Western Europe’s right-wing populists have opened up a new front in Western Europe’s variant of the American culture war. The magic word is “Impffreiheit” (or freedom to choose to get vaccinated or not). The objective: To stop and reverse what the populist right characterizes as the silent erosion of fundamental civil rights and, in the process, impede a development that must invariably end in authoritarianism and tyranny. Ironically, these are the very same parties which, in the not so distant past, have outdone each other in their praise and adoration of Putin, Orbán and Trump. But then, reason and logic have never been strong points on the populist right.
To be sure, the populist right’s defense of liberty, democracy, and civil rights is nothing new. Until recently it served to mobilize voters against the “Islamization of the West” – a strategy which proved quite successful, whether in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Italy or Switzerland, to name but a few. Unfortunately for the populist right, with Covid-19, the question of Islam’s place in Western societies faded into oblivion, and with it dwindled the populist right’s appeal and support. The most egregious example is the Danish People’s Party (DF). Until recently, the DF was a pivotal actor in Danish politics, which managed to impose its position on migrants on refugees on the mainstream parties. By now, it has virtually disappeared from the political landscape. Other parties have fared better, but more often than not are way below their pre-pandemic highs. In Germany, for instance, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party experienced a significant reversal of its pre-pandemic upsurge, even if it managed to maintain its support base in the eastern part of the country.
Emotions and the Populist Right
Covid-19 has turned out to be a highly charged issue, which evokes a range of intensive emotions – fear, anxiety, frustration, rage, resentment. Mabel Berezin has noted that emotions “are physical and expressive responses to some sort of destabilization.” Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has caused numerous types of destabilization – psychological, social, economic, and political. With the fourth wave sweeping across Europe, and no end in sight, societies appear to be rapidly approaching a breaking point, reflected in growing frustration and exasperation, occasionally erupting in furious, even violent protest.
And as the pandemic approaches its third year, Europe is beginning to see the very same tendencies that have characterized the United States over the past several years. In the face of escalating conflicts between the proponents of vaccination and its opponents, there are growing signs of societal division and polarization. A recent Swiss opinion poll on the vaccination, for instance, found growing interpersonal aggressiveness and declining social solidarity. A third of respondents indicated that they had broken off contact with acquaintances because of disagreements over anti-Covid-19 measures.
Right-wing populist parties thrive on societal conflict and polarization and the affect they provoke. More than any other party family, the populist right evokes and appeals to emotions, from anger to resentment, from anxiety to nostalgia. It is for these reasons that Covid-related questions, and here particularly the vaccination issue, have been, and continue to be, at the top of the populist right’s political agenda. Fanning the flames of rage and resentment is not necessarily to the benefit to society or the individual citizen; but it certainly is to the benefit of the populist right.
A case in point is the AfD. In the most recent election for the German Bundestag, the AfD incurred significant losses overall. In the eastern part of the country, however, it largely managed to retain its support base, particularly in its strongholds, Thuringia and Saxony. Thuringia and Saxony, together with Brandenburg, also happen to be the Länder (regions) which boast the lowest vaccination rates in Germany. At the same time, they also have the highest corona-related death rates per 100,000 inhabitants. A recently published study on differences in Corona-related infection rates in early and late 2020 establishes a clear link between AfD election results and infection rates – in both parts of the country. The higher the result in an electoral district, the higher the rate of infections during the first and second waves. According to a recent study commissioned by the German health ministry, around fifty percent of Germany’s non-vaccinated voters chose the AfD in the most recent Bundestag election.
Impffreiheit in Austria: The FPÖ’s Struggle for Relevance
In Austria, in 2020, vaccination opponents launched a signature drive for a popular initiatives in favor of Impffreiheit. Needless to say, the initiative received enthusiastic support from the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), which right from the beginning of the pandemic promoted itself as Corona sceptics. Once vaccines were available, the party launched a frontal assault on its safety and effectiveness. One leading party official cited British studies that allegedly showed that fully vaccinated patients were six times more likely to do from the delta variant than un-vaccinated patients. The claim was blatantly wrong. Another official attacked the president of Austria’s medical association and called him a liar in a public exchange over the situation in Vienna’s ICUs. As it turned out, more than 90 percent of these patients were non-vaccinated.
