Europe’s Political Oppositions in the Coronavirus Crisis
It is difficult to lead in a crisis, but leading the political opposition is not easier. The major opposition parties in most countries across Europe initially supported governments’ calls for unity and backed government decisions and requests for special emergency powers. Prioritizing effective governance and public health over political point-scoring is certainly laudable, and indeed the public in many cases has shown little appetite for political contrariness. For example, in France and Germany the far-right National Rally and Alternative für Deutschland have seen no poll bumps from their nationalist-populist anti-government, anti-lockdown messaging. But as we approach the end of May, most opposition parties have found their way back into the political process, though the space to do so varies widely across Europe—between Turkey, where large-city mayors are almost the last remaining check on the president’s powers, and Spain, where the opposition has been vocal since March and is eroding support for the government’s state of alarm.
Below GMF experts from six European countries outline how political opposition parties are reacting to the crisis.
(ICYMI, our experts authors also wrote about leadership styles during the coronavirus crisis, you can read that here.)
National disunity and hostility toward the government has increased during the coronavirus crisis. Yet, no opposition party or political leader has emerged as a credible challenge to President Emmanuel Macron.
On March 16, Macron called for national unity to face the health crisis. This did not resonate in the political landscape. The opposition responses were mixed: left-wing parties called in vain for a “wartime economy”—for instance, demanding the requisition of the textile industry to manufacture protective masks—while the mainstream right-wing opposition The Republicans party remained critical toward the government’s health measures. Without offering an alternative, the far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen asserted that “the government is lying about everything” in the crisis.
When Macron announced his plan to ease the lockdown measures, the National Rally, Europe Ecology–The Greens, and the left-wing La France Insoumise judged the plan “unclear” and “risky,” objecting to the absence of massive testing. National political disunity reached its climax on May 4, when the Senate voted against the government’s relaxation plan. Left-wing senators voted against the plan while The Republicans abstained. As Macron’s popularity keeps falling, right-wing politicians are increasingly practicing political distancing towards the president and his policy.
Macron also faces disunity within his La République en Marche party (LREM). On May 16, one member of parliament left the party, the 19th to do so since June 2017. The day after, the government lost its majority in parliament when 17 members from LREM decided to create a dissident faction. The president still has a majority to govern, with center-right and center-left allied political parties, but the symbolism of the split is strong and defiance is growing within the majority. In the 2022 presidential election, the main threat to Macron could be Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe, who now polls as the most popular political figure ahead of the president. At the beginning of May, 46 percent of the population said they agreed with the prime minister’s policy versus 40 percent for the president. Recently, La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon acknowledged the increasing discrepancy between the “elegant” Philippe and the “gangster” Macron. But over half of the population disapprove of both for theirs action to face the crisis, even after relaxation.
No opposition leader is benefiting from the growing unpopularity of Macron and the government. The opposition parties remain scattered and inaudible. Public opinion is still very hard on France’s political figures. Health Minister Olivier Véran is the most favorably perceived by the population, but less than three out of ten people say they trust him. Since the start of lockdown, and after the controversy over masks and the lack of promised testing, a general mistrust has settled vis-à-vis the government. This does not prevent Macron from working on a recovery plan ahead of the economic crisis Europe will face in the following months, with an eye on the election in 2022.
Benoit Prévost, head of public affairs, Paris office
Germany: The Hour of the Executive Branch
Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to do everything right at the moment: 72 percent say they trust her leadership today, and the same goes for the government. A large majority of Germans support the partial relaxation of lockdown measures. This level of support makes it very hard for opposition parties to disagree with the grand coalition government. Merkel’s Christian Democrats are riding high in the opinion polls, almost at 40 percent, while the Social Democrats, which have experienced leadership struggles, poll at 16 percent.
The Greens are not even trying to distance themselves from the government; they are largely supporting the measures taken by the federal and state governments, with the latter playing an important role in the management of the crisis as the constitution foresees. The prominent Green mayor of the city Tübingen, Boris Palmer, who had positioned himself as a populist figure during the refugee crisis, is again making waves by arguing against the government’s restrictions, forcing the party leadership to push back harshly. But that is rather a storm in a teacup—the Greens are polling at 18 percent, quite lower than in the pre-coronavirus months, but still much higher than they performed in the last federal elections.
Meanwhile the left-wing Die Linke party has largely become almost invisible during the crisis, though like the Greens they have been mostly supportive of the lockdown. Die Linke polls around 8 percent now. On the far right, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been hit by the crisis, polling around 10 percent. It is struggling with the question as to whether it should add the anti-lockdown protest movement to its portfolio of issues. Some in the AfD are already doing this, but others fear becoming marginalized by associating the party with a small and mostly lunatic protest movement.
In the early days of the lockdown, Christian Lindner, the head of the liberal Free Democrats, tried to build a position that was rather skeptical of the (soft) lockdown in the name of civil liberties and of business. But at a time when the state has become the guarantor of last resort for the survival of many companies, the call for economic freedom sounds rather out of touch with the zeitgeist. The Free Democrats are currently polling between 5 and 6 percent.
