. Issues which populists thrive on such as immigration and European integration have been pushed out of the headlines, but they are going to return. Several politicians across Europe have been trying to shift the debate back towards them, especially in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in France.

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