European leaders have enjoyed higher poll numbers during the coronavirus pandemic despite having some of the highest COVID-19 deaths per capita in the world.
Latest polling data shows governing parties in the UK, Germany, Italy and France have had a popularity boost during national lockdowns.
“This is the most serious crisis that has hit Europe since the Second World War,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist from the University of Birmingham.
“It is quite well-known that in times of crisis, people do tend to rally behind the flag and the government of the day.”
Some European governments’ use of wartime metaphors could also have helped them to avoid scrutiny and maintain their popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic by convincing people they needed to come together to defeat the virus.
“Governments have been very shrewd and clever in exploiting this and using metaphors that remind people of war-time periods, so the virus has become an enemy that the population has to defeat by pulling together.”
“Right now people on the streets are saying that this is not the moment to have a go at the government.”
Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist at the University of Kent, said that during moments of crisis “voters tend to rally around their incumbents”.
“This is especially likely to occur when voters face a big external ‘threat’, like terrorism and now a pandemic. I think the wartime rhetoric encouraged this, but we would most likely have seen a rally effect regardless,” Goodwin said.
According to Opinium, the popularity of the UK’s ruling Conservative Party jumped from a 49% share before the lockdown was introduced, to 54 per cent afterwards. The main opposition Labour Party saw its figures drop by 4 per cent over the same period.
The Conservative Party’s leap in popularity could be explained by the rallying around the flag effect detailed by Albertazzi and Goodwin.
But it could also be linked to sympathy towards UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was hospitalised with COVID-19 on April 5 — around the time the party’s fortunes peaked — and later spent time in intensive care.
Speaking in mid-March, Johnson said of COVID-19: “This is a disease that is so dangerous and so infectious that without drastic measures to check its progress it would overwhelm any health system in the world.
“I have used the Italian health system, it is excellent, and the problem is not the health system, it’s the numbers of sufferance.
“That is why we announced the steps yesterday that we did – advising against all unnecessary contact – steps that are unprecedented since world war two.
“We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy.”
Macron and Merkel make gains
Meanwhile, in France, President Emmanuel Macron’s ratings improved by an average of 10% after the country imposed a national lockdown on March 17.
The numbers have fallen over the course of the lockdown, but Macron still enjoys marginally higher ratings than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his speech to impose lockdown, Macron repeatedly used the phrase “nous sommes en guerre (“We are at war”).
But the most noticeable increase in support for the government is in Germany, where the CDU/CSU of Angela Merkel has risen, since the start of March, from a 24% to a 38% vote share.
Meanwhile, no other major political party in Germany has seen an increase in ratings, and Die Grunen (Greens) have fallen 7%, according to the survey institute, Kantar Emnid.
How did leaders in Italy and Spain fare?
Support for Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, has also increased, while the ruling social democratic parties in Denmark, Sweden and Portugal had all improved by at least 4% in opinion polls by the end of March.
In Spain, public opinion in Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) fell in the week before the national lockdown was introduced on the March 14, but has since slowly improved in April, according to ElectoPanel.
PSOE’s coalition partner Unidad Podemos has nevertheless seen a slight fall in opinion, but support has been steadily growing each week for Pablo Casado’s Partido Popular.
Will it last?
Analysts are suggesting these good numbers for governments will not sustain as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
This “rally effect” of public support for incumbents “does now seem to be tailing off as voters begin to question their governments,” said Goodwin.
“Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump, for example, are now suffering in the polls more than they were at the start of the crisis. This is important because we know that perceptions of competence -is a leader competently managing an important issue?- are very important to how people vote,” Goodwin added.
“You can see in countries like Italy, Switzerland, and Finland that there has been a short period of truce between governments and opposition or more radical and more moderate parties,” said Albertazzi.
“As weeks go past, people will start realising the enormous financial effect of the crisis and more and more stories emerge about the mishandling of the pandemic and the big mistakes that were made by governments”.
Populists fall but will return soon
Europe Elects data has also shown that a number of populist parties across Europe have fallen in opinion polls.
Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord has fallen by roughly 4% since February, while VOX España, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France also suffered a decrease.
“Radical and populist parties seemed to have initially accepted that they needed to tone down their criticisms of governments or their opponents,” Albertazzi told Euronews.
But analysts do expect that populists will resume their communications soon, even though there are significant risks.
“It is easy to have a go at governments, opponents or the European Union,” said Albertazzi. “But there is certainly a risk that populists might jump on the bandwagon of criticism too early and misjudge the mood of the public.”
“This is a crisis of such huge proportions that we may still be in the stage where the public and business associations want to see more unity and division.”
But Albertazzi also noted that it is politically important for populist parties to change their stance as soon as possible.
“They have to demonstrate that they have remained fundamentally different from what they see as traditional parties, which they accuse of sticking to the same recipes.
“It is important that the voting public can see populists and radicals as something different, who are not taming their communications strategy.”
“When the immediate crisis passes and politics returns to some sense of normality, politicians are going to have to deal with the hangover,” said Euronews’ political editor Darren McCaffrey.
“More questions will be asked about how they dealt with the health crisis and how exactly they can help their economies bounce back while trying to get public finances in order.”