One can argue that the real government-opposition game is playing out inside the main conservative parties in the grand coalition. Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrat premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, has constantly emphasized the cost of the lockdown, voiced skepticism over the recommendations of epidemiologists, and pushed for early relaxation. His main opponent is Markus Söder, the premier of Bavaria from the Christian Social Union, the Christian Democrats’ sister party, who is very much on the cautious side, rather like Merkel.
The tensions between the two men are certainly grounded in different views of the issues at stake, but they also may have something to do with the fact Laschet is a declared contender to follow Merkel in late 2021 as the chancellor, while Söder is widely rumored to harbor the same ambition.
Ulrich Speck, senior visiting fellow, Berlin office
In the initial stage of the pandemic, Italy’s opposition parties—Matteo Salvini’s right-wing Lega, Giorgia Meloni’s center-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and Silvio Berlusconi’s more moderate Forza Italia—were united, focused on the need to suspend tax and administrative deadlines. They even tried to collaborate with the government; for instance, on the Cura Italia decree, the first measure implemented by the government to face the economic consequences of the pandemic. However, the spirit of unity was rather short-lived on both sides. Differences started emerging visibly when the crisis became yet another moment to reflect on Italy’s place in Europe.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte openly accused Salvini and Meloni of spreading misinformation by saying he had signed the activation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) because of the crisis, marking a point of no-return. Since then, things have grown tenser. Within the opposition itself, unity started crumbling on the ESM, with Lega and Fratelli d’Italia firmly opposing it but Forza Italia in favor.
The crisis has put Forza Italia in the spotlight: it now has a limited electoral appeal, around 7 percent, but has found a new raison d'être as a sensible, pro-EU, centrist party, very much embedded in the European popular conservative culture. This evolution is embodied by its major public face: Antonio Tajani, one of the party founders and former president of the European Parliament, who is well respected and connected in Brussels. Given the problems that the current majority has with Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister whose presence in the majority remains uncertain, it cannot be even excluded that, sooner than later, Forza Italia could find some common ground with the government.
Meanwhile, support for Lega has eroded, mostly in favour of Fratelli d’Italia. One of the main factors pushing Lega above 30 percent in the last European Parliament elections was its appeal to parts of the right-wing electorate orphaned following the decline of the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance.) Initially Salvini tried to fill this vacuum by transforming Lega into a sovereignist, nationalist party. However, the coronavirus crisis has showed the limits to this approach, as many of these right-wing voters have now found a new, somehow more “natural” home in Fratelli d’Italia and are increasingly abandoning Salvini. Lega remains the most popular party but its support has shrunk to 27 percent. At the same time, support for Fratelli d’Italia has risen sharply to 14.7 percent.
Salvini realizes these trends put his leading role in the opposition in danger. And he also faces the rise of figures within Lega who can undermine his party leadership, such as the governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, whose popularity has skyrocketed since his region fared extremely well in handling the coronavirus outbreak. The tension between Salvini and Meloni over the organization of the opposition public rally on June 2, Republic Day, clearly reflects this emerging dynamic between Lega and Fratelli d’Italia, which is likely to be one of the most significant issues to watch in Italian politics over the next few months.
Dario Cristiani, IAI/GMF fellow, Washington office
The coronavirus crisis and its handling have in some ways not been very different from everyday politics in Poland. The governing and opposition parties got off on the right foot. One day after the first official case of coronavirus was detected, the government led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party called a meeting with the main opposition parties (Civic Platform, the Left, the Polish People’s Party-Kukiz, and Confederation) to open a dialogue on curbing the spread of the disease. The restrictions imposed by the government (home working, schools and shopping malls closed, and stay at home) were met with support from all sides. The first bill to fight the coronavirus had the support of both PiS and the opposition parties in parliament (400 voted for it, 11 against, and 7 abstained).
When the coronavirus reached Poland the widespread sense of imminent danger brought the government and the opposition around the table. Not much later the government’s decision not to declare a state of emergency ruptured the initial feeling of unity. Currently, 46 percent of Poles say they are unhappy with the way the government has fought the pandemic and 44 percent say they are content. Constitutional lawyers and the opposition argue that all restrictions imposed to safeguard people’s health are unconstitutional because they were not declared under the state of emergency as dictated by the constitution, and therefore all fines imposed for violating restrictions could be brought to court and argued against under civil code.
When it comes to government assistance packages, 75 percent of people say the help extended to companies and employees is insufficient. The opposition has criticized the assistance effort. Boris Budka, the leader of Civic Platform, stated: “Instead of a government with a vision on how to navigate the crisis, de facto, we have Morawiecki’s Power Point presentations. There’s no vision behind it, no action.”
The opposition-controlled Senate has repeatedly made amendments to the four assistance bills, known as the “Anti-Crisis Shields,” which have been rejected by the government-controlled Sejm without substantive discussions. For example, the opposition parties proposed to increase unemployment benefits to protect those affected by the crisis. The Sejm rejected this proposal despite it being a promise of the PiS-backed President Andrzej Duda for the coming election.
