CIVICA collaborative research project delves into populism and the COVID-19 pandemic


Alexandru Moise, Research Fellow at the EUI department of political and social sciences, describes his work in the CIVICA research project WELDECO - Welfare, democracy, and populism under the COVID-19 crisis.

The emergence of populism is often linked to major crisis situations, but is that the case with COVID-19? Drawing on preliminary analysis gathered so far, EUI Research Fellow Alexandru Moise discusses the CIVICA collaborative research project, WELDECO, and his involvement in the project thus far.   

“When the migration crisis hit in 2015, populists were using it as an opportunity to get people’s anger and rage and direct it to the so-called corrupt elites that they talk about, and so far, it’s been a very useful strategy for them. This was one of the starting points that we had; we were curious about how they did in the pandemic.” 

Covering a diverse set of countries (Russia, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, India, and the Phillippines), WELDECO aims at understanding in what ways populists differ in both their welfare and their health-related policy responses to the pandemic. 

“During the pandemic, people had to stay at home. Some of them lost their jobs, some of them were put on unemployment, and governments needed to respond in some way to compensate for these losses, either with unemployment benefits, special allowances, or other kinds of welfare policies,” explained Moise. 

While lead investigator Dorottya Szikra (Central European University) tackled welfare policies, and Francisco Panizza (The London School of Economics and Political Science) focused on measuring populist governance, Moise, together with project investigator, Gábor Scheiring (Bocconi University), were specifically looking at indicators for health outcomes, like excess deaths in the pandemic and vaccination rates.  

“We saw how Bolsonaro, in Brazil, and Trump, in the US, were arguing against masks, against vaccines, and seemingly doing a terrible job,” explained Moise. "So, we wanted to see if this was a general pattern with other populist governments.”  

The researchers also looked at the cases of Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Turkey, where government leaders have good control over the country and the Constitutional Courts. Curiously, these populist governments “were not able to utilise the COVID-19 crisis the way they were able to use the refugee or the financial crises”, shared Moise. “I think the simple reason is that they don’t have anyone to blame,” he continued. “And then the problem is that they had to govern, so they couldn’t blame anyone, and they had to take charge of things themselves.” 

Coming as a surprise to the team, there is relatively little connection between how populist the government was, and the outcomes in terms of welfare generosity and health policies. This could be explained by the fact that some populist leaders did not have direct control over policy, as is the case in countries with federal governments, like Brazil and the US. “It was actually the Congress [in the two countries] that [...] helped pass very generous welfare provisions, and the sub-federal units were able to enact policies,” explained Moise. 

However, mismanaging the crisis was a very dangerous thing for populist politicians. “Both Trump and Bolsonaro lost their elections afterwards, whereas Erdoğan and Orbán won their elections,” explained Moise. “The pandemic was very present in the US presidential race, and Trump was heavily criticised for how he handled it. The same in Brazil, as Bolsonaro was also heavily criticised. It’s not the only factor, but it seems to have been a relevant one.” 

As Moise prepares for the next steps in the project, he reflects positively on how the CIVICA alliance enriched his involvement in the project. "[CIVICA] has been vital for us,” he said. “The funding that we received has allowed us to hire country experts, coders to support us in gathering the data, and individuals with language capabilities.” 

At the EUI, the team of investigators also hired a PhD history researcher, Uladzimir Valodzin, to work with data on Russia and Poland. “He was extremely helpful in helping us find different policy measures that were taken in those two countries, as we also wanted to look a bit at discourse of populists as well. Without that, the project would be much weaker,” shared Moise. 

The CIVICA collaborative research projects gather scholars from CIVICA universities to conduct policy-relevant research on major societal challenges. Following CIVICA's first call for collaborative research proposals, eleven proposals were selected for funding under CIVICA Research. Last year, in a second call, eleven more were selected, many involving the EUI. 

The WELDECO project involves principal investigator Dorottya Szikra (Central European University), Francisco Panizza (The London School of Economics and Political Science), Gábor Scheiring (Bocconi University), and Kerem Gabriel Öktem (University of Bremen). 

Written by Beatriz Carvalho (EUI Communications team). 

Photo credits: Jason Leung (unsplash).