This paper explores the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic and cleavage agency among populist radical right parties (PRRPs) across the European Union (EU). Conceptualizing PRRPs as meaning-making agents, we ask if and to what extent they have reshaped socio-political conflicts and cleavage politics through COVID-19 issue entrepreneurship. To this end, we draw on a small-N comparative analysis of three country and party cases from across Europe, covering different regions within the EU as well as different institutional settings, with PRRPs being either in opposition (AfD in Germany, FvD in The Netherlands) or in power (PiS in Poland). We conduct a critical discourse analysis of party mobilizations and discursive framing in these three country contexts based on an original qualitative corpus including party media and publications, manifestos, political speeches, and social media posts, published in the context of election campaigns in 2020/21. Our findings indicate that despite variation across cases, all PRRPs studied in this paper contributed to consolidating a new politico-cultural super cleavage between liberal pluralism and authoritarian populism, which ideologically frames all societal conflicts in terms of an antagonism between alleged “totalitarian elites” and the (values of the) “democratic people”.
This paper is part of work package 3.