A recent study investigating the political attitudes of citizens of Western European countries suggests that lockdown policies have increased their support for the government. The study, published in the European Journal of Political Research, suggests that confinement measures have increased citizens’ support for their prime minister or president by about 4% and trust in the government by around 3%.
Study authors Damien Bol and colleagues explain that a large-scale crisis like a pandemic can either reinforce or diminish the standing of political parties. This public support depends on whether or not citizens feel the institutions have appropriately handled the crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic required unprecedented and quick action by government leaders around the world, many of whom turned to strict confinement measures in order to limit the spread of the virus.
“In this new era, a key question emerges: when confronted with grave threats such as those caused by a major health crisis, do citizens trust the democratic system to respond?”
Bol and team aimed to address this question by comparing the political attitudes of citizens of Western European countries before and after the lockdowns were imposed.
An online questionnaire was distributed by a survey firm and collected data from March 2 to April 3. Respondents were representative samples of 1,000 people from each of 15 countries in Western Europe. Researchers focused their analysis on seven countries that introduced a lockdown during the time of the survey. These countries were Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
Respondents were questioned on their political attitudes, which included ratings of trust in government and satisfaction with democracy. Subjects were also asked whether they intended to vote for the party of their current prime minister/president in the future.
Since the survey data was collected over a period of time, researchers had data from respondents who had completed the survey before the lockdown was announced, as well as data from subjects who had completed the survey after lockdown. By comparing results from these two groups, researchers had a unique look at how political attitudes might have changed before and after lockdown decisions were made.
Regression analysis revealed that responses after the implementation of lockdown showed higher satisfaction with democracy and higher trust in government by around 3%. Furthermore, following lockdown policies, respondents showed greater intention to vote for the party of their prime minister/president by about 4%. Respondents showed no change in political interest nor left-right ideology following the lockdown.
“These effects are particularly interesting,” the authors say, “when considering that these two groups of respondents are very similar in terms of socio-demographics and unrelated political attitudes like ideology and political interest.”
Next, researchers tested whether heightened political support might be due to the extra airtime of political leaders. To do this, they assessed whether the subject’s ratings of political support differed as a function of whether subjects had filled out the survey before or after the president or prime minister’s media appearance announcing the lockdown. No significant effect was found. The authors suggest that these results likely indicate “retrospective performance evaluation” whereby citizens who have come to understand the necessity of a strict lockdown have upped their support for the ones responsible for these rulings.
“It seems,” the authors say, “that citizens have understood that strict social containment was necessary, and have rewarded governments that decide to enforce it, at least in the short term.”
They continue, “Whether this allows sustained action against COVID-19 virus remains to be seen. Yet, it seems that this pandemic has maybe offered the opportunity to reconcile part of the population with its political leaders and democratic institutions.”
The study, “The effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on political support: Some good news for democracy?”, was authored by Damien Bol, Marco Giani, André Blais, and Peter John Loewen.
(Photo credit: Nik Anderson)