Transatlantic Take 360: Too Early to Say Nationalists Are Winners of the Coronavirus Crisis
It has been two weeks since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, and Europe its new center. Since then infection rates have climbed and over 10,000 have died in Europe as well over 800 in the United States. Governments have instituted different degrees of protective measures and societal lockdowns. In these very early days, it is hard to know how even the pandemic, let alone the political and economic fallout that follows, will develop—but the initial consequences are more nuanced than one might think.
For some years, already nationalism and nationalist political forces in the West have seemed to be on the rise. And the initial responses to the pandemic was decidedly national. Yet, as GMF experts describe below, it is too early, and too simple, to conclude that the crisis will strengthen nationalist forces or weaken democratic systems. In several countries at this point, the political signs are mixed and even contradictory. From Turkey to Spain, the crisis may be minimizing polarization, and in most countries the larger and governing parties are gaining trust. And yet, this can easily change as the fallout grows. The pandemic is certain to shape politics in Europe and the United States for months to come, if not longer, and it will be crucial to look closely.
Below are short takes on the early political developments in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in seven countries from GMF experts. To hear more about the situation in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the United States, listen to GMF’s latest Out of Order Podcast for interviews with the authors.
Nobody can really say who in France will benefit from this crisis, but it is obvious that anti-globalization movements, either on the far right or the far left, believe that the pandemic will reinforce their arguments. Events have shown that France cannot provide the medical equipment necessary to its doctors and nurses that are dealing with the crisis. They also have shown that the whole idea of a Europe that protects, which has been promoted by President Emmanuel Macron since 2017, was not realized, and that the solutions come mostly from nation states, but not from the EU. In the end, the economic implications of the coronavirus crisis will truly define the political future of the country. It is likely that a new economic crisis will weaken not just the government but also other mainstream political parties. And it is very difficult to see in the different political parties who will emerge as a kind of credible leader for France in this new context.
Martin Quencez, deputy director, Paris office and research fellow, Security & Defense program
The more established political parties so far have benefited from the crisis, partly because they are in power and they look good because they can actually act. Not only can they fight the disease itself, but they can also put assistance programs into action. One hears occasional voices already that want to be very cautious on showing solidarity with other countries, putting German wealth on the line. It is not a particularly popular program. If the government decided to go that way, that might well increase criticism from the more populist fringes. But perhaps the most decisive factor is that the populist Alternative für Deutschland has very little to offer in this crisis. It has tried to exploit it by connecting it to climate change and to play the two issues against each other. That does not really make them popular at the moment, and I do not think this is a winning recipe for them for the future. Also, the populists-nationalists in power in other countries have not looked particularly good in this crisis, so there is not really any kind of foreign success the German populists could build on. So, this is not really the kind of crisis that they might benefit from, as opposed to the migration crisis or even the euro crisis in previous years.
Jan Techau, director, Europe program, Berlin office
We still do not know the magnitude of the crisis in Italy, but the economic implications will have a major impact on the political landscape. So far, bigger parties are gaining, the Democratic Party and the Northern League in particular, and smaller parties are losing out. Support for the government has reached 71 percent, which is unprecedented in the last 10 years. A lot will depend on what narrative prevails around the crisis. A narrative that is more infused with the themes of empathy, solidarity, and unity would allow for more progressive parties to make gains. If the narrative that prevails is one of war with the coronavirus and over-securitization, this could play in the hands of right-wing parties. For now, the political trend does not discriminate between left and right; what seems to emerge is support for clear leadership.
The ratings of individual politicians have been affected more than those of parties. There has also been some revival of patriotism: about 80 percent of Italians say that Italy has reacted better than its European counterparts. There is still a sentiment that the necessary measures will be taken in order to stabilize Italy, if need be, but there is resentment toward individual countries that took so long to take seriously the threat that was being announced by Italy.
Chiara Rosselli, senior program officer and head, Mercator European Dialogue, Berlin office
If the crisis calms down in a couple of months and the presidential election that is scheduled for May takes place, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party—which is right-wing, euroskeptic, and national-conservative—will automatically be strengthened. The opposition parties have been supportive of the measures that have been put in place. There has been criticism of the handling of the healthcare system, but overall people agree that the measures were necessary. Now this is the most unlikely scenario because everything else, especially the healthcare system and the economic recession that the country is going to face, is far more important than the short-term measures that were put in place. They will have much wider consequences. If the crisis calms down only after a recession has started, then people will look to the centrist and left-wing main opposition parties. And, even though people are supporting local businesses right now and thinking about going on holiday in Poland rather than flying somewhere very far, the anti-globalization trend will not be spreading. For one thing, the flow of people across the border with Ukraine is crucial: a lot of Ukrainians work in Poland and they are needed.
Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska, program coordinator, Warsaw office
It is hard to anticipate how the crisis will impact the political atmosphere in Spain in the longer run because right now everything is really very monothematic. Some Catalan nationalists try to utilize the coronavirus fear. They have moved from the slogan “Spain robs us” to “Spain infects us.” But this is not really gaining a lot of traction because even in Catalonia people are locked up in their houses and have other things to worry about right now. There are positive effects of this crisis on Spanish politics. It comes at the right moment because there is the first coalition government in Spain’s democratic history, which was recently formed. After years of public squabbling and confrontational political discourse, there is now a remarkable closing of ranks among political parties in the face of the coronavirus. There is criticism of the government, but it is relatively low key. The experience of the crisis may help the political system to mature. It could help political forces and party leaders to get used to consensus building, to negotiation, and to collective problem solving in face of a common challenges. And thereby, hopefully, it will to some degree lift the eternal prism of party politics that has dominated Spanish political discourse for so long.
Kristina Kausch, senior resident fellow, Brussels office
The pandemic is influencing Turkish society in a way that could transform politics. Turkey is a country with a high degree of polarization and political tribalism. With the pandemic, there are signs that these are weakening. While well-known political Islamists have argued in favor of closing mosques, people who otherwise are very critical of the government have enthusiastically supported the government measures. Every day at 9:00 pm, citizens from all political backgrounds applaud health workers from their balconies and windows. Perhaps while fear led to political tribalization in Turkey in the past, a greater and more widely shared fear is creating cohesion today. While it is really too early to tell, if this trend endures in the post-pandemic period, it could lead to a less polarized political environment. However, there is another outcome—rising inequality—that could impact politics in a much more significant way. While upper-middle-class professionals are making a big deal out of working from home, vulnerable groups—house cleaners, taxi drivers, street vendors, waiters, and many others—are losing their meager incomes. Small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in the service sector, are facing bankruptcy. Unless addressed effectively, and this is not being done yet, these developments could lead to a significant social tension in the post-pandemic period.
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director, Ankara office
While the United States’ initial shutdown of travel from Europe seems to not have been very well coordinated with governments there, the closing of the borders with Canada and Mexico was done in a more cooperative fashion. So, maybe there are some aspects of cooperation that are becoming necessary for the Trump administration as well. The unique situation in that this crisis has hit the United States in the middle of an election year makes it a bit difficult to think about the political consequences beyond just a few weeks. Campaigning has moved to the online sphere for now and we do not know what the effects will be yet. Sometimes leaders can benefit from a rally-around-the-flag effect as happened, for example, after 9/11. And so far President Donald Trump’s poll numbers have remained stable or even slightly improved. The question is what happens once the public-health effects and the widespread economic effects will be felt and actually realized by broad sections of the population. It would seem that this could hurt the reelection chances of any incumbent, but if we have learned anything in the past years here it is never to assume anything and never to make any predictions.
Peter Sparding, Transatlantic Fellow, Washington office
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.