Opposition leaders across Europe walk coronavirus tightrope

Shaun Walker in Budapest and Kate Connolly in Berlin
Photograph: Bernadett Szabó/Reuters

Opposition politicians across Europe, from cautious centrists to firebrand populists, have had to walk a tricky political tightrope over the past two months, as coronavirus has taken over the political agenda.

How to stay politically relevant while governments, even when making errors, are benefiting from a ‘rally round the flag’ effect and seeing approval ratings rise? And how to hold those governments responsible for their mistakes, without playing political games during a health crisis?

“It’s a very hard balance to strike, but there have been moments where we had no choice except to fight back,” admitted the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, in a recent interview at his office.

In Hungary, where the overall number of coronavirus infections has remained low, the government of the far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has sought to portray the opposition as “pro-virus”, and has put the blame on Karácsony for deaths in the capital’s care homes.

“It was part of the government strategy for the pandemic to create and provoke direct confrontation with the opposition,” he said.

The mayor was elected last October after standing against Orbán’s favoured candidate, and is seen as a potential challenger to the prime minister in nationwide elections two years from now. Perhaps with an eye on that vote, Orbán has not sought consensus in the coronavirus response. He refused to put a time limit on special coronavirus legislation that he pushed through parliament in late March, even though the opposition said it would support it if a sunset clause was introduced.

In some countries, politicians suspended their traditional bickering at the peak of the crisis, and support for radical political alternatives dried up. In Britain, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, initially offered words of support and cooperation but then carefully picked certain battles to highlight problematic government responses.

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In Italy, the popularity of the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, soared during the crisis, with a small decline in support for the far-right Matteo Salvini. In Germany, where there is more of a tradition of consensus-based politics, most of the opposition has refrained from criticising the government up to now. In Germany, both the government and chancellor, Angela Merkel, are enjoying high popularity ratings, with 68% of Germans satisfied with Merkel, the highest of her time in office.

The far-right populist AfD has struggled to be noticed since the coronavirus crisis began and has seen its popularity ratings fall considerably, while the rest of the opposition has been keen not to be seen to be rocking the boat at a difficult time, meaning it has struggled to make its presence felt.

“The style of cooperative opposition is more popular in Germany than that of fundamental opposition. Germans are not only believers in the state but they love decisions made at a round table,” said the political scientist Karl-Rudolf Korte in a recent interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

However, when the economic consequences of coronavirus really begin to hit, the “rally round the flag” effect will slowly dissolve, and opposition parties could have a chance to strike.

Already, there are signs that Conte’s popularity levels are dropping, and with the end of lockdown in Germany, the opposition parties have declared a return to politics as usual as well. “Unanimity over the question of crisis management is over,” Christian Lindner, leader of the pro-business FDP, said recently.

Elsewhere, there was never a period of unanimity in the first place, and political battles have only intensified. In Poland, the government sought to plough ahead with a presidential election on 10 May, in conditions where it would be almost impossible for the opposition to run a proper campaign, at a time when energy was devoted to fighting the virus. At the last minute the vote was cancelled, with a new vote tentatively planned for next month.

“The pandemic crisis certainly helped the Polish government to tilt the playing field so opposition candidates do not have equal opportunities during the campaign,” said Edit Zgut, a visiting lecturer at the University of Warsaw. “Whenever the election is scheduled, it will be far from fair.”

In Hungary, as recriminations between the government and the mayor of Budapest over the handling of the pandemic have increased, the discourse has got personal in rather strange ways. In a recent interview, Orbán said Karácsony was the sort of person who couldn’t put Ikea furniture together without help. “Or to put what I’m talking about into a rural context, when there’s a traditional pig slaughter this is someone who only turns up right at the end for dinner,” said Orbán.

Karácsony said the personal attacks prove the government is rattled by the opposition, and part of a strategy to shift the blame.

“The social and economic fallout will be very severe, and they want to tackle that by starting this blame game and making the opposition look like they didn’t want consensus,” he said.