Much like the government, the mainstream media has ignored the opposition’s ideas for increasing unemployment benefits, doing a lot more tests, and pouring more money into the healthcare system, instead focusing on opposition politicians’ comments on the controversy surrounding the holding of the presidential election. Opposition leaders Wladysław Kosiniak Kamysz and Robert Biedroń are both candidates in an unfair campaign in which Duda has the upper hand as the incumbent.
Opposition candidates echoed public sentiment and called on the government to postpone the election, which PiS was pushing for on May 10. Had the government put in place a state of natural disaster, the election would have had to be postponed by 90 days, to the detriment of Duda’s chances of winning. While the economic devastation caused by the lockdown becomes more apparent, the government’s insufficient financial aid packages and Duda’s approval ratings are starting to take a hit.
Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska, program coordinator, Warsaw office
Despite Spain being among the worst-affected countries by the coronavirus pandemic, this has not calmed the political rhetoric in the country. Opposition parties have continued, and at times cranked up, inflammatory rhetoric against the government’s management of the public-health crisis and the related confinement measures. Despite this, at first most of the opposition in parliament supported the declaration of the state of alarm. Since then, the extensions of the state of alarm, voted every two weeks, have been approved by smaller and smaller majorities.
The main opposition party, the conservative Partido Popular (PP), has accused the government of disrespecting “fundamental principles” of democracy and claimed that every day Spain is closer to “a dictatorial regime like North Korea.” The far-right Vox has been stirring the pot by promoting drive-through protests (“freedom caravans”) in all provincial capitals. Furthermore, it has applied pressure in the provincial governments where their support is critical to allowing the PP and Ciudadanos to govern; for example, by calling for the resignation of the Ciudadanos deputy mayor of Madrid, who suggested that the “freedom caravans” could have a negative impact on public health and Madrid’s ability to relax confinement measures.
Regional opposition from the Basque Country and Catalonia has focused on the “how” rather than the “what,” pointing to what they consider an over-extended re-centralization of competences under the state of alarm (in a country where they health system is almost entirely devolved to the provinces and where decentralization is a key pillar of the democratic constitutional order).
The most surprising development is perhaps the ostensible move toward the center by Ciudadanos, under the new leadership of Inés Arrimadas, breaking with the other parties of the right to support the most recent extension of the state of alarm.
A recent poll shows that support for the government is withstanding the increased vehemence of the opposition’s rhetoric. Support for political parties remains roughly similar to the result of the recent elections, with a small three-point increase in support for the Socialist party, a four-point decrease for Vox, and a four-point increase for Ciudadanos. Overall, the poll shows that 95 percent of Spaniards consider the measures adopted to have been necessary or very necessary, and about 46 percent of the electorate consider the policies of the executive deserve to be trusted.
Paul Costello, program manager, GMF Cities program, Berlin
The democratic space has been shrinking in Turkey, particularly after the failed coup attempt in 2016. The new system of government introduced through a referendum in 2018 has consolidated power in the hands of the president and crippled the powers of the parliament, making political opposition very difficult.
The 2019 local elections resulted in the opposition winning in most metropolitan cities, making municipalities the main platforms through which the opposition could express itself. However, in the case of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) even this was not possible as most of its mayors were removed from office based on terrorism charges (several of them were detained) and replaced by trustees by the Ministry of Interior.
The opposition has chosen to not politicize the crisis. Instead, the municipalities held by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) take initiatives to ease the difficulties faced by citizens in these difficult times. What started with reducing utility prices, tolerating non-payment of bills, or doing shopping for the elderly, quickly evolved into organizing solidarity in cities through donation campaigns for providing cash support to people who lost their incomes due the pandemic. Although these campaigns were banned by the Ministry of Interior and those who organized them were accused of trying to create a parallel state by representatives of the governing Justice and Development Party, the opposition mayors have found ways to bypass the blockages created by the government.
The mayor of Ankara has launched a campaign with the slogan “Kindness is more contagious than the disease,” asking citizens with sufficient resources to pay the debts of low-income citizens to small market traders. He also launched a campaign through which one can buy food packages from the municipality’s retail company, which can then be delivered to low-income families. The mayor of İzmir launched an online campaign through which citizens could pay the utility bills of those who were unable to afford them. This campaign was later replicated by mayors of İstanbul, Ankara, and some smaller cities. In an environment in which their resources are reduced significantly due to the macroeconomic situation, municipalities have also cut costs elsewhere to increase social services they provide to the groups who need them.
The most significant aspect of the opposition mayors’ efforts has been nonpartisanship. Turkey is a highly polarized society, making it difficult for parties to reach out over the fence through political discourse. However, the efforts of the opposition parties to organize solidarity has been very successful at a time when other channels for expressing themselves were blocked.
Kadri Taştan, senior fellow, Brussels office, and Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director, Ankara office
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.