Petra, you’re currently working on a sort of meta-literature review on populism and pandemic, can you give us a ‘preview’ of what the main findings are?
With Mattia Zulianello (University of Trieste) and a small group of student assistants, we have gathered, classified and analyzed over 140 articles and over 20 book chapters on populism and the pandemic. These are preliminary findings, but what we can say on the demand side (attitudes) is that negative attitudes to vaccination are influenced most by the interaction between right-wing and populist attitudes. Furthermore, correlations exist between populist attitudes, belief in conspiracies and distrust of both political and scientific institutions. Regarding trade-offs between the economy and public health, supporters of right-wing populists prioritized the economy. In contrast, the supporters of the left-wing populist parties tended to prioritize (public) health.
On the supply side, we distinguish between populists in opposition and populists in power. In opposition, left-wing populists emphasized the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, especially its impact on the most vulnerable groups in society. They used the opportunity to criticize underfunded healthcare sectors and (perceived) neoliberalism of the EU. Right-wing populists, like their left-wing counterparts, were initially supportive of the government (rally-around-the-flag). Additionally, right-wing populists in opposition called for border closures and linked Covid-19 to immigration.
Unlike in a manufactured crisis, in a pandemic, both right- and left-wing populists in power engage in blame-avoiding and blame-shifting. Populist leaders initially engaged in denialism, tending to downplay the pandemic for as long as possible before shifting to minimizing health risks and effects while highlighting the negative economic impacts of restrictive measures and searching for scapegoats – experts, minorities, refugees, media, and opposition. During a pandemic, populists in power sought to aggrandize power by (further) dismantling checks and balances. For example, Orbán’s rule by decree or Malaysia’s Muhyiddin’s administration emergency decree significantly reduced legislative powers.
Populist leaders are facing ups and downs. How do we think about “After Populism?” How do we try to measure its long-lasting impact once the populist leader is no longer in power? What has changed? And to move to a concrete example: a new Czech president just got elected, Petr Pavel. What does it tell us about the “waves” of populist politics in Central Europe?
So far, we have very few cases of anti-populists winning elections – the US (2020) and Czech (2023) presidential elections are among prime examples. While the former is presidential, and the latter is a parliamentary system, important similarities can be identified. In order to defeat populism, anti-populists must build a broad coalition that might include non-radical elements of the otherwise radicalized parties. In the US, this included at least partially GOP voters. In the Czech Republic, anti-populists needed to broaden their coalition beyond the wealthy, educated urban base to include small-town, less educated, less well-off voters. The successful appeal seems moderate and centrist, focused on ‘dinner table issues.
The victory of Petr Pavel, a former NATO general, in the Czech Republic shows that it is possible to defeat populism by unifying the opposition and mobilizing voters. Populist mobilization also triggers counter-mobilization by those who realize democracy is at stake. First, an important element in Pavel’s victory, aside from his moderate centrist appeal to both urban and more rural voters, was that his three strongest opponents from the first round rallied for him, made their campaign volunteers and resources available and actively campaigned for Pavel in the run-off. Second, civil society mobilized in the squares around the country. Hence civil society is an important element in defeating populism.
As for the impact of populism on power – it is essential to understand that populism has lasting effects on institutions, the political playing field and political communication. Anti-populists thus need to consider how to address the fragility of democratic institutions. In terms of the playing field, the example of Hungary shows that the longer the populist tenure, the more the electoral playing field becomes uneven, and the harder to defeat populism at the ballot box. At a certain point, electoral defeat becomes out of reach. Populism in power changes the expectation of people about the mode and intensity of communication by political leaders. There is no going back after direct communication between the populist leader and their base. Thus, anti-populists must learn to communicate directly to the people – after populism, press conferences alone will not cut it. Especially during a crisis, the people expect the leader to communicate with them, explain their steps, and provide assurance.
In your 2020 article “Populism in Power and Democracy,” you describe a version of populism that is technocratic. Can you explain how technocratic populism works and its specific threats to democratic institutions? Is this trend specific to the Czech Republic and Central Europe, or is it a global move?
