Public Support and Illiberal Behavior of Right-wing Populist Governments during the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Tabea Geißler

Can right-wing populist governments exploit a health crisis? Or does a health crisis make them more vulnerable to losses of public support? Departing from anecdotal evidence that right-wing populist governments in Europe seem to have lost public support during the pandemic while non-populist governments did not, I develop the argument that this loss in support for right-wing populist governments derives from specific features of their governance that I identify as “illiberal behavior”. The causal link between public support and such patterns of behavior is further explored in the two case studies of Poland and the Czech Republic.

The Puzzle: Populism, Crisis, and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Do populists benefit from a crisis1 such as the Covid-19 pandemic? Or do they rather fail to live up to public expectations under the condition of acute threat? These questions have been raised and debated in the field of populism and democracy research, not least fueled more since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, well-founded results are still scarce and limited2, while various assumptions and speculations have been made that miss to study what in fact has been happening during the pandemic. Departing from my observation that on average right-wing populist governments in Europe3 lost public support during the pandemic, this phenomenon seems puzzling, since you would rather expect that populist governments gain public support through a crisis. Previous research has found that societies in times of crisis attribute a stronger leadership role to their government – also known as the “rally-round-the-flag” effect (cf. Mueller 1970). This would help right-wing populists in governments to exploit the “hour of the executive” – an executive-dominated mode of governance – to strengthen their power and popularity as authoritarian leaders (cf. Enyedi 2016; Pappas 2019; Albertazzi & Mueller 2013).

This raises the question of why public support for right-wing populist governments in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has eroded between March 2020 and April 2021. I analyzed the cases of the Czech Republic and Poland by hypothesizing that specific features of populist rule are not acceptable for democratic societies specifically in times of acute threat.

The Concept of (Right-Wing) Populism: Illiberal Behavior as Modes of Governance

While various concepts regarding populism exist, the rationale behind my argument derives from an ideational understanding, which contradicts the concept of liberal democracy in line with Dahl’s criteria of the participation of the people “considered as political equals” (Dahl 1971, p. 1).

Populism, however, “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, 'the pure people' versus' the corrupt elite ', and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté Générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde 2004, p. 543). Right-wing populism can be understood as a subtype of populism, which adds two features to the basic characteristics of populism: nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde 2007). While nativism draws on an anti-egalitarian belief in the cultural, national and/or ethnic “uniqueness” of “the people”, authoritarianism relates to an authoritarian way of managing society based on a “law and order” approach (Mudde 2007, p. 23).

I hypothesize specific features of right-wing populist governments, which we can label “illiberal behavior”, that are responsible for the loss in public support since it contradicts public expectations under the condition of acute threat. Public expectations are based on the pursuit of the common interest: Government behavior should reflect a public good orientation to maintain political trust. The public interest in the situation of acute threat includes two key aspects:

  • Measures for effective containment and minimization of the threat and the establishment of security,
  • The process of crisis policy must be transparent, fair, and morally justifiable.

It is expected that right-wing populist governments, especially regarding the second core aspect, will not meet the expectations of the population during the pandemic as they lack an open and transparent crisis management due to their illiberal nature. I assessed the components of illiberal behavior through the factors of authoritarian leadership, corruption, and discriminatory measures and chose Poland and the Czech Republic as two separate case studies.

Illiberal Behavior Affects Public Support

The results of my thesis reveal that illiberal behavior can account for variations in public support for right-wing populist governments for the selected case studies. First, illiberal practices of right-wing populist governments tend to be less tolerable in times of acute crisis than in normal times. The investigation of the pre-Covid era shows the prevalence of illiberal behavior within right-wing populist governments which can partly account for short-term fluctuations in support; however, it only leads to a gradual decline during the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, a rally effect emerges in both cases in March/April 2020, as evidenced by high approval ratings for the government and its crisis management. However, this effect diminishes after a few weeks. In the fall of 2020 and winter of 2021, in particular, there is a significant drop in public support for both governments.

In the Czech Republic, various corruption scandals in April and May 2020 lead to a worse assessment of the political situation and a loss of trust in the Prime Minister Andrej Babis. In September 2020, the decline in government approval can be explained by Babis' authoritarian behavior toward the decisions of the Ministry of Health and toward assessments and recommendations by health experts from the government's advisory group and the WHO, while infection figures rose dramatically. A mix of authoritarian leadership by Babis and Health Minister Jan Blatny as well as further corruption cases explain the renewed decline in government support in December 2020. However, the greatest loss in public support for the government in the Czech Republic can be observed in February 2021, with the Prime Minister's authoritarian behavior in response to the Ministry of Health's vaccination strategy, leading to further resignations of health experts and power conflicts between the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health. At the same time, corruption affairs increased. Support remained at a low level until April 2021, when further corruption cases began to evolve.

