The situation described in my previous two pieces appears to be similar in Italy. Recent polls suggest that among the general Italian public, there is a high propensity to get vaccinated. In early December, roughly two thirds considered the vaccine an opportunity to end the pandemic. Twenty-five percent expressed skepticism, considering this expectation “an illusion.” The only groups expressing reluctance to get vaccinated were the supporters of the two radical right-wing parties, the populist Lega and Fratelli d’Italia with roots in neo-fascism. Among their supporters, only around 30 percent expressed willingness to get the vaccine.
According to the most recent election poll, the Lega continues to be the strongest party in Italy, with roughly 23 percent of the vote. This is a far cry from the more than 30 percent the Lega was credited with in 2019 when the Lega was in government as a partner of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S). The coalition government collapsed in September 2019, after the leader of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, threatened to call a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, an independent technocrat. Conte resigned, only to put together a new coalition, comprising M5S and the center-left Democratic Party (PD), leaving the Lega out in the cold.
Ever since, Salvini’s ambition has been to return to government, preferably with him in charge. As a result, Salvini has gone to great lengths to take the pandemic seriously, if with a twist. Ever since the pandemic hit Italy, Salvini played the religious card. One of his perhaps most memorable statements was that to defeat the “monster” it took more than science. What was needed was “il buon dio” – the good Lord.
Salvini would certainly have lost all credibility had he later on adopted the notion that Covid-19 was just a hoax or that it was not worse than the common flu. He has, however, repeatedly peddled a prominent conspiracy trope, namely that the virus had been created by a Chinese laboratory controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and financed by “a number of multinationals beyond any type of control.” Salvini offered also a ready-made explanation for why China would unleash the virus: Citing OECD projections, Salvini noted that China was the only economy poised to grow in 2020. Therefore his rhetorical question: “Who benefits?” The answer is obvious, as usually the case with syllogisms.
Salvini’s choice of the China trope is hardly surprising, given the dramatic deterioration of China’s image throughout Western Europe during the second half of 2020. In fact, in a recent poll, more than a quarter of Italian respondents (compared to 6 percent just two years earlier) chose China a representing “the biggest threat to the world” today, way ahead of Iran, North Korea and Russia. Under the circumstances, attacking China was a relatively safe bet, hardly likely to hurt his political ambitions.
By contrast, the vaccine question is an entirely different issue. Given widespread public support for the vaccine, Salvini and his party could hardly afford to raise doubts about it. This explains why Attilio Fontana, the Lega governor of Lombardy, Italy’s economically most important region, unequivocally affirmed that he would “certainly get vaccinated” as soon as it was his turn. With the vaccine, he added, Italy finally had “the weapons to win the battle” against the virus. In the meantime, he exhorted the public to follow the safety measures, including the wearing of masks.
Salvini, too, responded in a generally positive manner to the start of the vaccination campaign; at the same time, however, he voiced his opposition to making it mandatory to be vaccinated and expressed vailed support to those who hesitated. As far as he was concerned, he said he would wait his turn and then follow his physician’s advice. Not a clear coming out in support of vaccination, but a far cry from the both ludicrous and pernicious positions adopted by fellow radical right-wing populists in Austria and Germany – and the United States.
The situation is quite similar in Spain, where the radical populist right, Santiago Abascal’s Vox, has largely managed to hold its own. A poll from mid-December credited it with 14 percent of the vote. This, however, was a slight drop from 15.2 percent of the vote Vox garnered in the general election of 2019. Spain is among the countries in Western Europe most devastated by the pandemic. At year’s end the country recorded roughly 50,000 corona-related deaths, more than 1.8 million infections. By comparison, Germany’s corona-related death rate stood at 27,000, with more than 1.5 million infections. In short, in Spain, the pandemic has been nothing short of a national catastrophe.
Vox has largely used this catastrophe as an opportunity to mobilize public anxiety and resentment to bolster its radical right-wing populist agenda and its standings in the polls. A prominent tool has been the peddling of conspiracy theories. This certainly was a calculated strategy, given widespread public propensity to conspiracy thinking. In a recent survey, 65 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the virus had been created in a lab; 40 percent thought that “behind the vaccine is a conspiracy.” Against that, only 15 percent agreed with the notion that Covid-19 was no more dangerous than the flu.
