Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and Senior Fellow at both the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington

Undoubtedly the coronavirus will bring transformational change to all aspects of our lives, but the impact on global politics will be dire. This week we got a glimpse into how populist-nationalist governments, which continue to be on the rise, will respond to the pandemic. The policy responses from leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban are on script and foretell a dark future. More prescient perhaps, is the coming clash of ideologies in many liberal democracies.

Populist-nationalists have a disdain for representative politics, courts, media, international bureaucrats and scientific experts that all make up “the elite.” According to their narrative, these elites have slowly tried to move hard-working people away from traditional conservative values, industrial self-sufficiency and loyalty to a unified ethnocultural state. “Elites”, according to populist-nationalists, promote divisive cultural and identity wars, dependency on cheap offshore production under international pressure to free trade and porous borders that undermine national unity.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a news conference in Prague, on March 4, 2020.


This global pandemic has been perceived by populist-nationalists as a validation of their views and as justification for their latest draconian policies. The coronavirus, an outside force that is propelled by open borders, hyper-globalization, and carried by “others” such as immigrants or cosmopolitan world-travelling urban elites, is vindication to populist-nationalist calls for sturdier borders to prevent people from bringing the virus into their country. It also validates their notions that national production of goods and services should not be dependent on global supply chains and that liberal media give too much credit to international scientific experts and global officials.

No wonder then, that Mr. Orban has responded to the global pandemic by introducing an indefinite state of emergency, which effectively suspended parliament, put future elections on hold, and gave the Prime Minister wide national powers. Not only is Hungary closing its borders, blaming refugees and students from the Middle East for bringing the virus to Hungary, it is using the virus to implement wide surveillance of individuals’ mobile phones to track their movements and jail terms of up to three years for those who defy lockdown orders.

Mr. Orban, like other populist-nationalist leaders elected to power – Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India’s Narendra Modi and the U.S.'s Donald Trump – have worked for years to intimidate, shut down and effectively silence liberal media who question their policies. Under the pretext of stopping fake news about the coronavirus, Hungary has instituted jail terms of up to five years for those who spread misinformation that “distorts” the government’s presentation of approved facts. The coronavirus has presented an opportunity for Hungary to clamp down on free speech, silence political opposition and shape public debate and news.

Liberal democracy has been under attack by populist-nationalists for several years, but the coronavirus will sharpen their knives and their base of support will cheer them on along the way. With fear of the virus at an all-time high, the draconian policies will be justified by the guise of public health.

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But there is a deeper challenge being posed for the future of politics in liberal democracies.

As progressives look at the coronavirus as a reaction to climate change and animals who have been forced from their natural habitat into city markets, populist-nationalists see this as just another attempt to deindustrialize the heartland, stop periphery communities from being self-sufficient in their pursuit of harnessing their natural resources including oil and gas, and effectively using the environmental cause to undermine hard-working people.

When progressives call for stronger international co-operation and co-ordination through institutions such as the World Health Organization, populist-nationalists see international bureaucrats trying to undermine the power of the nation-state. As progressives in Mr. Trump’s America look at this pandemic and call for the introduction of universal health care, populist-nationalists see scheming liberals who want to expand the welfare state to give health care to undocumented workers and migrants at the expense of blue-collar workers.

For every policy idea that progressives want to bring in to prevent another pandemic, populist-nationalists see big government trying to expand its powers. For populist-nationalists in Hungary, big government is the European Union in Brussels and for rust-belt America, it is the swamp in Washington.

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The coronavirus will indeed transform our lives. We need to prepare for illiberal democratic governments who will use this pandemic to push through their policy preferences, but we also need to prepare for further siloed public debates on how best to address our collective situation.

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