Be aware of freedom populism

As the pandemic slowly comes to an end, a new and deadly form of populism is rising.

Madrid regional government leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso waves to supporters upon arriving by motorbike to an electoral event ahead of regional elections in Valdemoro, Spain, April 29, 2021. [Sergio Perez/Reuters]

Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and other right-wing populists across the world proved throughout the COVID-19 pandemic just how deadly their rhetoric and policies can be at a time of crisis. But things are about to get worse.

As we slowly enter the post-pandemic era, there are signs in Europe pointing to the emergence of a new type of populism. Populists across the continent are now seeking support by claiming to be fighting for “liberty” in the face of various COVID-19 restrictions imposed on European populations since the emergence of the novel coronavirus in early 2020.

All parties across the political spectrum, both in government and opposition, tried to politicise the pandemic to a certain degree, but these attempts have mostly been unsuccessful. As the virus spread among communities, overwhelmed health services, and killed tens of thousands of people, most European citizens sought only caution and responsibility from their governing authorities.

In recent months, however, the situation evolved significantly. Vaccination campaigns across Europe started to contain the crisis and voices against pandemic restrictions started to gain more and more public support. As a result, populists now have a new opportunity to increase their political power by rallying people against a new rhetorical enemy: the authorities trying to ensure a controlled and safe return to normalcy.

This “freedom populism” scored its first electoral victory in the recent election for the president of the community of Madrid – one of the seventeen autonomous communities of Spain.

Incumbent Madrid Community President Isabel Diaz Ayuso of the right-wing Popular Party, who ran on a promise to “liberate” the people of Madrid from the COVID-19 management restrictions of Spain’s socialist government, won the regional election in a landslide.

To understand the rise of “freedom populism” in Spain and beyond, we need to recall why populism has made a comeback as a successful political strategy in recent years, what is the difference between its right-wing, left-wing and digital forms, and why it always needs an “enemy” to succeed.

The return of populism

In the last decade, populism returned as a viable political strategy in Europe in response to establishment parties increasingly supporting the technocratic management of public affairs in an effort to delegitimise ideologies and remain in power. The coalitions that emerged as a result of this trend sidelined right and left ideological stances in favour of the centrist status quo, and led many to lose interest in politics.

Against these out-of-touch technical coalitions, whose policies triggered an unprecedented increase in social and economic inequality, populists offered to return politics to the people by forming a direct relationship with disgruntled masses long ignored by establishment parties.

Populists connected with the people by exploiting their fears, desires and frustrations. On the right, they exploited the fear of the foreigner rooted in hatred and indifference; on the left, they exploited the desire for a better, more equal and just future. And those practising what I deem “digital populism”, such as Italy’s Five Star Movement, exploited both social media’s emergence as a public forum and the public’s frustration with and distrust in traditional democratic electoral systems.

For a while, populists appeared to be destined for long-term success, not only in Europe but all across the world. After the emergence of the novel coronavirus as a global public health threat, however, populists across the political spectrum started to struggle to maintain public support.

So why did the pandemic hinder the rise of populism?

Populism as a political strategy always needs an enemy, real or imagined, to unite people against. In recent years, populists created different enemies to gain political power: immigrants, feminists, minority communities, the establishment, the elite etc.

When the pandemic hit, and changed the public’s priorities, populists across the political spectrum felt the need to come up with a new enemy to stay relevant and maintain public support. Many right-wing demagogues, from Bolsonaro in Brazil to Trump in the US, tried to present China as the new public enemy. Left-wing populists like Pablo Iglesias in Spain and Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, meanwhile, tried to blame the pandemic and the devastation it caused on the ideology of growth at all costs, especially at the expense of the environment. Neither side, however, managed to convince the majority of their supporters.

Masses unite against an “enemy” only when they believe their specific demands and grievances can be addressed by the defeat of that enemy. During the pandemic, the public did not buy the claim that rallying against China or the ideology of growth at all costs would resolve their problems in the short term.

But things are rapidly changing. Now that we are entering the post-pandemic era, populists realised they can use the public’s frustration with ongoing pandemic restrictions to create a new enemy and reclaim power.