Vox adopted both conspiracy tropes while staying clear of the notion that Covid-19 was nothing but a type of flu. And for good reasons: In early March, Vox publicly apologized for holding a party meeting which potentially exposed the participants to the virus. In fact, in the aftermath of the meeting several top Vox officials tested positive for the virus, among them Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal. Under the circumstances, downplaying the virulence of Covid-19 was hardly a viable political option. In fact, the party had no objections to the wearing of masks. In all of the regions where it was represented in parliament and where it was mandatory to wear a mask, it asked however, in true populist fashion, that the public authorities provide these masks free of charge.
Instead Vox focused on exploiting the public’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories. As early as March various party officials blamed China for disseminating the virus as a means to “dominate” Europe economically. A few months later, taking his cue from across the Atlantic, Abascal not only publicly charged China with bearing responsibility for the global pandemic; but he also implied that it had been “artificially” created in order “to control the world.” At the same time he demanded that Spain withdraw from the World Health Organization, which in his view was controlled and manipulated by China and was nothing more than a Chinese propaganda tool.
Like Salvini’s Lega, Vox has been amazingly favorable with respect to the vaccine. And this not only given widespread public suspicions mentioned earlier, but also given widespread public vaccine hesitancy. In mid-November, only a quarter of respondents in a representative poll expressed their willingness to get vaccinated as soon as a vaccine was available. Vox supporters were the most hesitant. In fact, more than 60 percent were reluctant, more than 20 percent said they would never get vaccinated.
Yet top Vox officials have generally endorsed the vaccination campaign. At the same time, they blamed the government if “some” Spanish citizens had little confidence in the vaccine and demanded that the government provide “rapid and true information about the efficacy” of the vaccine.
There are a number of explanations for Vox’s position on Covid-19. Three stand out: For one, the Spanish public has generally been highly supportive of the restrictive measures ordered by the government to contain the spread of the virus. In October more than 60 percent of respondents in a representative poll came out in support of harsher measures; even among Vox supporters roughly 50 percent favored the proposition. Secondly, the party has tried to use the pandemic as an opportunity to promote itself as the advocate of those on the bottom of Spanish society, left further behind by the pandemic and most affected by it. A prominent example of this strategy is the demand that masks be distributed free of charge. Finally. there is the fact that the party continues to be in a relatively strong position with respect to any future government formation. The center-right can only hope to take government control if it includes Vox. In order to have a chance to be included, Vox, in turn, has to present itself at least mildly serious and what in Germany we call salonfähig. This is a difficult task, given the party’s image. In a representative poll in October, 55 percent of respondents judged what Abascal had said and done with respect to Covid-19 as “very bad” (1 on a scale from 1 to 10), much worse than the leaders of any of the other relevant parties. Under the circumstances, Vox’s shying away from adopting the more ludicrous conspiracy theories that have emerged during the course of the pandemic is a perfectly understandable strategy – as is the party’s stance on protective measures and the vaccine.
These examples suggest that the pandemic has put radical right-wing populist parties in a quandary. This is particularly pronounced in the case of the Swiss People’s Party, Switzerland’s leading exponent of right-wing populism. The SVP is not only Switzerland’s largest party, it also holds two seats in Switzerland’s seven-member federal government. At the same time, the SVP has a strong presence in a number of cantons, most notably Zurich.
The problems stemming from the SVP’s role as an intricate part of the Swiss government and as the country’s leading populist voice are hardly new. With the pandemic, they have become even more glaring. The fact is that as a “staatstragende Partei” (a party intricately involved with the state), the SVP has to defend positions that the majority of its supporters oppose. Take, for instance, the case of short-term lockdowns. In early November, when infections rates threatened to overwhelm the country’s health care system, around two thirds of SVP supporters were against a lockdown. This was an expression of strong anti-state sentiments prevalent among SVP supporters, sentiments the SVP has cultivated and promoted in the past. In the same November poll, roughly half of SVP supporters agreed with the statement that the state showed too much “activism” and intruded too much into the realm of personal liberty. Once the possibility of a vaccine turned into reality, SVP supporters were the least willing to get vaccinated. More than 50 percent expressed their hesitancy, substantially more than the supporters of any other relevant party.
In response, the SVP has tried to square the circle. As members of government, top party officials have had to carry responsibility for the government’s restrictive measures. At the same time, the party has tried not to antagonize its supporters. This explains why in early January, when all other parties called for a new shutdown, the SVP called for relaxing the existing restrictive measures, such as allowing restaurants to open again. By contrast, whereas a large part of SVP supporters want nothing to do with the vaccine, Zurich’s top health official, a leading SVP politician, not only enthusiastically greeted the beginning of the vaccine campaign in the city, but deplored the fact that the city did not have enough vaccines to meet the overwhelming demand.
