Donald Trump, Jal Bolsonaro, and other right-wing populists around the world have proved the lethality of their speech and policies during the crisis throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But things are about to get worse.
As we slowly enter the post-pandemic era, there are signs in Europe that a new type of populism is emerging. Since the emergence of the new coronavirus in early 2020, in the face of various COVID-19 restrictions imposed on the European population, populists across the continent are now seeking support, claiming to fight for “freedom.”
All political parties in the political field, whether the government or the opposition, have tried to politicize the epidemic to a certain extent, but most of these attempts have been unsuccessful. As the virus spreads between communities, overwhelming health services and causing tens of thousands of deaths, most European citizens only require their management authorities to proceed with caution and take responsibility.
However, in recent months, the situation has changed significantly. Vaccination campaigns across Europe began to contain the crisis, and voices against pandemic restrictions began to gain more and more public support. As a result, populists now have a new opportunity to increase their political power by uniting the people against the new rhetorical enemy: the authorities try to ensure that normalcy is restored under controlled and safe conditions.
This “liberal populism” achieved its first electoral victory in the recent Madrid community presidential election-Madrid is one of the 17 autonomous regions in Spain.
The current chairman of the Madrid community, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, promised to “liberate” the people of Madrid from the Spanish socialist government’s COVID-19 management restrictions, winning the regional elections by an overwhelming advantage.
To understand the rise of “liberal populism” in Spain and other regions, we need to review why populism has come back as a successful political strategy in recent years, and what is the difference between its right, left, and left? digital The form, and why it always needs an “enemy” to succeed.
The return of populism
In the past decade, populism has re-emerged as a viable political strategy in Europe, responding to the fact that political parties have increasingly supported technocratic management of public affairs in an effort to legitimize ideology and maintain power. The alliance that emerged from this trend put left and right ideological positions aside, supported the centrist status quo, and caused many people to lose interest in politics.
In response to these disjointed technological alliances, their policies have triggered an unprecedented increase in social and economic inequality. The populists proposed to return politics to the people by establishing direct relationships with disgruntled masses that have long been ignored by the establishment party.
Populists use their fears, desires, and frustrations to establish contact with them. On the right, they exploit the fear of foreigners rooted in hatred and indifference; on the left, they exploit the desire for a better, more equal and just future. Those who practice what I think are “digital populism”, such as the five-star movement in Italy, have used social media as a public forum and the public’s disappointment and distrust of the traditional democratic electoral system.
For a while, populists seemed destined to achieve long-term success, not only in Europe, but throughout the world. However, after the new coronavirus became a global public health threat, populists in the political sphere began to work hard to maintain public support.
So why does this epidemic hinder the rise of populism?
As a political strategy, populism always requires a real or imaginary enemy to unite the people. In recent years, populists have created different enemies for gaining political power: immigrants, feminists, minority communities, establishments, elites, etc.
When a pandemic hits and changes public priorities, populists in all political fields feel the need to find a new enemy to stay relevant and maintain public support. Many right-wing instigators, from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Trump in the United States, have tried to treat China as a new public enemy. At the same time, left-wing populists such as Pablo Iglesias in Spain and Jean-Luc Melanchon in France tried to blame the epidemic and its damage on growing ideology at all costs , Especially at the expense of the environment. However, neither party failed to convince most of their supporters.
Only when the masses believe that their specific demands and dissatisfaction can be resolved by defeating the enemy, will they unite against the “enemy.” During the pandemic, the public did not believe in claims that opposing China at all costs or growing ideologies would solve their problems in the short term.
But things are changing rapidly. Now that we are entering the post-pandemic era, populists realize that they can use the public’s disappointment with the limits of the ongoing pandemic to create new enemies and regain power.
Throughout last year, when COVID-19 clearly posed a direct existential threat to the population, the government found that it was relatively easy to implement lockdowns or introduce mask requirements and social distancing regulations. But now, with the advent of vaccines, the pandemic appears to be “beaten”, at least in the West, and the public is increasingly frustrated by the authorities’ efforts to lift restrictions slowly and responsibly to prevent further outbreaks.