Throughout last year, when COVID-19 was clearly posing an immediate existential threat to populations, governments found it relatively easy to impose lockdowns or introduce mask mandates and social distancing regulations. But now that the pandemic appears to be “defeated” thanks to vaccines, at least in the West, there is growing public frustration with the authorities’ efforts to lift restrictions slowly and responsibly to prevent further outbreaks.

For populists, especially those on the right of the political spectrum, this is an opportunity. They are now rallying against “oppressive” authorities and claiming that they are limiting the people’s freedoms for their own benefit. This is especially true for right-wing populists in Italy, France and Spain who maintained a low profile during the height of the pandemic.

And they are already reaping the benefits of their alleged resistance to “oppressive” governments arbitrarily limiting people’s liberty.

‘Freedom populists’ taking power

Diaz Ayuso of Madrid was the first European politician to reap the benefits of “freedom populism”. Thus, understanding the reasons behind her resounding electoral victory may allow us to see how this new brand of populism emerged and how it can affect the European political scene in the near future.

In Spain, the Socialist government of Pedro Sanchez managed the crisis relatively well. He imposed a national state of exception which ended at the beginning of May and pushed all local leaders to do everything necessary to reduce the pressure on the country’s health infrastructure and minimise the human cost of this global public health emergency. However, each autonomous community in Spain still retained the right to implement pandemic restrictions in ways they saw fit.

While most community governors agreed to follow the lead of the federal government and introduced strict COVID-19 restrictions, Diaz Ayuso refused to do so, arguing that she wants to protect the region’s economy.

As a result, in recent months, as Spanish hospitals were overflowing with COVID-19 patients and most of Spain was under different levels of lockdown, bars, restaurants and theatres in the community of Madrid remained open for long hours. Moreover, the Diaz Ayuso administration did little to stop the clandestine parties being held across the city. As a result, Spain’s capital city quickly became an oasis of fun in Europe. Tourists from all over Europe started visiting Madrid to escape the restrictions in their own countries. This irresponsible management strategy made the region the most deadly and infection-laden community in Spain.

While many businesses in the region applauded Diaz Ayuso’s approach to pandemic management from the very beginning, her stance against strict restrictions initially drew criticism not only from left-wing politicians but also the general public. But as Spain’s vaccination campaign started to show its effects, Diaz Ayuso used the gains the country made towards controlling the virus to claim her strategies have been effective and to silence her critics.

In March, as the regional opposition was preparing to call a non-confidence vote against her government, Diaz Ayuso called early elections. She immediately embarked on a re-election campaign centred on “defending Madrid’s freedom” against socialists governing Spain. Ironically, at that point, Spain’s socialist federal leaders were already working on finding safe ways to ease the remaining pandemic restrictions in the country.

Soon, second deputy prime minister of Spain, Pablo Iglesias of the left-wing Podemos party, left the federal government to run against Diaz Ayuso in Madrid. In response, the incumbent Madrid president started to claim the elections were pitting “freedom against communism”, in reference to the radical leftist views of Iglesias.

Throughout her campaign, on top of presenting her leading rival as a communist hellbent on taking away Spaniards’ fundamental rights and freedoms, Diaz Ayuso repeatedly tried to exploit voters’ growing frustrations with pandemic restrictions. She posted videos on Twitter showing the owners of Madrid’s well-known bars and restaurants, saying “Madrid is freedom” and “We are more alive than ever”. Her supporters in the Madrid service sector even created a special edition beer named after her for the election and promoted it with the slogan “Let nobody take away our way of life.”

In the end, Diaz Ayuso’s populist tactics proved incredibly successful and she defeated Iglesias and the other leftist candidates in a landslide. She will now govern with the support of the extreme-right party Vox for at least two years.

“Freedom populism” promoted by Diaz Ayuso and many others like her across Europe and beyond has the potential to be more lethal and destructive than the populism of those who were in power at the beginning of the pandemic.

Freedom populists claim to be fighting against establishment politicians, experts and public institutions “using the pandemic as an opportunity to curtail liberties”. They promise not only to curb funding for global and local institutions working to protect populations from public health threats, but also to privatise as many public services as possible in the name of “freedom”.

If they gain enough public support to form governments and shape public policy, they will destroy the safety nets that saved countless lives since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The era of the pandemic may be slowly coming to an end, but, unfortunately, the era of “freedom populism”, which could be equally deadly, is only beginning.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.