Finnish municipal elections were scheduled for the 18th of April, but due to the exacerbating pandemic, the government decided to postpone them until the 13th of June. This decision received harsh criticism from opposition parties, especially from the right-wing populist party The True Finns (Perussuomalaiset), who claimed that it endangered Finnish democracy (Suomen Uutiset).
In this post, Valeria Caras, ElMaRB project intern and Master student of the European and Nordic Studies programme at the University of Helsinki, analyzes the effect that the pandemic and political regime have on the electoral schedule and electoral outcomes. Valeria endeavors to investigate who benefits from the emergency or, vice versa, loses support? Previously we overviewed the electioneering in the times of the pandemic from February to July 2020. In all eight elections in that period, ruling parties and groups ensured survival in power and even gained additional support. This phenomenon is well known as ‘rallying around the flag’ when citizens tend to temporarily unite in the face of a common threat. Analyzing national elections from July 2020 till April 2021, we still observe the evidence of the ‘rallying effect’. In most parliamentary and general elections, ruling parties won the elections (21 cases out of 27). From these 21 victories in seven cases, incumbents lost a small proportion of votes. In other cases, elections were won by the opposition and by the newly created parties. The election postponement trend was mainly present in March-June 2020 when the share of the re-scheduled campaigns exceeded hold elections (IDEA). However, since the autumn electoral period, especially from October 2020, elections are less rescheduled, and campaigns run on time despite various stringency levels across countries.
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Elections in the Hard Times
Elections act as a crucial mechanism of political representation and recruitment. While in representative democracies, citizens can express their opinion and trust in incumbents at the polls, in non-democratic systems, leaders take advantage of the democratic institutions to ensure personal survival in power.
During the COVID-19 crisis, electoral campaigns in all regimes were impacted in several ways. Firstly, the pandemic eruption caused the postponement of elections worldwide, especially at the crisis’s onset. The highest proportion of postponed elections is observed in March-April 2020, while after this time, countries gradually returned to the usual routine of electoral campaigns, especially in the autumn. Both autocracies and democracies rescheduled national elections, but in democratic systems, campaigns were postponed almost twice more frequently than in autocracies. Democratic regimes tend to schedule the date of the new elections, non-democratic regimes propose a new date less often, while in hybrid regimes, defined by IDEA Global State of Democracy Indices, campaigns are most likely to be postponed without a new date (James and Asplund, 2020).
Figure 1: Postponement of national elections by regime type (31.08.2020).
Source: James and Asplund, 2020
Secondly, crisis management became an additional significant issue affecting the electoral campaign, trust in incumbents, and the protest potential. On the pandemic’s onset, democracies were slower in introducing restrictive measures, which can be explained by the more significant trade-off between healthcare necessities and respect for liberal rights in democracies compared to autocracies (Cheibub, Hong, and Przeworski, 2020). However, the severity of the crisis pushed democratic leaders to adopt similar, in terms of stringency restrictions to non-democracies. Some observers claim that autocracies perform better at times of emergency as they rely less on mass support (Lowy Institute). However, we do not find empirical support for the ‘authoritarian advantage’ thesis. Political regimes with weak state institutions such as Ukraine and Bolivia were the most vulnerable to the pandemic, and less able to contain the virus spread (Lowy Institute).
The long-term restrictive measures caused over 25 significant protests worldwide (Global Protest Tracker). Although in some cases protests were attended by a relatively modest number of COVID-dissidents as in Bulgaria, Netherlands, Spain, and Slovakia; in other cases, protests acted as a reason to express dissatisfaction with the economy, corruption, and elections. For instance, in Argentina, people protested the corruption, judicial reform as well as stringent lockdown measures; in Bolivia public criticized the second delay of the general elections due to pandemic; in Serbia, opposition contested the results of the parliamentary elections and blamed the incumbent president Aleksandar Vučić for using lockdown for his party’s advantage (Global Protest Tracker).
Overall, the pandemic significantly affected the electoral schedule during spring and summer 2020, after which the electoral situation started to normalize. In some countries, the electoral campaigns were accompanied by protests and accompanied by pandemic socio-economic problems. In the following section, we take a closer look at several elections during the pandemic in various regime types.
Democratic electioneering in the times of the pandemic
Did the COVID-19 compromise electoral integrity in established democracies? In most cases, rescheduling caused tension between various political camps, while most of the incumbents – especially in consensual and less polarized states – gained additional political bonuses.
For instance, the pandemic management by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern gained broad support. Ensuring a high level of trust, Ardern’s center-left Labour party won 49.1% votes in general elections held on October 17th, 2020. The result indicates a rare outright parliamentary majority which allows the winning party to govern alone.
In the Netherlands, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) received 21.91% votes in the general elections held on March 17th, 2021. VVD managed to sustain the previous elections’ result and gain two more seats in the Dutch House of Representatives (35 out of 150). Party leader Mark Rutte became the prime minister for the fourth time – the longest incumbent in the office after Angela Merkel in the EU. Rutte insured the PM’s chair despite the critique on pandemic management and the child-care allowance scandal, which caused his government resignation in January 2021. In general, 17 parties passed the electoral threshold and received seats in the parliament – a record number of parties since 1918.
