18 September 2020

Party crashers: the far-right at anti-lockdown protests

With most of the world preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, far-right and populist movements across Europe have sought to capitalise on growing fatigue and frustration with continuing restrictions. But will it work?

The unprecedented scale of the ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has prompted sweeping restrictions as the death toll surpasses one million people worldwide. For those "lucky" enough not to have become ill or died from COVID-19, government restrictions have entailed immense sacrifice to our civil liberties, quality of life and livelihoods. While most of us are no longer confined to our homes, we continue to be told that cinemas, restaurants, bars, houses of worship and other places where we had spent time with our family and friends are now dangerous and that going to these places would be irresponsible. Even worse off are the people who used to work in these places. Many workers in the travel, hospitality and entertainment industries have had their livelihoods taken away with few or no other places to find work. Particularly vulnerable workers are stranded far from home by quarantines and travel bans.

In this uncertain time, it is no surprise that people are taking their fatigue, anxiety and frustration to the streets. Nearly every major European city has seen demonstrations against the lockdown, with London and several cities in Germany seeing particularly large turnout in thousands. However, the protests have also featured unwelcome guests from far-right parties, sovereign citizen movements and other fringe groups, particularly those associated with anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. During what had been a largely peaceful demonstration in Berlin on 29 August, several hundred far-right demonstrators waving the flags of the former Imperial German Reich attempted to storm the Reichstag. While they were repelled by police, this brief moment drew widespread condemnation and attention to the trend of anti-lockdown protests across Europe.

To better understand the motives of the far-right, we must look at how the pandemic has reshaped the political scene in Europe. The coronavirus pandemic had diverted populist attention and fears previously driven by immigration and Islam, the two issues that had been key concerns among voters and fuel for a right-wing surge in Germany, Italy, Austria and several other countries across Europe.

Even worse for far-right parties, the pandemic led more voters to rally behind the government and support the parties that the far-right had sought to defeat. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the ruling coalition saw approval ratings increase and remain consistently high through September, while support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) dropped to single-digits. The surge in approval ratings was especially pronounced in countries like Denmark, Finland, Germany and Norway that avoided the worst of the outbreak, reflecting the majority's desire for a strong government response despite the sacrifices to their freedoms and livelihoods that it entailed. With most of the public preoccupied with containing the outbreak and immigration levels sharply down due to travel restrictions, far-right and populist movements are looking elsewhere to regain traction. The pandemic has forced them, like everyone else, to adapt.

The recent anti-lockdown demonstrations are signs of growing fatigue from continuing restrictions as cases continue to surge in the "second wave" of the virus. These emotions are being capitalised by far-right movements, such as the AfD in Germany, Forza Nuova, Lega Nord and Brothers of Italy and Vox in Spain that have criticised the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis or taken part in the demonstrations themselves. After riding the wave of anti-migration sentiment before it waned from the pandemic, these movements are now using the coronavirus fatigue as their next opportunity to fan anger against the government and move closer to the political mainstream.

In the age of the pandemic where the coronavirus dominates the headlines, the far-right has chosen to exploit the public's frustration and fatigue as their new source of support. With nearly all European countries seeing a new uptick in infections after reopening and second lockdowns looking increasingly likely going into the fall and winter, the protests against coronavirus restrictions are likely to continue. However, it remains uncertain whether the far-right's ploy of exploiting these fears will pay off. Poll numbers continue to show majority support for a strong government response and the far-right has not offered a viable alternative to the coronavirus curbs that are in place. And despite protests taking place in a growing number of cities, most anti-lockdown demonstrations have seen a modest turnout. For now, the far-right's presence at the anti-lockdown protests feels like a desperate attempt to get back in the headlines.