Is COVID-19 Sparking A Temporary Fall Of The Radical Right in Europe?

As public trust shifts dramatically towards science and technical expertise combatting the pandemic, radical right parties in Europe are losing support.
Former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League, outside the Chamber of Deputies, Rome, Italy (EPA)

Former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League, outside the Chamber of Deputies, Rome, Italy (EPA)

Co-Written By Dr. James Downes and Dr. Valerio Alfonso Bruno

The political effects of COVID-19 in Europe have led to a ‘rally around the flag effect’ for a number of incumbent mainstream governing parties. At the same time, populist radical right parties (PRR) have had their raison d’être taken away from them and have been left powerless politically, in the face of the pandemic.

Socio-cultural issues such as immigration that PRR parties tend to claim ownership over arguably no longer remain dominant in the mind of voters in 2020. A recent article by Professor Hans-Georg Betz in openDemocracy, has highlighted how PRR parties such as Alternative for Germany in particular, alongside Lega in Italy and National Rally in France have also seen their support substantially reduced in the polls of late. However, PRR Parties such as the Law & Justice Party in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary have bucked this trend and continued their dominance of their respective political landscapes in Central-Eastern Europe.

The Case of Lega in Italy

In Italy, the PRR has been gradually losing support since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Italy in late February. According to recent polls, the PRR Lega has seen its popularity decline considerably (by around -4 percentage points since January and around -9 percentage points since the latest EU Parliament elections held in May 2019).

This same trend has emerged for a number of PRR parties in several European countries, including most notably in Germany, France, Austria and Spain. A recent article published by Politico has outlined the inability and weakness of PRR leaders such as Matteo Salvini (Leader of Lega in Italy) and Marine Le Pen (Leader of National Rally in France) to exploit the growing crisis.

‘The Rally around the Flag Effect’

According to the recent Politico article, this “wasted opportunity” is primarily related to the PRR “struggling to find a coherent message on the virus and, [with] mainstream parties in government [benefiting] from the “rally around the flag” effect seen in times of crisis.” The ‘Rally around the Flag’ effect is a political phenomenon, whereby governments and its leaders often experience an increased short-term increase in their popular support, during times of events such as international crisis, wars, and natural disasters.

To understand fully the electoral decline of the PRR Lega party in Italy, two more factors must be examined. Firstly, the PRR Lega’s disregard of scientific expertise and secondly, the Italian Northern regions were hit the hardest by COVID-19. The first factor is common to other liberal democracies in Europe and in global politics, whereas the second factor is a more unique one, that is specific to Italian politics. We take both factors up in more detail, in the next section.

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Lega’s Northern Regions hit the hardest

Italy was hit unevenly by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Northern regions hit the hardest. In contrast, the regions in Central and Southern Italy were touched only partially by the virus. The area between Lombardy and Emilia Romagna is where the outbreak officially started on February 22nd 2020. Two months later (as of the 25th April, 2020) of the 26,400 Italian deaths, 23,600 deaths belong to Northern Italy, with Lombardy alone accounting for 13,269 deaths.

The majority of the Northern regions of Italy belong politically to the Italian Center-Right, with Lombardy, Veneto and Friuli Venezia-Giulia governed by Lega; Liguria and Piemonte having governors related to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Emilia Romagna remains the outlier, in being governed by Bonaccini of the Center-Left, who won the local election in late January 2020. In addition, other areas such as Valle d’Aosta and Trentino Alto Adige are governed by autonomous parties.

It is important to note that the primary aim of this article is not to blame the local governors of the Lega, for responsibility of the catastrophic pandemic in Northern Italy. However, it is incontrovertible that the Italian Northern Regions have become the battleground of a harsh conflict between local governors, in particular Lombardy and Veneto governed by Attilio Fontana and Luca Zaia, against Italy’s central government.

According to some reports, the COVID-19 outbreak may have been in the area between Lombardy and Emilia Romagna before the 22nd February, with local hospitals reporting a massive number of atypical pneumonias by January. Nonetheless, local public health authorities and policymakers did not report the anomaly. Policy responses by local governments in Italy varied greatly towards COVID-19. Most significantly, the local governors of Lega appeared to openly challenge the measures adopted by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. The Leader of Lega, Matteo Salvini himself has repeatedly shown confusion towards easing the lockdown measures. This has even put his party in contrast with others Far-Right parties in Italy, such as Fratelli d’Italia.

Lega’s disregard for scientific and technical expertise

PRR parties have often tended to be deeply skeptical towards political experts and technocratic elites. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the situation has changed considerably, with the attention of public opinion shifting dramatically towards science and technical expertise towards combatting the pandemic.

The visibility of public health experts such as virologists, epidemiologists and other medical doctors has sharply increased. These experts were suddenly tasked to inform citizens and provide policy-makers with science-backed evidence to combat COVI-ID 19. Arguably, Lega and to a lesser extent, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) have lost political ground and capital, with the shift towards technical expertise and the ‘Rally Around the Flag Effect.’

Furthermore, on April 27th, during the first visit to Northern Italy by the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, he largely opposed the people pleasing rhetoric of Salvini. Conte affirmed the decision that the lockdown in Italy will be lifted gradually and only when the public health task force of experts (“comitato tecnico-scientifico”) will support the decision, and at the same time, did not seek to gain electoral support.

The Post-Crisis (COVID-19) Political Landscape in Europe: Fragmentation & Volatility

Generalizing from the Italian case to the comparative European level, our main argument is that (a) PRR Parties will continue to lose out as the pandemic continues. We will most likely see more of a ‘rally around the flag effect’ for incumbent governing parties. However, we argue that there is likely to be an (b) important ‘caveat’ to this electoral ‘decline.’

Once the COVID-19 crisis is over, this is when mainstream parties may lose their perceived competence in how they handled COVID-19, and doubts about trust may resurface amongst voters, particularly towards the resulting economic impact. In turn, voters in Europe may be likely to hold incumbent mainstream parties to account, and PRR parties will likely be the main beneficiaries from protest politics, alongside a ‘rise’ in Euroscepticism, renewed anti-immigrant sentiment and increased salience of this key issue.

Therefore, we argue that the ‘end’ of COVID-19 may lead to a resurgence in support for the PRR electorally. Other ‘populist’ parties are also likely to flourish. Declining economic conditions across Europe may also lead to increased support for populist radical left parties. Linked to this, a more volatile political landscape across Europe for ‘new’ entrant parties may also take place, with previous fragmentation in European politics and party competition continuing.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Europe / Italy / Radical Right