Over the last five years, European moderates have watched in horror as right-wing radicals won more and more votes, and extreme movements became mainstream players. But since the arrival of COVID-19, insurgent conservative parties have suffered a few setbacks, giving centrist politicians some relief from the onslaught, and a bit more control over the continent. In each case, there were specific reasons for floundering on the right — whether scandal, infighting, or domestic problems — but experts say that the pandemic itself has been a contributing factor. The virus, which is currently seeing a resurgence in Europe, has taken attention away from issues like immigration, and made voters turn to leaders they see as competent and trustworthy.
“Health is not an issue that benefits the radical right — so as long as people aren’t thinking about things like immigration, crime, and terrorism, that is bad for them,” said Tarik Abou Chadi, a professor of political science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who specializes in the radical right. “A crisis like this benefits governments seen as capable, at least in the short-term, and is not so great for the populist radical right, because it makes it more difficult for them to set the agenda, which they largely have done since the so-called refugee crisis.”
The most recent, and most dramatic, defeat for a right-wing party came in Vienna. Earlier this month, voters in the Austrian capital abandoned the rightwing Freedom Party (FPÖ), whose share of the vote dropped from 31 to 7 percent. The party has been reeling from the “Ibizagate” scandal, which saw former party leader and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache apparently caught on tape discussing buying positive media coverage with government contracts while on the Spanish island famous for its party scene. In its wake, Strache left FPÖ and formed his own party. Across the border in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has also declined in popularity, for a few reasons. The right-wing party — quite a new and surprising phenomenon in postwar Germany — is now riven by acrimonious infighting; immigration matters less than it did when over a million refugees began entering the country in 2015, and that process has gone relatively well; and Germans have rallied around Chancellor Merkel herself, who has earned a reputation as a competent, trustworthy leader over her 15 years in power. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s League has lost some ground to the Brothers of Italy, another right-wing party. The Brothers of Italy has a history that is far from moderate, but the shift has slowed what seemed to be Salvini’s inevitable rise to power.
Though scattered and sometimes minor, the defeats suffered by the far right have been very welcome to many average citizens who were deeply concerned by their victories over the last few years. “The FPÖ was offering very easy answers to complex questions, and they were the wrong answers. Here in Austria it’s the same kind of thing you are seeing all over the world in recent years,” said Ferdinand Hecke, a 36-year-old resident of Vienna. “It was very good news that they lost big here this month, and the main reason for that has to be that they were exposed as hypocritical or corrupt. But the pandemic also changed things — people are looking for stable management, not radical political experiments.”
In Greece, a very different kind of blow has been dealt to the extreme-right Golden Dawn party. This month, an Athens court found the party guilty of running a criminal organization targeting leftists and immigrants, and party leaders were sentenced to prison. This was not about the pandemic, but something else entirely, says Daphne Halikiopoulou, professor of comparative politics at the University of Reading, England, and an expert on Golden Dawn. “This outcome was the result of over five years of trial, and the work of the judiciary. It is an indication that our democratic system does work, and that independent institutions can hold people responsible for violent or criminal activities.” She stresses in her work that Golden Dawn is not just a far-right party, but a neo-Nazi party.
There are certainly still countries where the far right remains strong — such the Netherlands, France, and Spain. But “at the very least, there is no example of a far-right party actually benefiting from the pandemic,” Halikiopoulou said. This is a marked contrast, for Europe at least, from the trend over the last few years.
At the Financial Times in London, columnist Janan Ganesh looked across the pond and concluded that in a world with less immigration because of the pandemic, Donald Trump (and European right-wing populists) have been left without their raison d’être. “The closed society of [Trump’s] dreams is at hand. But then what is the point of his presidency,” Ganesh wrote.
Further abroad, there are far-right leaders who have done quite well during COVID-19. Cas Mudde, a Dutch academic now based in the U.S., points to Brazil’s leader as one such example. “There are few lessons to draw from Europe’s experience in the pandemic that can be applied to the U.S.,” he said. “Most far-right leaders took COVID-19 serious, early on, unlike Donald Trump. But Jair Bolsonaro followed Trump’s playbook and is thriving in the polls. Admittedly, he provided financial support for people, not corporations.”
And there is no reason to believe that the short-term effects of COVID-19 will be the same as its lasting political legacy. “In the long term, the pandemic may very well strengthen the radical right,” said Chadi. “Economic insecurity, and a stronger focus on the nation-state and its borders, could help them.”