The political variants of COVID

Giannis Seferiadis

Some 17 months after the COVID pandemic hit, the global political ramifications are still unclear.

Dozens of elections have been postponed, others were held, while many crucial general elections are scheduled later this year and next, amidst lockdown measures, mounting human tolls and vaccination campaigns.

“Governments will not be rewarded for managing the health crisis. There is no reward vote. Instead, there will be a vote of condemnation for the mismanagement of the pandemic”, said George Pagoulatos, Director General of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

Approval ratings towards governments and local authorities have fluctuated enormously during the COVID era, following the subsequent waves of the pandemic. Globally, a circularity in the performance of the handlings of the pandemic from governments, and a mixed picture of feelings seems to be the case. Is public memory of the effectiveness of the governments likely to be short-lived and replaced by other developments leading up to the elections in the near future? Or will pre-existed issues around the political agenda in each country prove to be more important? The various scenarios seem to be as many as the variants of the coronavirus itself.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) from February 2020 until June 2021 at least 78 countries and territories across the globe have decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID. Also at least 125 other countries and territories have decided to hold national or subnational elections, despite pandemic concerns.

The pandemic has put elected officials in the spotlight, yet this extra visibility has been a double-edged sword for them. Incumbents have gotten more media attention and opportunities to speak to citizens, show their compassion, and advertise their efforts to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. This can be an enormous advantage for governments which are dealing with the public health crisis in a satisfactory way, especially as opposition parties might have more limited opportunities to campaign and disseminate their ideas given restrictions imposed on public gatherings. On the other hand, for a government that is mishandling its COVID response, such visibility can be detrimental to incumbents’ aspirations of re-election.

The bigger the trust the bigger the turn-out

During the beginning of the pandemic, many countries that moved forward with elections saw a severe decrease in voter turnout, even when the number of COVID cases was still relatively low.

“The many unknowns about the disease back then and the uncertainty about electoral authorities’ capacity to safeguard the health of citizens during polling processes could be the main culprits for such low numbers. Later on, as the methods of spread of the virus became better known and information regarding preventive measures became more readily available, electoral management bodies (EMBs) were able to again bring people to the polls. An important factor in rebuilding the trust of citizens in the safety of the process, enhancing compliance with preventive measures, and boosting turnout was the quality and reach of voter information efforts” according to Dr. Fernanda Buril, a research specialist for the Center for Applied Research and Learning at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). In countries holding high-stake elections, the effects of COVID on turnout were less prominent, she added.

“More countries postponed their elections in the first wave of the pandemic but this trend changed after June of 2020”, Erik Asplund, Programme Officer of Electoral Processes Unit Global Programmes Division at International IDEA says. Most of the countries have held elections that were initially postponed due to concerns related to COVID, he added.

“The bigger the trust the bigger the turn-out” says Amaël Vier, Senior Program Officer for Capacity Building and International Election Observation at the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), explaining that the level of participation in elections is in connection to the confidence of people in the handlings of the pandemic. “In South Korea where the scheduled National Assembly election last April took place without postponement, the public confidence in the government handling of the pandemic drove to the highest voter turnout in 28 years. In Bangladesh, in India, in Indonesia where the handling of the pandemic was worse, the turnout in the elections was lower”, he said.

A key trend during the pandemic has been for voters to stay at home, leading to a reduction in turnout in many countries. “Comparative research we carried out, based on data from the International IDEA between Feb 2020 and Feb 2021, suggests that turnout has been down on average by around -3.5% in the elections held between February 2020 and February 2021. There have been clear effects in that decline in turnout between different levels of elections. Turnout decline has been higher in local elections and by-elections. It has fallen less in regional elections, and has fallen least and been highest in national elections, whether parliamentary or presidential. A handful of countries have seen a turnout increase, but this seems to have largely been down to local political context rather than any pandemic effect”, says Dr. Alistair Clark Reader in Politics, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University.

Old and new arrangements

The pandemic has no doubt put the election authorities under severe stress. And in locations where EMBs were ill-prepared to adjust to the new challenges the quality of elections suffered. Major operational adjustments were required, such as introducing new — or expanding the existing — voting methods, switching to online training of poll workers, securing sufficient quantities of quality PPEs for election officials, developing and introducing new COVID-19 protocols, recruiting and training more staff as the elderly were no longer willing or able to work as poll workers. All these adjustments and improvements cost money. And in some countries the government simply lacked the necessary funds to undertake many of the necessary reforms.

“Many countries have adapted their voting arrangements to pandemic circumstances and to help with the need for social distancing in polling stations. There have been extended postal voting arrangements, early voting, and various other forms of convenience voting, from drive-through polls in Iceland and the Czech Republic to medically supported polling stations early in the pandemic in Israel. This has helped maintain democratic rights for those who were either afraid to go to the polling station, or who may have been infected by COVID-19. Mostly these arrangements were adaptations of pre-existing electoral laws, but some have been new. Our research shows that the more of these special voting arrangements countries offered to voters, the smaller the fall in turnout was likely to be. In other words, these arrangements helped maintain electoral participation under very difficult circumstances”, Dr. Clark says.

It’s not over until it’s over

Public support for governments seems to go through peaks and troughs, mirroring COVID pandemic responses. So does voting behavior.

