Populism and anti-populism in Greece during the COVID-19 pandemic

Many columnists and analysts worldwide rushed after the COVID-19 outbreak to associate populism with the pandemic, more precisely with the mishandling of the crisis by specific –allegedly ‘populist’ — governments. However, this type of discourse was not limited to populism in government. It has often targeted forces in opposition, as the case of Greece exemplifies. On the one hand, Greece is portrayed in national and international media as a
‘success story’ regarding the management of the pandemic. It is true that the conservative government of (anti-populist) New Democracy (ND) adopted early the necessary measures to contain the spread of the virus and imposed nationwide restrictions on movement. Most often, liberal commentators accuse populism for its confrontational discourse and its irresponsibility; now, it seems, many include mishandling the pandemic as a species of the latter genus. If the Greek (populist) opposition has been often debated along these lines, can we really identify such features in the political stance of SYRIZA during the pandemic?

On the contrary, Andreas Xanthos, former health minister in the SYRIZA government, supported publicly in various occasions Professor Sotiris Tsiodras, the chairman of the government advisory committee for the management of the pandemic. In March 2020, he stated that if SYRIZA was in government, they would have also appointed Professor Tsiodras to this crucial position. In April, he claimed again that Professor Tsiodras is an excellent
choice and that the recommendations of the scientific committee that he chairs are in the right direction. This consensual spirit was evident even in the statements of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA. In an article in late March, he argued that ‘What matters, at the moment, is that we all fight together, united in one front, so that there are as few casualties as possible. That means that we calmly, and without panic, follow the instructions of the scientists.’

Indeed one could argue that (populist) SYRIZA adopted a responsible stance, supported the main choices of the ND government, helped in the formation of a unitary political front in the face of an unprecedented crisis and clearly respected the scientific advice and policy recommendations, debunking claims that populism is equated to anti-science or that it necessarily rejects expert’s knowledge.

The situation started to change when Alexis Tsipras presented the package of measures proposed by SYRIZA in order to address the (economic, social, etc.) effects of the pandemic and even more when the public debate regarding the end of the lockdown measures started. When the debate moved to how the state will manage the consequences of the pandemic on the economy and society at large and whether the government adequately supported the
public healthcare system during the lockdown period, the dominant anti-populist discursive repertoire returned in the public sphere and the old cleavage between responsible, rational anti-populist politicians and the absurd, irresponsible, populist ones was rapidly re-activated.

Stelios Petsas, the Greek Government Spokesman, dismissed twice the proposals of SYRIZA by employing the signifier ‘populism’ as an accusation, as a derogatory, pejorative label. The following two statements are quite telling:

The government will use every opportunity to support both workers and
businesses. It is the time for responsibility, not for cheap populism.

He [Tsipras] is happy because Greece will face a recession this year, as will the
whole of Europe. Recession due to an unpredictable and unprecedented event: the COVID-19 pandemic. Tsipras remains the same; divisive and populist.

Greek mainstream media adopted their familiar anti-populist tone as well. The influential column ‘Vimatodotis’ of the newspaper To Vima commented that the government has done well so far, mainly because it doesn’t listen to the populist voices that champion an aggressive programme of ‘benefits to everyone.’ In the newspaper Fileleftheros (Liberal), an analyst coined the term ‘corona-populism’, a supposedly new threat, far more dangerous than the virus itself. Even before the pandemic, populism was often described as a ‘disease’ or a ‘virus’ in Greece, so it was not a big surprise that a commentator and former PASOK official described populism again as the ‘underlying disease’ of SYRIZA.

The ‘We Stay Standing’ programme of SYRIZA represents a combination of typical left-wing and neo-keynesian economic policies (i.e. additional funding for the public health care system, hiring additional medical staff, prohibiting foreclosures, social solidarity allowances, and state coverage of salary for private sector workers). The social dimension of SYRIZA policies was
also evident in its emphasis on the value of public health for all, including the necessary care for the refugees. The party issued a public statement denouncing the outrageous indifference on behalf of the ND government for the lives of thousands of refugees in the detention centres, asking for the substantial strengthening of the healthcare structures in these centres
and the immediate transfer of the refugee population to hotel accommodation, especially for the vulnerable and the unaccompanied children.

What conclusions can we then draw from the Greek case? In short, populism is not necessarily an irresponsible political force: populist parties are not opposing governmental decisions merely for the sake of the opposition and populist politicians can and often do respect and adopt scientific expertise. It needs to be stressed that the populist dimension does not suffice to explain the type of politics adopted by a party at any given conjuncture. Populist parties or politicians are never merely ‘populist’; their ideological component should always be taken into account. Left-wing populist parties, in particular, seem to be much more interested in the economic and social consequences of the pandemic and especially in the consequences on the most vulnerable parts of the population (precarious workers, low-wage workers, the unemployed) as well as on the marginalized and minority groups (i.e. immigrants and refugees).

Finally, as is well-known, populist discourse presents fluctuations over time. Arguably, while SYRIZA is still correctly recognized as a left-wing populist party, its populist discourse was admittedly toned down during the pandemic.

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Antonis Galanopoulos is a PhD candidate at the School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He holds a master’s degree in Political Theory and Philosophy and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology.

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The article was originally published at the collaborative report “Populism and the Pandemic” edited by Giorgos Katsambekis and Yannis Stavrakakis.
The full report: https://repository.lboro.ac.uk/articles/Populism_and_the_pandemic_A_collaborative_report/12546284

PhD candidate, School of Political Sciences, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Freelance writer.

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