Vienna, April 2, 2020: The pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is already changing our societies and recently started changing the political fabric of European nations. The entire scope of mid- and long-term political consequences of the pandemic is impossible to predict – not least because of the ongoing character of the pandemic and uncertainty about its further development – but some political changes are taking place right in front of our eyes. Some of them are minor. For example, the Covid crisis helped collapse the ruling coalition government in Kosovo, and the UK’s Brexit transition period is most likely to be extended beyond 2020. Some other Covid-related developments are, however, more profound. The Hungarian parliament introduced a state of emergency with no clear time limit, while granting the country’s far-right leader Viktor Orbán a right to rule by decree. The EU’s helplessness in the beginning of the pandemic turned Brussels from a bureaucratic monster into a paper tiger. And the suspension of the Schengen Agreement happened so naturally that the discontent that the EU officials expressed in February this year about the idea of reintroducing border checks now feels bizarre.
At the moment, it seems that European incumbents – regardless of their ideological conviction – enjoy higher levels of political trust among citizens in comparison to the pre-Covid era. European societies appear to be frightened by the pandemic and increasingly set their hopes – especially economic ones – on governments state and structures. But they also seem to be taken by surprise by the enforcement mechanisms that the State suddenly activated: closed borders, quarantine and penalties for its violation, bans on travelling and gatherings, etc. With the lower levels of the hierarchy of needs presumably endangered, the majority of citizens have been receptive to replacing, at least for the time being, their social needs with social distancing, and their self-actualisation with self-isolation.
One of the questions about political actors’ prospects in the (post-)Covid era is the question about the European far right: will they benefit from the pandemic? Let us briefly discuss this question on the basis of the presumption that our civilisation survives and fundamental patterns of political development remain unchanged.
As mentioned above, the Hungarian far-right leader Viktor Orbán can now rule by decree. This is arguably the highest achievement of the far right in Europe since the Francoist dictatorship in Spain, Portuguese Estado Novo and the Regime of the Colonels in Greece. Orbán’s success also holds a key to our understanding of the prospects of the far right in the (post-)Covid era. It is true that the parliament formally granted Orbán emergency powers because of the pandemic. However, it is also true that the Hungarian parliament, which is now totally controlled by Orbán’s Fidesz party that holds a constitutional majority, has been in fact waiting for such an opportunity. The rise of Orbán’s “goulash fascism” has been long in the making, as it began exactly ten years ago when Fidesz obtained the constitutional majority for the first time and started its preparation for a wide-scale attack on liberal-democratic policies and practices in the country. And here is the key: when discussing the prospects of the European far right, we need to understand that the Covid pandemic is not defining but expediting the trajectory or, rather, trajectories of the far right.
There are several trends related to far-right milieus in Europe. One of these is moderation and mainstreamisation. For several decades after WW2, the West European party-political far right was in perpetual opposition to the liberal-democratic establishment without any chance of ever becoming part of the establishment itself. The far right was considered a “normal pathology” of West European societies: even the healthiest bodies contain potentially dangerous viruses, but they only become really pernicious under specific circumstances. Indeed, the post-war capitalist part of Europe learned to live with the perpetual opposition of the far right. Sometimes, the feeling of despair on the part of the far right led to its radicalisation and consequent marginalisation. However, in the 1990s, an opposite development emerged: if radical right-wing parties moderate and drop some of their more radical demands, they may become more acceptable as potential political partners.
The Covid pandemic offers a boost for this trend. On the one hand, as centrist incumbents revive the idea of the nation state by reintroducing and tightening national borders, they move to the right of the political spectrum and fulfil some of the nativist dreams of the far right. On the other hand, while radical right-wing populists become deprived of some of their strongest mobilising narratives, they benefit from the legitimisation of these narratives by the establishment. The resulting situation is that the difference between radicalised centrist forces and moderated far right gets less distinct, and the latter – provided they abide by the moderation course – have greater chances to become part of the ruling class.
The second trend is proletarisation of the far right. Originally, the post-war far right was anti-socialist and pro-capitalist, but in the 1990s – when blue-collar workers seemingly threatened by globalisation and low-paid immigration workforce started to increasingly vote for the far right – many radical right-wing parties abandoned pro-capitalist and, at times, even neoliberal attitudes in favour of economically left-wing populism in order to keep and broaden their proletarian electorate. In the context of the Covid pandemic, when state interventionism – in the form of protectionism, aid for businesses, tax relief, etc. – appears to be more than welcome, the already weakened left and centre-left may lose their ground even further to the “proletarian” far right with their demands for more state participation in the economy. Ironically, the Covid pandemic reveals that the ideal state for contemporary radical right-wing populism seems to be inspired by socialist states in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War – with no migration and dominant state control over much of the economy.
The third trend is deeper radicalisation of the fringe extreme right. As mentioned above, some post-war far-right organisations that saw no prospects in the sphere of parliamentary politics would radicalise and eventually marginalise. In the recent few years, we have witnessed a new cycle of radicalisation: over the past five years, the total number of right-wing terrorist attacks have increased by more than 300 percent. Today, right-wing extremists are embracing accelerationism based on the idea that one needs to accelerate the demise of the failing liberal-democratic order through chaos and violence, and some of them see the pandemic as a major step toward their goal. Moreover, some right-wing extremist groups are even considering attacking immigrants and police with “Covid bombs”.
The three potential trajectories of the far right in the (post-)Covid era show that the pandemic offers this political milieu and its various strands a number of opportunities. However, while the situation of the pandemic is new, it will only expedite, rather than define, these trajectories.
Anton Shekhovtsov is External Lecturer at the University of Vienna and Associate Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. From January 2016 to July 2018 he was Visiting Fellow of IWM’s Ukraine in European Dialogue program.
This commentary has been written for IWM’s blog Coronavirus: How Will It Affect Our Lives?, and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s series of commentaries on the effects of the novel coronavirus on democratic experiences around the globe.