Populism and technocracy are very different, but they have one thing in common – they share a common enemy—representative party politics. Populism pledges to reinstall the (previously excluded) people at the center of democracy by restoring responsiveness. Technocracy promises to rescue democracy with knowledge, competence and effectiveness, producing ‘optimal outcomes’ and restoring responsibility. The critical element of populist legitimacy is input – it claims to represent and, in some cases, even embody the people. The critical element of technocratic legitimacy is output – it claims its outcomes driven by experts are superior to ‘non-experts.’
Both populism and technocracy rely on a non-pluralist conception of society, the existence of a unified general interest, and an unmediated relationship between the people and the elite. Populism and technocracy thus reject both vertical and horizontal accountability. For populism, vertical accountability is ‘self-sanctioning’; vertical accountability is ‘impossible’ for technocracy. Instead, both view horizontal accountability as a source of procedural constraints.
Technocratic populism is more than the sum of the two parts. It uses the charm of technical expertise to connect directly with the people. It promises to run the state as a firm while at the same time delegitimizing political opponents and demobilizing the electorate. Technocratic populism is an anti-elite ideology that exploits competence, yet at the same time, it creates the appearance of authenticity and proximity to ordinary people.
The appeal of technocratic populism is in its technocratic vision of politics that relieves ‘the people’ of the responsibility to lead active civic lives and hold politicians accountable. Populist technocrats ask voters to renounce politics and political parties. As a growing challenge to more pluralistic forms of representative democracy, there is an increasing need for historical and comparative perspectives to reveal why technocratic populism is alluring and where.
In my piece, I show that for technocratic populism, democracy is a selection procedure for a leader. Technocratic populism, like its left- and right-wing counterparts, opposes the mutual constraints inhibiting absolute power in a democracy. Unlike left- and right-wing populists, which often support majoritarian measures such as referenda, technocratic populists seek passivity – the people are perceived as capable of selecting the leader. However, only the leader and experts gauge the general will and common interest. In power, technocratic populism seeks to undermine horizontal accountability, and a combination of institutional veto points and civil society agency is necessary to prevent democratic erosion.
You see the COVID-19 pandemic as a way for unelected officials to gain a significant amount of trust and authority given the global public health context. How do populists (especially technocratic ones) use that new reality to their advantage?
Covid-19 presented a unique opportunity for technocratic populists in power to erode horizontal and diagonal accountability. However, faced with the pandemic, technocratic promises are being tested. Covid-19 outlines the limits of both the technocratic populism and civil society resilience. The opposition, courts, and civil society have effectively prevented further democratic decay in the Czech Republic. However, the jury is still out on the corruption and clientelism in state aid allocation during the pandemic (this is the case worldwide, but the rule of law will be tested – whether and to what extent accountability for economic criminality will be used be prosecuted).
The Achilles heel of technocratic populism is its output legitimacy. Hence, pandemics test the technocratic promise of competence. When competence fails (to maintain support), technocratic populists have turned to more targeted social policies (cf. Buštíková & Baboš, 2020).
You write that “diagonal accountability” especially has been eroded by the pandemic—can you explain that notion and the role of the media ecosystem of mis- and disinformation that has provided energy to populism?
Diagonal accountability represents the extent to which citizens can hold government accountable outside of formal political participation (elections; Lührmann et al., 2017). V-DEM models this form of accountability as a function of media freedom, civil society characteristics, freedom of expression, and the degree to which citizens are engaged in politics.
I show that when technocratic populists were in power in the Czech Republic (2013–2019), diagonal accountability remained stable but a mixed bag. On the one hand, media freedom was increasingly under attack. Established political parties were losing membership at accelerating speed, and new parties without members (ANO, Pirates) controlled over 42% of parliamentary seats. On the other hand, civic engagement grew, and protests prevented the erosion of horizontal accountability. Andrej Babiš’s political strategy relied on convincing people to remain passive, leaving politics to the experts. However, this strategy has failed to curb participation and civil society, leading to an almost 5% increase in turnout in the 2021 General elections won by the two opposition blocks.