With rising infection rates in the fall, the party upped its rhetoric further. Its leader, Herbert Kickl, charged that the vaccine was “experimental” and warned that the government’s anti-corona measures would invariably end Austria in a “system of vaccination apartheid.” Accusing the government of having subjected society to an “inhuman and contemptuous propaganda”, Kickl charged that it was time to liberate Austria’s citizens from this “system of oppression and coercion” and to stand up for the “protection of basic and liberal values.” Referring to an expert study that proved that Ivermectin was effective in treating corona, Kickl promoted the drug as a centerpiece of his anti-Covid strategy. Too bad that it soon turned out that the study was a fraud. Otherwise it might have prevented Kickl from getting infected with the virus – much to the chagrin of FPÖ supporters who had started to stockpile the drug. And while Kickl was at home in quarantine, a number of his supporters ended up in hospital with severe complications following self-treatment with overdoses of Ivermectin and vitamin D. They once again confirmed that right-wing populism might be dangerous to your health.
For the FPÖ, however, the frontal assault on the Austrian government’s anti-corona course has paid some dividends. As has been the case elsewhere in Europe, falsehoods, misrepresentations, and lies have revived the fortunes of a party whose reputation had been severely compromised by the corruption scandal involving its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, in 2019 (aka Ibiza affair). In the most recent regional election, in September in Oberösterreich, almost 50 percent of the non-vaccinated voted FPÖ. This in an election where the party won roughly 20 percent of the vote. This was a third less than in the previous regional election, but substantially higher than in early 2020, before the pandemic. At the time, polls had the FPÖ at around 10 percent.
A few days ago, the escalation of the corona crisis in Austria led the government to order a general lockdown and to make vaccination mandatory starting early next year. In a recent survey, respondents had a choice between several anti-corona measures. Mandatory vaccination came out on top, with more than 40 percent support, ahead of a general lockdown and a nightly curfew. Needless to say, FPÖ supporters were against all of them. More than a third came out in favor of abolishing all measures.
Impffreiheit in Switzerland: Rahel Blocher’s “No” Covid Certificate Campaign
What happens in Germany and Austria invariably also happens in Switzerland – at least when it comes to corona infections. Switzerland has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe. The reasons are manifold. Switzerland’s particularly strong relationship with freedom is one of them. The canton Vaud, for instance, has as its motto “liberté et patrie” – freedom and fatherland. And they should know. After all, for a long time in the past, the canton was ruled by Savoie, Vaud’s neighbor on the southern shores of Lake Geneva. The Savoyards finally gone, Bern immediately took over. It was not until Napoleon put an end to Bern’s rule that Vaud finally attained its independence. For a considerable part of the Swiss population, the question of corona vaccination is intricately linked to liberty and freedom. To a considerable extent, these sentiments have been evoked and fueled by Switzerland’s leading right-wing populist party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP). As the pandemic progressed in the country, the SVP established itself as the political focal point for Switzerland corona skeptics and anti-vaxxers.
This is not to say that inside the party, the anti-vaccination position has remained uncontested. Quite the contrary. A prominent case in point is Christoph Blocher, the party’s octogenarian eminence grise and “SVP Übervater” (super dad), who over a few decades made the SVP what it is today, Switzerland largest political party. In the days and weeks that followed, Blocher became the target of insults and worse. In a recent interview, Blocher confirmed that he had received several death threats, all because he had agreed to get the injections. Blocher rejected the suggestion that they had come from SVP supporters irritated and upset that he had succumbed to outside pressure. Survey based studies, however, support the contention that corona skeptics and anti-vaxxers are particularly prevalent among the SVP support base.
A representative study from July 2021, for example, found that respondents close to the SVP were disproportionately of the opinion that the state was too activist and interfered too much in “individuals’ freedom.” Two thirds of respondents subscribed to this notion, compared to less than thirty percent of the whole population. Roughly 50 percent of SVP supporters said they would not get vaccinated, compared to 25 percent overall; more than 60 percent opposed obligatory vaccination for health care personnel, compared to 38 percent overall; and 57 percent of SVP supporters were opposed to the introduction of a Covid certificate, compared to 29 percent overall; for more than two thirds the certificate amounted to an indirect coercion to get vaccinated, compared to 30 percent overall. It is perhaps not entirely surprising, given these findings, that the Ivermectin wave has also reached Switzerland. Prominent corona skeptics have claimed that the only reason Ivermectin has not been approved as a Covid treatment is that “politicians” did not want that people cured themselves at home.