“Although facts would indicate that there is less connection between the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic and government response to the pandemic than there is to public compliance to government response and trends in COVID-19 pandemic occurrence, the voters seem to connect incumbent performance to trends in COVID-19 pandemic. That is, they seem to link incumbent government performance with COVID-19 pandemic occurrence. This has important implications for elections. If trends in COVID-19 pandemic occurrence in a given electorate immediately before an election shows measurable improvements (downward trending occurrence), voter support for incumbents tend to be higher. If the trends immediately before an election shows worsening condition, then the incumbents will be at a serious disadvantage. While this is not necessarily a deterministic rule, this correlation seems to hold in the case of South Korea where we’ve had two elections over the past two years — both in April (April 2020 general legislative election and April 2021 mayoral by-elections). If you map out and take a look at the trend in COVID occurrence in the days leading up to both elections, you see differences. In March 2020, COVID occurrence hit its first peak in South Korea and fell sharply in late March and early April into May. While South Korea had a third peak in COVID occurrence in December 2020/January 2021, it fell sharply to a higher low in February but trended upwards from that point on until May where it has plateaued to a band between 400~800. If the above proposition is correct, the environment surrounding the general legislative election in April 2020 favored the incumbent ruling party but it did not for the mayoral by-election in April 2021”, told J. James Kim, Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“The effect of the pandemic on election results has varied. In quite a number of countries, such as South Korea, we have seen incumbents benefit, while in other countries, notably the USA, we have seen challengers win. This has largely been dependent on the pre-existing political context. The longer the pandemic lasts, the less likely a Coronavirus ‘rally round the flag’ effect is to last, and politics will come sharply to the fore again”, says Dr. Clark.

In Brazil, where the number of deaths related to COVID-19 has passed 500,000 , the second-highest toll in the worldso far, vaccination delays are heating up the political climate. Hundreds of thousands of people in the last weeks took off to the streets of more than 200 cities with the slogan “Fora Bolsonaro”, (“Bolsonaro out”), while the popularity of the right-wing president, who downplayed the severity of COVID, has fallen in the previous two months from 30% to 24% ahead of the general elections in 2022.

Here comes the crisis?

The “COVID pandemic gave the context to the poorest layers of the society and their rightfulness to fight against their governments for pre-existed inequalities”, according to Margarita R. Seminario, deputy director and senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), citing examples like the demonstrations triggered by the death of George Floyd in the US, in May 2020.

“Pandemics exacerbate vulnerabilities. The poor and the marginalized have faced disproportionate impacts. This will likely deepen social and political crises and we are already seeing this play out. This challenge also presents an opportunity for governments and society at large to face and address these inequalities and vulnerabilities head on”, says Vasu Mohan regional director for Asia-Pacific of IFES.

“Consequently, some of these political and social crises could be constructive and have positive outcomes in the long run. A “return to normal” status quo is not the best-case scenario for historically marginalized groups. The pandemic, as author Arundati Roy put it, is a portal”.

Whether incumbent governments have been seem to manage the pandemic successfully will play a key role in their political fortune.

Summer gives impetus to governments as the pandemic subsides, but the new, more contagious variants, come as a reminder that COVID is not over until it’s over. Post-pandemic governments are going to find themselves in very difficult economic, budgetary and policy positions. At some point, support for economies will start to be withdrawn. “This will inevitably lead to difficult decisions for governments, and particularly where governments are already fragile, perhaps coalitions or supported by limited trust, this may precipitate various political crises. The big question will be about how economies and public services can recover while still dealing with an ongoing pandemic, and governments are currently struggling to come up with answers to that”, says Dr. Alistair Clark.

According to analysts, there has been speculation that populist governments may suffer more during pandemic polls, as voters turn to policy pledges that are science-based.. But perhaps it is too early to map international trends conclusively. “The impact of the pandemic has been particularly evident in the expansion and radicalization of demonstrations, some of them violent, based on right-wing conspiracy ideologies. According to these ideologies, the pandemic does not exist and the government is acting dictatorially. On the other hand, the partly weak management of the pandemic has led to an increase in insecurity, frustration and aggression in parts of the population. But interestingly, this has hardly led to significant changes in voting behavior. This is especially true in Germany for the far-right party that has tried to capitalize on the criticism of the management of the pandemic: the AfD. It has not succeeded” told German Professor Hajo Funke from Free University of Berlin.

“Governments that handle pandemics well naturally have a significant incumbent advantage in COVID era elections and vice versa. This seems to be generally true irrespective of whether the incumbent is democratic or authoritarian. This does pose a challenge for those championing human rights and democratic inclusion” says Mr Mohan.

For some, various COVID responses showed a resilience of democracies to adapt to a changing environment and at the same time maintain democratic processes by successfully addressing new public health concerns.

On the other hand, authoritarian regimes used the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on opposition; for example, by closing borders, jailing dissidents, abolishing freedom of the assembly, as in Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Among the charges the military junta in Myanmar imposed on deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was violation of the coronavirus restrictions during his election campaign last year. In Uganda, presidential candidate Bobi Wine was arrested last November, also for violating COVID restrictions. “Threats to democracies were always there. Pandemic is one more”, Mr Vier notes.

Reporter and International News Editor at Athens News Agency, Efimerida ton Syntakton and Nikkei Asian Review newspapers.