The coronavirus pandemic has had far-reaching implications on elections across the world. Most changes have focussed on electoral processes such as dates, the expansion of postal/advance voting, and new strategies to ensure social distancing at polling stations for in-person voting.
Where have they been postponed?
In the UK, local and mayoral elections (including those for London) scheduled for May 2020 are facing postponement until May 2021. In the US, primaries for November’s general election were rescheduled. Poland pushed back the presidential election, and even New Zealand, praised for its handling of the virus, postponed its elections from September to October following another outbreak.
Who can change election dates?
This change depends on both a country’s political system and its timing. For example, following the outbreak, President Donald Trump suggested the idea of postponing the November general election. However, only Congress, not the President, has the power to set and change the federal election date. Confusion had arisen because of states postponing primaries, but the states and not Congress, determine these dates. In New Zealand, the maximum term for a parliament is three years and the power to decide the election rests with the Prime Minister, enabling Jacinda Ardern to push it back by a month as this was still within the 3-year timeline.
COVID-19: Impact on election results
So far in the elections that have gone ahead,
- Governments have either made electoral gains, such in South Korea, Jamaica, Croatia, Sri Lanka and the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
- Results have seen almost no difference compared to the previous election, like in Poland.
- Outcomes registered a drop in government support, but voters re-elected governments like in Singapore, Trinidad and Tobago and the Australian Northern Territory.
The influence of coronavirus on these results can be understood in waves, much like the pandemic. The initial wave of elections were held during the immediate crisis, and voters rewarded governments that were considered competent at handling COVID-19 in this phase.
It is highly likely that other factors will play a prominent role during elections being held in the medium to long term. This trend will emerge since the next phase for governments would entail dealing with the long-term health and economic impact of the pandemic. These elections would be based on voter perception beyond the initial response of representatives in the first quarter of 2020.
Historically, the impact of the 2008 financial crash on politics was observed in waves too. The first wave from 2008-2015 saw the ejection of governing parties of either the centre-left or the right. The second wave from 2015 to 2020 saw the rise of populist and anti-establishment parties and candidates, notably the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and Boris Johnson, and the Greek Syriza government to identify but three.
Unknowns in the short-term
Given its wide-reaching global implications, the most significant short-term unknown is the US election to be held on November 3rd. The pandemic has had severe consequences on the United State’s economy, society and politics, including the voting process. Yet, Trump’s approval ratings throughout his presidency have remained steady. This trend remains arguably remarkable, given the social costs of the pandemic in the country.
In August 2019, Trump had a 41.3% approval rating and a 54.2% disapproval rating, making his net approval -13%. In mid-February 2020, before the coronavirus crisis unfolded in the US, his approval rating was net -9%. By the start of April, in the initial weeks of the pandemic, it was at -4%. The largest difference in perception was registered in mid-June, with approval rates at 40.3% and disapproval at 56.4%.
Yet, by August 2020, Trump’s approval rating returned almost exactly to where it had been 12 months earlier, at -12%. In addition to coronavirus and the 200,000 deaths of US citizens, Trump’s presidency over the last year has included impeachment trials, strained relations with international allies, soaring levels of racial tensions, three-fold increase in unemployment levels, and loss of insurance coverage by 12 million people. Despite this, his approval has not shifted, it has only fluctuated – that too, as levels more consistent and constrained than his predecessors, including Obama, Bush, and Clinton.
This data suggests that COVID-19 may not be a defining factor for the Trump base leading up to election day. That is, if Trump loses the presidency, it may not necessarily be because of coronavirus – it may be because enough voters decided against him on other issues. Conversely, if Trump wins, arguably it will be despite the pandemic not because of it.
Unknowns in the long-term
In February, former Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a post mortem on the UK Labour Party’s fourth successive electoral defeat in December 2019. He remarked that social democracy was “in crisis virtually everywhere.” However, social democratic parties could potentially witness a revival as voters may prioritise the need for more significant government intervention in the economy and for increased healthcare budgets in the aftermath of the pandemic. There could also be a likely surge in populism and nationalism alongside the revived social democrats as sustained economic insecurity and anxiety that led to the populist wave in the first place may return.
There might, in addition, be a repeat of the initial aftermath of the 2008 crisis. The electorate discharges those from office who are labelled as incompetent, regardless of whether the government is left-wing, right-wing, centrist, populist or nationalist.
It is vital to be aware of how this crisis may impact politics just as previous global problems have and one way to monitor this is by following elections and how governments are rewarded or punished by voters.