As the Syria refugee crisis escalated in 2015, an incipient movement of right-wing nationalism gained traction across Europe, including Germany. Spain, however, appeared relatively immune, until 2017 and the turmoil surrounding Catalonia’s push for autonomy. Then, with the onset of the pandemic, far right groups in both countries sought to capitalize, Vox in Spain, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD).1 But here their paths diverged.

At the beginning of the year, both countries were governed by fragile coalitions. In Spain, a minority coalition was finally formed between the progressive Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and the Unidas Podemos (UP). In Germany, the durability of the governing CDU/CSU coalition was left uncertain by Angela Merkel’s decision to remain chancellor after forfeiting her position as CDU party leader. In both countries the far-right had a significant presence, with Vox and the AfD the third-largest parties in their respective national legislatures. Despite these underlying governance challenges, Germany’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic instilled confidence and undercut the appeal of political extremism. By contrast, in Spain, Vox got their second wind.

While both countries were affected by COVID-19, the total impact was greater on Spain. As discontent surrounding lockdown procedures mounted across the globe, Germany was quickly touted as an exemplar in its ability to curb a major outbreak during the first wave. In contrast, six weeks elapsed following its first confirmed case before Spain began enacting lockdown measures, leading to Europe’s highest weekly surge. However, once measures were put into place, Spain was largely stricter in its lockdown procedures than Germany for the remainder of 2020.2 Both governments received backlash for their efforts, with protests in Germany emerging early April, and mid-May in Spain.

The pandemic, and the frustrations over the social and economic impacts of the lockdowns provided an opening for right-wing groups to portray those in power as inept and authoritarian. However, existing societal divisions and trends in state legitimacy along with the effectiveness of the state response played a major role in the degree to which those efforts succeeded.

In Germany, where the FSI State Legitimacy indicators has had a long-term positive trend, the AfD failed to find relevance. From 2019 to 2020, the group dropped by roughly 6% in the polls, and by October had plummeted from first to third position in its stronghold of eastern Germany. Though anti-lockdown protests made headlines, the vast majority of Germans supported Merkel’s response; by the end of 2020, over 70% of respondents believed the procedures in place were appropriate.3 Even after the country was hit significantly harder by the second wave, the AfD lost about one third of its vote share in the 2021 Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate elections.

The AfD’s decline was also driven in part by a vigorous state response and internal party weakness. Drawing on Germany’s strongly anti-fascist norms, the AfD has been politically alienated by center-right parties within parliament. In early 2021, Merkel went further, placing the AfD on the country’s extremist watch list, thereby likening the party to other extreme right-wing movements, such as the Querdenken 711 group. Decreasing party legitimacy corresponding with a widening ideological gap among AfD leadership and rising levels of far-right violence4 have played a major role in turning away the party’s more moderate, Eurosceptic-focused supporters.5

In Spain, conversely, Vox was able to capitalize on state weaknesses to make gains throughout 2020, garnering enough support to win a major victory and enter the Catalan parliament for the first time as the fourth-largest party within the legislature. As reflected on the FSI, Spain experienced a sharp decrease in State Legitimacy since 2017, due in no small part to controversies around Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of the country. Already weakened, that legitimacy was further damaged by an unpopular government response to the country’s economic turmoil and overwhelmed public service system. Spain experienced one of the sharpest economic contractions in Europe; in March, almost one million jobs had been lost. Weaknesses in Spain’s healthcare system were also highlighted, particularly in terms of its effectiveness in deploying resources, isolating cases, and protecting healthcare workers.6 Vulnerable communities, such as those of lower-income and/or of immigrant backgrounds, were particularly affected. All of this led to widespread protests, which by the end of the year had become violent.

Vox quickly capitalized on this discontent by directing blame for these conditions on the central government. Many citizens also criticized the government for a lack of transparency, as well as its decision to forgo usage of the 2005 pandemic protocol already in place.7 Critics also protested the lack of “explicit and public criteria”8 for making decisions about lifting or strengthening lockdown restrictions. Meanwhile, Germany took a localized approach that utilized publicly specified indicators (COVID reproduction number “R” and a 7-day incidence rate per 100,000 inhabitants) to make changes to lockdown procedure.9 By being explicit in what drives the decision-making process, Germany was able to delegitimize the AfD’s claims of opacity and incompetence in a way the Spanish government could not.

A shock tends to divide an already divided country and empower radical groups. If these findings are generalizable, then to prepare for the next pandemic, even as countries work to build up their health systems, they should work just as hard on inclusive and competent governance. It could make all the difference.

1. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/spain/2019-02-11/far-right-populism-gaining-ground-spain
2. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/covid-stringency-index?tab=chart&stackMode=absolute%C2%AEion&country=ESP~DEU
3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/12/09/germany-coronavirus-protests-radicalization-surveillance/
4. https://www.dw.com/en/germany-right-wing-extremists/a-54105110
5. https://www.dw.com/en/afd-germany-far-right/a-55164539
6. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2932007-9
7. https://english.elpais.com/spanish_news/2020-11-27/american-style-libertarianism-comes-to-spain.html
8. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2932007-9
9. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2932007-9

Image from Ahmed Bibi under the Unsplash license.