The SVP’s positions on the corona pandemic and how to deal with it reflects to a large extent the views of its clientele. A case in point is the controversy over the Covid certificate. The Swiss government introduced the certificate in September 2021, following the positive outcome of a referendum. The opponents of the certificate were less than happy with the result of the referendum. In response, they launched a campaign for a new one, to be held in late November. What was at stake is the continuation of the certificate. In case of a negative vote, the law would have expired early next year and would have to be renegotiated in the federal parliament, giving the SVP a new opportunity to engage in grandstanding. It is for this reason that high-profile SVP members, such as Blocher’s daughter Rahel, put themselves at the head of the “no” campaign which plastered Switzerland’s towns and cities with menacing posters and distributing informational flyers to Swiss households. The tone was shrill, the diction abounding with hyperbole. Among other things, the “no” campaign warned that the certificate entailed social discrimination, a growing division of society, “health-care apartheid,” the erosion of freedom and liberty, a further step towards mandatory vaccination. All this would invariably lead to authoritarianism if not outright tyranny. Blocher himself, at the time of the introduction of the certificate, had claimed that there were already signs that Switzerland was moving in the direction of a dictatorship. Already Switzerland’s administration was “dictating in a dictatorial fashion” what was to be done. In this situation, it was of paramount importance to remain vigilant. No wonder that one of the members of the committee organizing the “no” campaign happens to be a vocal promoter of Ivermectin. Before he became an expert in medicine, he was a professor of banking and finance at the University of Zurich.
The referendum came to a vote this Sunday. A relatively large majority of more than 60 percent voted for extending the law, some two percent more than in the earlier referendum. At the time of this writing, the federal authorities are thinking about new, stricter measures, such as issuing certificates only to those vaccinated or recovered from a corona infection, no longer to those tested for the virus. Needless to say, the SVP is strictly opposed to any new measures.
Unholy Alliances: Overlaps between the Populist and Extreme Right in Switzerland
In the meantime, the party has cuddled some of the most fanatical corona skeptics and anti-vaxxers, most prominently the members of the “Freiheitstrychler” – a lite version of the infamous Proud Boys. Trychlern are the bells Swiss cows wear around their necks while grazing outside. The word also refers to men who take part in traditional bell-ringing processions in the Alps, an age-old tradition devoid of any political connotations. Against that, the Freiheitstrychler are a militant, highly politicized group which has hijacked the tradition to express their opposition to and disgust with the federal government’s anti-Covid measures. They characterize themselves as “committed Swiss people” who put their “heart and soul into our constitutional rights.”
The Swiss government consists of seven members from the four largest parties. The system is based on collegiality and consensus. Once a policy has been adopted, all members of the government are supposed to support and defend it unanimously. The SVP holds two ministerial portfolios. One is held by Ueli Maurer, a long-standing member of the federal government and two-times president of the confederation. In mid-September, Maurer was at a SVP meeting. So were a number of Freiheitstrychler, uninvited but tolerated. And more. At one point Maurer put on a Freiheittrychler t-short and posed for pictures. In the days that follows, the Freiheitstrychler used the picture to advertise the shirt on their website – until the federation intervened pressuring them to remove the picture. By then, the damage was done. Maurer pretended ignorance, not having been aware of the connotation the shirt evoked. The whole thing was an accident, rather than a provocation. Or so Maurer claimed.
A few days after the meeting, an unauthorized demonstration against the new law in front of the federal parliament in Bern turned violent. Demonstrators, among them quite a few Freiheitstrychler, tried to storm the building. In the process, they attacked the police with bottles and fireworks while chants of “Ueli, Ueli” could be heard. Hardly surprising, observers were reminded of January 6 when a mob stormed the United States capitol, spurred on by Donald Trump. And in Trump fashion, Blocher defended the Trychler, characterizing them as “Naturburschen” (nature-loving guys) who met with hostility because they had “a different opinion with respect to the Corona measures.” At the same time, Blocher was pleased about the renewed popularity his party experienced thanks to its “resistance” to the Corona measures.
It borders on the bizarre when a political party warns of growing societal division and polarization while, at the same time, instigating both. These developments are real and threaten to poison the social and political climate, just like in the United States. In the study cited earlier, almost a third of respondents said they had broken off contact with people in their immediate vicinity because of disagreements over the Corona measures. At the same time, there were growing worries that Swiss society was drifting apart, solidarity weakening and aggressive behavior on the rise. All of these trends provide fertile grounds for right-wing populist mobilization.
It appears that with Covid-19, the populist right has found a wedge issue that allows them to regain lost political ground. Covid-19 has set in motion a slew of psychological mechanisms and provoked a range of emotions of passionate intensity which render significant numbers of individuals susceptible to the siren song of political entrepreneurs primarily interested in advancing and strengthening their position. After more than 20 months of a pandemic that does seem to come to an end soon, there is a strong yearning for a return to “normalcy.” Corona measures, such as the wearing of masks, requirements to get tested, and, last not least, the corona certificate are daily reminders that normalcy is not within our grasp. Under the circumstances, the populist right’s dismissal of the necessity of these measures, its “resistance” to them, appeals to these yearnings as well as the delusion that accompany them. If we no longer have to wear masks, we are back to normalcy, corona being nothing but a bad dream. As long as right-wing populist parties peddle this kind of narrative, in a quite subtle form, to be sure, they are likely to prevail at the polls.
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).