In Poland, there is also a brief upswing in government approval in March 2020, which declines quickly by the beginning of April. During this period, the government's authoritarian behavior was increasingly evident, as it attempted to suppress any criticism of the government's crisis management. Approval of the government continued to decline until June, which can be attributed to health minister Łukasz Szumowski’s corruption scandals concerning the procurement of medical equipment as well as an accused conflict of interest. Approval of the government continued to decline in September and October 2020 due to further corruption accusations, internal power conflicts within the governing alliance, as well as discriminatory statements against LGBT groups, and the EU's refusal to send subsidies to the so-called "LGBT-free zones".

Consequently, the underlying expectation that threat situations make a difference in people’s evaluation of their government tends to be relevant. At the same time, a definitive link between alternative factors such as the economic situation, Covid-19 infection rates or containment measures, and shifts in public support couldn’t be identified, while some limitations to the hypothesis remain. For instance, there are issues in weighing the explanatory power for each factor of illiberal behavior and how they are interwoven with each other and alternative factors. Another limitation regards the question of to what extent the decline in public support can actually be attributed to the government's illiberal behavior alone or to its crisis management in general, which is increasingly seen as deficient in the eyes of the public. Further research is needed to understand people’s rationale in evaluating governments.

Recent Developments in Czech Republic and Poland and Outlook

While the analysis time frame ends in April 2021, we can draw on new empirical developments in Poland and the Czech Republic. In the outlook of my thesis, I stated that ANO’s power stands on shakier ground compared to Poland while opposition mobilization tends to be crucial in order to evaluate whether they will succeed over the populist governments in the future. Recent developments tend to confirm this perspective. ANO narrowly lost the parliamentary elections in October 2021, while the center-right electoral alliance SPOLU won and built a 5-party coalition encompassing wide political spectrums on the left-right scale. Furthermore, the new prime minister Petr Fiala from the ODS seems to embody specific attributes opposed to Andrej Babis in terms of deliberative politics, openness, and inclusiveness. This development seems to support my argument that people’s desire for a more open and transparent government in times of crisis becomes more crucial.

The situation in Poland is somewhat different. Support for PiS remains at around 35 percent in February 2022, which is much lower compared to before the pandemic, but still stable. However, support for the opposition party KO has risen from 19 to 28 percent, mainly due to the return of Donald Tusk to domestic politics. He aims to form an opposition alliance for the next parliamentary elections in 2023. If he manages to unite the different opposition parties, there could be a real chance for a governmental change. Since PiS still has a solid electorate that stands behind the party, even during the crisis, the Czech Republic might serve as a motivator for Polish opposition to jointly defeat the PiS in the next elections. A united opposition in Poland is also crucial because many of the mass media and news outlets are under massive government influence, thus giving them a large advantage in shaping public opinion.

This brings the EU's influence to the forefront, since the EU constitutes one of the major criticizers of PiS’s illiberal behavior while being capable to sanction the Polish government. This affects public opinion among Poles regarding their government, as issues regarding Polish-European relations tend to dominate domestic debates. These are stirred by infringement proceedings against Warsaw and filed lawsuits with the ECJ, most recently by the imposition of an EU fine of 1 million per day until the judiciary reforms are abandoned. Continuing conflicts with the EU could affect public support for the PiS negatively since most people in Poland support the European Union. At the same time, Poland-EU relations are currently overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis. This offers PiS new opportunities to negotiate with the EU. Poland has not only become the main transit country for arms shipments to Ukraine, but has also taken in more than 2 million refugees. This could push current conflicts over the rule of law into the background and prompt the EU to adopt a "softer" policy, which could strengthen the Polish government.



1 The term crisis should be defined here as “extended periods of high threat, high uncertainty, and high politics that disrupt a wide range of social, political, and organizational processes” (Boin & Hart 2003, p. 545).

2 Except for Wondreys and Mudde (2020), the edited Volume by Bobba & Hube (2021) and the most recent report from Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy from January 2022.

3 Right-wing populist parties in government positions were selected according to Taggart and Pirro’s (2021) classification. They provide a list and in-depth investigation of 30 European countries and 63 parties before the pandemic and classify them according to their populist and left-right characteristics. Before the pandemic, only right-wing populist parties had government power in the European Union and only in Central and Eastern Europe.


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About the author

Tabea Geissler has just completed her double master's degree in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society at the University of Tübingen and the American University in Cairo. She also holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Economics from Leuphana University Lüneburg and worked at the Peace Academy RLP from September 2019 to September 2021.