Is Covid-19 Triggering a Populist Backlash in Greece?



The scene in front of the Greek Parliament building during the second lockdown. Credit: Greek Reporter

As Greece is currently in the middle of the second, stricter lockdown to curb the Covid-19 spread, populist voices are becoming louder and louder — and they are echoing from all sides of the political spectrum.

While Greece’s performance in managing the first wave of the pandemic was exemplary, receiving international recognition and applause, populism started rearing its ugly head as soon as the number of coronavirus victims and deaths increased exponentially in November.

The government’s response during the first wave of the pandemic was swift and well-targeted. In fact it was so effective that opposition parties were almost silenced — a rare occasion, unseen since the days before the economic crisis and the signing of the first bailout program in May 2010.

Yet, as soon as the daily number of new infections reached four digits and the dead were counted in dozens, the opposition began a ruthless mud-slinging campaign against the New Democracy government, and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in particular.

Even though populist voices are full of contradictions and misleading information — if not blatant fake news — they find eager ears in all times of crisis. Crises also give birth to new populists, who grab the opportunity to emerge when the old populists have proved to be mere opportunists.

The first to blast the Greek government in its handling of the second wave of the coronavirus is main opposition Syriza leader and former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The populist party had skyrocketed from a 5 percent of the total vote in the 2009 elections to over 36 percent in 2015, promising to nullify Greece’s bailout agreement with international creditors.

It then proceeded to sign a new, even more austere rescue program.

While Syriza recently criticized the government for paying a lot of money to mass media to tell people to stay safe during the first lockdown, it is now accusing the ruling party of delaying the imposition of the second lockdown and of not hiring more medical staff in anticipation of the second Covid-19 wave.

Furthermore, the leftist opposition blames the New Democracy government for opening the country to tourism in July, thus allegedly “inviting” the coronavirus in the country. They even accused it of succumbing to the pleas of foreign tourism giants and opening the borders too soon.

However, it was the main opposition MPs themselves who were calling on the government to open the country to tourism earlier so that the Greek economy could breathe again: one characteristic of populists is that they seem to have a short memory.

The other is shifting their rhetoric depending on the circumstances.

In the first wave of the pandemic, populists spread numerous conspiracy theories, many denying that the virus even existed. In the second wave, the theories shifted, this time weaving stories about the “real purpose” of the rush to discover the coronavirus vaccine. The more far-fetched the theories are, the more fanatic the audiences they appeal to.

So now, the people who denied the existence of the virus during the first wave — even  at times claiming that the exhausted Italian doctors who worked for days with no break were actors — have shifted to nebulous theories about the vaccine. After being Covid-19 deniers, they have now become vaccine deniers.

Characteristic of this is the statement made by former deputy minister Pavlos Haikalis, who posted the following laconic answer to the vaccination question in social media: “No, No, No.”

The Greek government has also become the target of the extreme right in regards to the vaccination against Covid-19. The leader of the Hellenic Solution party, Kyriakos Velopoulos, said in Parliament that he refuses to be a guinea pig and take the vaccine.

Velopoulos, who says he is a devout Greek Orthodox believer, claims that Christian faith is stronger than the coronavirus.

Populist leaders who failed during the pandemic

Looking at the global stage, populist state leaders did not fare well with the Covid-19 pandemic. US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro all appeared to approach the coronavirus lightly. Possibly because they thought themselves invincible, or perhaps because they didn’t want to spread fear among the populace, making their people feel safe with them at the helm.

In late Winter, President Trump told Americans he believed that the coronavirus would “just disappear” by Easter time. PM Johnson tried the herd immunity approach, and failed.

Bolsonaro told his people not to deal with Covid-19 “like a country of fags.” These three countries, along with Mexico and India, have the most Covid-19 cases and deaths in the world. Ironically, the three leaders have all been hospitalized for the disease which they so seemed to so frivolously deal with in the beginning.

Will the popularity of the particular leaders wane because they failed to respond effectively to the pandemic? Trump appears to have lost the presidential election to Joe Biden. Yet he received more votes than he did in 2016. As for the other two leaders, it remains to be seen how they will fare in the next election.

Which brings us to the reverse question posed by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. In an editorial called “Will Covid-19 End Populism?” the commentator argues whether the right-wing populism that has been so successful in recent years will overcome its failure in dealing with the pandemic.

Wolf uses the example of the above leaders and compares it with the democratic governments of South Korea, New Zealand, Denmark, Austria, and Germany which fared so much better.

According to the writer, Trump and Bolsonaro — and to a much lesser degree Johnson — failed because “they’re basically interested in politics as performance. They don’t care about government. They don’t really understand what government is for. And they’re indifferent to it.”

The perpetual Left vs Right

Getting back to Greece, one can argue that the Greek government has not shown any signs of populism in dealing with the pandemic. PM Mitsotakis has managed to keep the balance between saving lives and protecting the economy. He has done better in the former than the latter, as unemployment soars.

The Covid-19 figures for Greece are still low in comparison to the rest of the world, despite the November spike. The economic figures, though, do not look as promising, with many small businesses shutting down.

As for the war from the opposition, the attacks stem from ideological differences mainly. It is the perpetual notional Left vs Right that has continued to plague Greece during all the post-war years.