Czechia has long been characterized by a significant degree of media freedom, partly because of the independence of public media and foreign ownership of private media. However, this has changed in the first half of the 2010s – Andrej Babiš’s acquisition of MAFRA in 2013 was integral to his rise to power. It transformed not only the Czech media landscape but also profoundly skewed political competition.
In 2020, information emerged that state-owned companies such as the Czech railways represent a significant advertiser in MAFRA. Furthermore, pandemic state aid for cultural institutions, announced in June 2020, disproportionally benefited MAFRA. The argument of the government that the aid is being distributed proportionally according to the readership does not hold water since the second-largest media group received significantly smaller aid.
The V-DEM components identified media bias, print and broadcasting media lacking critical reporting, media censorship, and self-censorship (as the main issues undermining media freedom in the Czech Republic. Simultaneously, the rise of alternative online media has contributed to less biased and more critical reporting. However, the fight for freedom of expression has shifted to the fight for the control of public media and direct and indirect state support for MAFRA (pandemic state aid, advertisement by state companies).
Mis- and dis-information remain key also in the current Ukraine conflict. At the onset of the war, some known disinformation outlets hosted were taken down upon discussions with security services. As a result, the level of disinformation decreased significantly. This would never happen with technocratic populists still in power. Of course, it raises many questions regarding free speech. My position is that freedom of speech is never freedom to lie. However, under normal circumstances, the state and its institutions can not be the arbiters of truth. In war as the current one, which is rather black and white, the big truth and the lies (propaganda) are relatively easy to parse, the details not so much.
Let us now move toward more conceptual debates. In “The State as a Firm,” you talk about the differences between populism as an ideology and as a strategy. Could you summarize this dissociation for us? How does the populist leader determine which and how to invoke each element?
As mentioned above, Lenka Bustikova and I view technocratic populism as a “thin” ideology that rejects the traditional political parties on the left and the right and promises apolitical expert solutions to benefit the “ordinary people.” It emerges, we suggest, at critical junctures as an alternative to the ideology of liberal democratic pluralism. Technocratic populism strategically uses the appeal of technocratic competence and weaponizes numbers to deliver a populist message.
In his rise to power, Andrej Babis exploited the legacy of the communist regime’s emotionally charged populist campaigns on behalf of the “ordinary people.” Like the communists in the 1980s, we show, the strategic objective of the populist message remains to ensure regime/political survival by preserving civic apathy, inhibiting mobilization, and legitimizing the “scientific” approach towards governance. The shared experience of living in the communist grey zone and admiration for apolitical technocratic expertise is a bond between Andrej Babiš and his voters.
The past is a historical reservoir for populist politicians to use strategically as a veneer of authenticity and, when expedient, to delegitimize political opponents as the enemies of the people. During critical junctures characterized by the disruption of dominant ideologies, when liberal democracy is weakening, technocratic populists promise expertise in the people’s name. In power, expertise becomes a shield against accountability – horizontal and vertical and is translated into a mixture of welfare policies and tax cuts.
The past is a historical reservoir for populist politicians to use strategically as a veneer of authenticity and, when expedient, to delegitimize political opponents as the enemies of the people.
To continue on the differences between ideology and political strategy, our Program is called Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you see the notion ‘illiberal’ compared to that of ‘populism’? Would you say illiberalism is the ideology, populism the political strategy?
I would agree that illiberalism is the ideology, but for Lenka and I, populism can be a political strategy and a thin core ideology. I am quite fascinated with illiberalism as an ideology. I see its populist roots going back to Carl Schmitt. The contemporary populism has strong patrimonial elements and targets old and new minorities – refugees, LGBTQ+ and women. I am extremely grateful to the Illiberalism Studies program for shedding light on this phenomenon, a present and urgent danger to liberal pluralism worldwide.
Petra Guasti is an Associate Professor of Democratic Theory at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences. Between 2016 and 2021 she worked at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Among her visiting appointments are the Harvard University’s Ash Centre for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Her research focuses on the reconfiguration of the political landscape. Between 2022 and 2025, Petra is a co-PI of SYRI (National Institute for Research on the Socio-Economic Impact of Diseases and Systemic Risks). In SYRI, Petra also leads a team working on polarization, populism & democratic resilience.