However, efficient antivirus measures sometimes failed to pay off. In Israel, the previous government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was dissolved after failing to pass the budget law and facing opposition parties’ challenges. Netanyahu-led Likud partyadvocated for the coronavirus vaccination and fast securing of Pfizer jabs for the country, as well as pointed out Netanyahu’s achievements in securing diplomatic agreements with the four Arab countries. Nevertheless, the long-lasting Israel leader was challenged mainly from his political right spectrum and criticized for the pandemic management, the rise of unemployment, and his involvement in the corruption scandals. The election results indicated the Likud’s victory, which captured 30 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, Israeli parliament. However, the government formation remains an open question.
Electioneering in the emerging democracies
The pandemic enhanced the existing problems in the emerging democracies, which suffer economic losses and are less able to provide welfare support to the citizens compared to developed democracies. While the scenarios considerably vary across such political regimes, the ‘hyper accountability’ trend manifested in the severe punishments of the incumbents for the economic downturn and pandemic mismanagement can be spotted. For instance, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s approval has plummeted to a minimum after criticism for handling the COVID-19 crisis. With the 54% public dissatisfaction with the crisis management, Bolsonaro faces a challenge at the next-year presidential elections.
The power change in emerging democracies is illustrated in the other two cases of the South American region.
Dominican Republican is one of the worst-affected by the COVID-19 counties in the Caribbean. The tourism sector composes a significant share of the national economy. While the country’s GDP dropped by almost 2% in 2019, the tourism industry witnessed a tremendous 17.5% fall. The public dissatisfaction with the state of the economy affected the election results leading to the defeat of the ruling Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana, PLD) and the victory of the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Moderno, PRM). The PRM managed to gather on average twice more votes compared to the previous elections, jumping from 20.43% votes share in 2016 to 45.24% in 2020. The party’s candidate Luis Abinader also overcame other candidates in the presidential elections. Abinader captured 52.52% of the total vote, leading the incumbent party’s candidate Gonzalo Castillo by 15.06%. Despite the colossal victory, PRM does not hold the same legislative power as PLD was exercising. The party did not capture six more seats in the Chamber of Deputies to obtain a majority. Thus, the new ruling party has to put effort into passing the laws, especially bills in the economic-financial sphere.
Another example of ‘no rallying’ is Ecuador, where both presidential and National Assembly elections took place on February 7th, 2021. The unpopular incumbent president Lenín Moreno refused to run in the campaign. He left power after corruption accusations, protests, and substantial economic problems with two million people living in poverty and 13% unemployment. The main competition happened between center-right CREO Party candidate Guillermo Lasso, who ran in the previous elections losing 3% votes to Moreno, and Andres Arauz representing the Union for Hope party. Arauz was a leading candidate who ensured 32.72% votes compared to 19.74% votes by Lasso. However, neither of them has passed the 50% + 1 vote (or 40% and a 10-point) threshold to win the elections. The next round was held on April 11th and Lasso won with 52% of the votes. In the parliamentary election, the Union for Hope coalition, which supported Andres Arauz’s candidacy, gained 39.96% votes. The CREO movement from which Guillermo Lasso ran in the campaign received only 8.58% votes, сonciding to other political forces.
Electioneering in autocracies: A myth of ‘authoritarian advantage’?
Some argue that autocracies are better equipped to manage emergencies as they are relatively free from popular pressure. That said, one would expect stronger rallying effects as well as even in the cases of policy failures, autocrats usually enjoy a monopolized control over the mass media and can effectively shift the blame elsewhere. On the other hand, emergency creates opportunities for vote-rigging and pressuring the opposition under the pretext of preventing the disease and hiding behind the securitization narratives.
That said, the pandemic was a high time for a number of referendums or popular votes seeking to extend political tenure in office with Russia as a prominent case. The popular plebiscites were postponed in Chile due to the pandemic escalation, Armenia, and Liberia. Moreover, the political landscape of autocracies during a pandemic is characterized by extensive freedoms suppressions. Major democratic violations cropped up in Turkey, Belarus, Venezuela, China where governments restricted media freedom (Pandemic Backsliding Project). In India, the government also considerably limited the legislative powers and suppressed the non-derogable rights (Pandemic Backsliding Project).
The major violations of absolute human rights have been noticed in Egypt. Parliamentary elections held in Egypt in autumn 2020 led to the Nation’s Future Party’s victory, controlled by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Party secured 55% votes with low turnout levels (28%), accusations of electoral fraud, and vote selling. The victory in parliamentary elections was another step on the way to power accumulation and centralization in Egypt. In April 2019, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi initiated the referendum, which allowed him to stay in power till 2030, expand the president’s control over judicial appointments and enhance the military’s role. According to the results, 88.83% of the population supported the constitutional amendments, with a general 44% turnout. Now the pro-Sisi party also gained influence in the legislative branch.