The SVP’s position is indicative of the difference between radical right-wing populist parties in a position of genuine influence, even power, and parties that don’t have to face these limitations. Switzerland is a country of many idiosyncrasies. One of them is its regional diversity. The vast majority of the Swiss population are German-speaking. A minority speak French; an even smaller minority speak Italian. Most of the latter live in the canton of Ticino, on the northern shores of Lago maggiore. One of the major parties in Ticino is the Lega dei ticinesi, a radical right-wing populist party which commands a substantial part of the canton’s vote. The Lega’s success is to a significant extent due to its anti-Italian positions, fed by widespread resentment against the daily influx of northern Italians crossing the border to work in Chiasso, Lugano, Bellinzona and Ascona.
When the pandemic first hit Switzerland in early 2020, Ticino suffered more than any other Swiss canton, given the large number of Italian commuters from Italian areas particularly affected by the virus. Hardly surprising, the indigenous population blamed the commuters for the infections. This provided the Lega with a golden opportunity to mobilize widespread ressentiments. And it has done so, until today. A prime point in case is Lorenzo Quadri, editor of the Lega’s newspaper and member of the federal parliament. In recent months, Quadri has distinguished himself as the arguably most strident voice of radical right-wing populism In Switzerland. In comparison, the SVP is a modicum of moderation. Not only has Quadri characterized Covid-19 as that “goddam Chinse virus;” he also blamed Ticino’s high rate of infection on “the invasion from the South” provoked by the “Italian economic disaster.” As a result, Ticino was heading towards a “job catastrophe” largely caused by the “partitocracy” (i.e., the federal government in Berne) that was “licking the boots of the European Union” ( partitocrazia eurolecchina).
To be sure, Ticino is largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Yet the Lega’s statements on the pandemic are indicative of the acrimony Covid-19 has evoked on the radical populist right, even in a country known for its moderate politics, a function of the country’s peculiar consociational system. It demonstrates that it is not beneath radical right-wing populists’ dignity to use the pandemic to incite and mobilize resentment in the name of political expediency and for political gain.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating — socially, economically, psychologically and above all in terms of human lives. At the same time, it has unleashed some of the worst traits in human nature – and in politics. Seeking to derive political advantage from the misery caused by the pandemic is odious and reprehensible, particularly when it involves human lives. In the past, radical right-wing populist parties have more often than not been dismissed as worrisome and tedious byproducts of large-scale processes, such as accelerated societal modernization and globalization, devoid of programmatic substance. Covid-19 has shown that this is hardly the case.
As the German, Austrian and American cases clearly show, radical right-wing populism can be dangerous for your health. A mindset infiltrated by radical right-wing populist thinking more often than not leads to behavior that opens the door for a virus that could care less about ideological convictions. Even the French, Italian and Spanish cases don’t necessarily gainsay this conclusion. After all, Marine Le Pen has hopes to snatch the presidency in 2020; Salvini still reckons he has a good chance to become prime minister one of these days, and Abascal has expectations to enter a center-right government in the not so far future.
The pandemic has shown once again that when it comes to the radical populist right, “once size fits all” is a simplification that obscures more than it illuminates. To be sure, the radical populist right’s response to the pandemic has in large part been driven by the vagaries of public opinion. At the same time, the radical populist right has to a certain degree influenced public opinion. This has been particularly true for its supporters who more often than not have looked to these parties to find confirmation for their actions, such as refusing to wear a mask. Here Trump has been the model, a model many radical right-wing populists in Western Europe have eagerly emulated. The same holds true for the appeal of various conspiracy theories. One of the most disconcerting aspects of the public response to the pandemic has been the extent to which even the most ludicrous notions, such as the alleged role of 5G in causing infections, resonate among substantial parts of the population. The “paranoid style,” as Richard Hofstadter once famously called it, is hardly a particularly and peculiarly American phenomenon. Western Europeans, recent research clearly shows, are as susceptible to conspiracy thinking as are Americans, with equally deleterious consequences. Hardly surprising, the Western European radical populist right has eagerly embraced conspiracy theories, for largely opportunistic reasons.
At the same time, however, radical right-wing populist parties, like any other party, face strategic dilemmas that are not easily resolved. Playing to the peanut gallery has its cost, a lesson Donald Trump has painfully learnt in the recent election. Some parties are prepared to pay the price, others are not. Whether or not a more cautious, measured and moderate stance will pay the expected dividends, the outcome of the upcoming presidential election in France will show. In the meantime, given the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, all bets are probably off.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See full profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).