Apr 13, 2020 - World

Countries grapple with how to hold elections during coronavirus

Voting in Seoul. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The global coronavirus crisis is testing the world's democracies in myriad ways, but one is particularly fundamental: how to hold elections.

Driving the news: South Korea is a rare case. Millions of early votes have already been cast ahead of the April 15 election, which will be the first national poll held worldwide since the crisis reached pandemic proportions.

  • During two days of early voting, turnout was high and enforcement was strict.
  • Voters arrived in masks, kept their distance in line, underwent a temperature check and then slipped on disposable gloves before voting.

Flashback: President Moon Jae-in had looked vulnerable due to a sputtering economy and unreciprocated outreach to North Korea.

  • But his approval rating soared as South Korea became a global model for how to contain a virus outbreak. Pollsters expect a strong performance.

The big picture: Most of the world remains on the other end of the coronavirus curve.

  • Elections have been canceled or postponed in 47 countries or territories due to COVID-19, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
  • They include Ethiopia’s general election (originally scheduled for August) and Chile’s vote on whether to draft a new constitution (moved from April to October).
  • Vladimir Putin was also forced to delay a constitutional referendum that could grant him the authority to rule Russia through 2036.
  • Hungary didn’t have upcoming elections, but that didn’t stop Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from canceling them as part of the country’s indefinite state of emergency.

Poland will turn to postal voting for its presidential election next month, with the ruling Law and Justice party rebuffing calls to postpone.

  • But while Andrzej Duda, the populist and popular incumbent, can make full use of the bully pulpit during the crisis, the strict lockdown makes it impossible for the opposition to campaign, says Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.
  • That “clear advantage” could lead to a “crisis of legitimacy,” Baranowski said during a conference call last week. "This is really tearing us apart, it is further polarizing Poland."

Bolivia’s interim government already faces a crisis of legitimacy, with the forced resignation of President Evo Morales last November having thrown the country into political limbo.

  • It will remain there for a while longer, as the general election has been postponed from May 3 until some time between June and September.

In Africa, 15 elections are scheduled before the end of the year, says Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What to watch: Leaders are being judged on a daily basis during this crisis. But if those judgments can’t be rendered at the ballot box, they're also unlikely to be expressed on the streets.

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