The significant shift of power happened after parliamentary elections held in August 2020 in Montenegro. It took place in the background of the shrinking economy and huge GDP fall mainly due to the impact of the pandemic on the country’s tourism sector (12-14% GDP drop). The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), led by President Milo Đukanović since 1991, stepped the power to the coalition by For the Future of Montenegro. The electoral defeat was preceded by the 2019 protests, which demanded President Đukanović and the government’s resignation over widespread corruption. Although elections were organized competitively, the OSCE observation mission noted that the ruling party attempted to use dominant press and state resources to influence the campaign’s results.
In Uganda, a long-standing autocrat Yoweri Museveni won general elections held on January 14th, 2021. According to the official results, Museveni obtained twice more votes than the young opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (called Bobi Wine) (58.38% vs. 35.08%). Pro-president party National Resistance Movement secured 336 out of 529 seats in parliament while Wine’s National Unity Platform only 57. The campaign was characterized by a major eruption of violence, arrests of journalists, human rights activists, and opposition supporters. Two days before the elections, internet providers were ordered to ban social media access, while the next day, the government restricted access to the internet in the whole country. Bobi Wine was arrested after the elections, while the violation of COVID-19 regulations was used as a reason for the arrest. The candidate’s supporters protested his arrest but were harshly bitted by the security forces leading to at least 54 deaths.
Balancing between politics and pandemic in the post-Soviet space
The post-Soviet states witnessed various events in the recent year, ranging from the mass anti-Lukashenko protests in Belarus to the escalation of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Generally, in the last year, reform opportunities vanished in Georgia, where opposition boycotted parliamentary elections, and Ukraine, where president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s reform attempts met strong resistance from the judiciary (Freedom House).In Kyrgyzstan and Moldova, pandemic mismanagement, among other problems were used for the new political forces to ensure access to power.
The Central Election Commission annulled the parliamentary election results held in Kyrgyzstan on October 11th on the following day. The experts and public blamed elections for the massive vote-rigging and vote-buying. The massive protests erupted after the pro-government parties bought the campaign. Protesters managed to seize the office of the country’s president (Sooronbai Jeenbekov) and released former president Almazbek Atambayev. Kyrgyzstan is commonly referred to as an outlier case in the Central Asian political landscape due to a noticeable tradition of mass protests and presidents toppled by popular revolts. After president Bakiyev left office in 2010 due to large-scale protests, the state’s constitution was changed, granting more power to the legislative branch. However, in the recent presidential elections held in the country on January 10th, 2021, voters supported the extension of the executive’s power and withdrew from the parliamentary system. Nationalist Sadyr Zhaparov, who campaigned for traditional values and increased healthcare spending during the healthcare crisis, won the elections with 80% support. Zhaparov managed to gain popular support on the general background of public dissatisfaction with authorities’ action to combat the virus and the parliamentary system’s unclarity. His promises to organize the referendum on the constitution present a threat of authoritarian backlash, claim experts. Moreover, new parliamentary elections are planned for this year. Under the new president Zhaparov, Kyrgyzstan continues its strategic alliance with Russia and economic dependency on Russian oil and gas. Experts comment that the sudden appearance of Zhaparov on the political scene and his tremendous victory might be linked with Russian support of the candidate.
The other post-Soviet state witnessing recent presidential elections is Moldova. Commonly called a Pro-European candidate, Maia Sandu competed with the so-called pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon in two rounds since neither received the majority in the first round. The former prime minister, Maia Sandu, overtook Igor Dodon by 15% of votes in the second round, capturing 57.7%. Previously, Dodon and the allied prime minister were accused of hiding information and silencing the spread of the virus in the country.
While her victory was celebrated with triumph and praised by the EU for selecting the first-woman president in the post-Soviet place, the balance of power remains very fragile. Moldova has a parliamentary system and is known for the long-term national cleavages. Political conflicts between parties are a common practice in the country, leading to crisis and decision-making deadlocks. Since December 2020, Moldova has been without a government because the former prime minister Ion Chicu and his cabinet resigned before Sandu’s mandate started. To resolve this situation intensified by a presidential – parliament conflict, Sandu dissolved the parliament on April 28th and called a new parliamentary election on July 11th (originally, the elections were scheduled for 2023).
COVID-19 pandemic caused postponements of elections worldwide. However, after the Spring 2020 elections are more commonly held on time. The stringency level alone does not explain the possible changes to the electoral schedule since both democracies and non-democracies held the planned elections when the harsh restrictions were in force. Another trend that characterizes elections during the pandemic is the higher odds of political survival of the incumbents in office. Incumbents gained support for pandemic management in New Zealand and the Netherlands. The authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Uganda managed to accumulate their powers in the last elections, overlooking the sufficient supply of protective equipment at the polling stations (IDEA). The pandemic seems to reinforce previously existing problems and cleavages, especially in hybrid regimes, leading to notable victories of the opposition candidates in the Dominican Republic and Montenegro, and the appearance of the new political forces, for example, in El Salvador and Kyrgyzstan. Bottom line, the corona crisis impacted the electoral schedule at its onset, thereby creating additional management and legitimacy issues affecting incumbents’ success at elections. However, there is no uniform effect of the COVID-19 emergency, and its consequences vary across regimes and domestic institutions.