This is an opportunity for populists, especially those on the right wing of the political spectrum. They are now rallying against the “oppressive” authorities and claiming that they are restricting the freedom of the people for their own benefit. This is especially true for right-wing populists in Italy, France, and Spain, who kept a low profile during the peak of the pandemic.
And they have benefited from what they call a boycott of an “oppressive” government that arbitrarily restricts people’s freedom.
“Liberal populists” are in power
Diaz Ayuso of Madrid was the first European politician to benefit from “liberal populism.” Therefore, understanding the reasons behind her sweeping victory in the election may allow us to see how this new populist brand emerged and how it will affect the European political scene in the near future.
In Spain, the socialist government of Pedro Sanchez handled the crisis relatively well. He implemented a nationwide exception, which ended in early May, and urged all local leaders to make every effort to ease the pressure on the country’s health infrastructure and minimize the personnel costs of this global public health emergency. However, each autonomous community in Spain still reserves the right to implement pandemic restrictions as they see fit.
Although most community governors agreed to emulate the federal government and introduce strict COVID-19 restrictions, Diaz Ayoso refused to do so on the grounds that she wanted to protect the region’s economy.
Therefore, in recent months, as Spanish hospitals are crowded with COVID-19 patients, most parts of Spain have been under lockdown to varying degrees. Bars, restaurants, and theaters in the Madrid community are still open for long periods of time. In addition, the government of Diaz Ayoso has hardly prevented secret parties from being held throughout the city. As a result, the capital of Spain quickly became an oasis of joy in Europe. Tourists from all over Europe began to visit Madrid to escape the restrictions of their country. This irresponsible management strategy has made the region the deadliest and most infected community in Spain.
Although many companies in the region praised Diaz Ayuso’s pandemic management methods from the beginning, her opposition to strict restrictions initially attracted criticism from left-wing politicians as well as the public. Criticism. But as Spain’s vaccination campaign began to show its effects, Diaz Ayoso used the country’s achievements in controlling the virus to claim that her strategy was effective and silence critics.
In March, when the regional opposition was preparing to launch a vote of no confidence in her government, Diaz Ayuso announced that the election would be held early. She immediately began a re-election campaign centered on “defending the freedom of Madrid” against the socialists who rule Spain. Ironically, the leaders of the Socialist Confederation in Spain were already struggling to find safe ways to ease the country’s remaining epidemic restrictions.
Soon, Spain’s second deputy prime minister, Pablo Iglesias of the left-wing Podemos Party, left the federal government to run against Diaz Ayoso in Madrid. In response, the current President of Madrid began to claim that the election was “against the freedom of communism”, referring to Iglesias’ radical leftist views.
Throughout her campaign, Diaz Ayuso, in addition to portraying her main rival as a communist who stubbornly deprived the Spaniards of their basic rights and freedoms, has repeatedly tried to exploit voters. Growing dissatisfaction with pandemic restrictions. She tweeted a video showing the owners of famous bars and restaurants in Madrid, saying “Madrid is free” and “We are more energetic than ever.” Her supporters in the service industry in Madrid even created a special beer named after her for the campaign and promoted it with the slogan “Don’t let anyone take our way of life”.
In the end, Diaz Ayoso’s populist strategy proved very successful. She defeated Iglesias and other left-wing candidates by an overwhelming advantage. She will now be in power for at least two years with the support of the far-right party Vox.
The “liberal populism” advocated by Diaz Ayuso and many others like her in Europe and elsewhere may be more lethal and destructive than the populism of those in power at the beginning of the pandemic.
Liberal populists claim to be fighting against established politicians, experts and public institutions, “using the pandemic as an opportunity to restrict freedom.” They pledged not only to limit funding to global and local institutions dedicated to protecting people from public health threats, but also to privatize as many public services as possible in the name of “freedom.”
If they get enough public support to form a government and formulate public policies, they will destroy the safety net that has saved countless lives since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The era of pandemics may be slowly ending, but unfortunately, the equally deadly era of “liberal populism” has just begun.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.