It is a story of colossi and feet of clay. If no country can claim to have known how to anticipate the coronavirus crisis and its consequences, the nations with “strong men” sometimes seemed the most shaken by this invisible enemy, which they refused to see coming. A symbol: that of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who a few weeks ago congratulated himself for having shaken the hands of the sick of the Covid-19, now broke in his enthusiasm by the disease. And now in intensive care. Have all populist leaders reacted the same way to the coronavirus, and couldn’t this epidemic ultimately be right for them?
Donald Trump in the United States like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to a lesser extent Boris Johnson: all of them underestimated the threat. “There are prominent examples of the populists’ stereotypical approach, such as denial of reality, distracting the public with conspiracy theories,” Dutch political scientist Populism specialist Cas Mudde lists in one of his columns for the Guardian. Donald Trump had spoken well of “grippette”, accused his democratic opponents of “hoax” on the subject.
American political scientist Yascha Mounk analyzed that Trump had used many populist “classic techniques” in his approach to the crisis, such as disinformation, limiting access to media information, or the will to arrogate powers that they did not have. Denial is even stronger among far-right president Jair Bolsonaro who still refuses containment measures, against the advice of his own Minister of Health.
“A windfall effect” for Viktor Orban
In other cases, the populist regimes, if they did not minimize the Covid-19 risk, took advantage of it to strengthen their power. “Viktor Orban (Hungary) always has the same reflex, as soon as there is a threat, he closes the borders. He also took the opportunity to increase his powers, there was a windfall effect for him, ”analyzes researcher Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Political Radicalities at IRIS. The Hungarian Prime Minister, whose practice of power is increasingly authoritarian, has in fact assumed full powers for an indefinite period. The head of the Indian government, Narendra Modi, for his part imposed brutal confinement, and put pressure on the media inclined to criticize his handling of the crisis. The law of the gag.
Ultimately, some observers believe that the coronavirus crisis could cut off some populist heads. On the one hand because the management of the Covid-19 has brought experts, scientists back to the fore, whose reason is often fought by populists like Trump or Bolsonaro. A snub, which, added to the gravity of the situation in each country, would be likely to unseat the English, Brazilian… even American leaders, while Trump must play his re-election next November. But nothing is less certain.
The boss of the first world power, if he changed his report to Covid-19, has nevertheless changed his rhetorical register. He always speaks of a “Chinese virus”, which gives a face to the epidemic, a common enemy that would be to fight by being united … behind him. This Wednesday, he attacked the World Health Organization, which he accused of having “planted”, favoring the enemy … Chinese. Populist leaders may have been shattered in this global storm. But it is not said to be fatal to them, nor does it say that they will not emerge stronger from it.