Covid-19 has changed nearly all aspects of our lives and with the pandemic raging for more than six months since it first gained international attention early in 2020, hopeful calls for a swift return to normal have been replaced by grimmer scenarios. In fact, Sars-2-Cov-19 may be an era-defining event that has changed our societies profoundly and in ways we still cannot fully comprehend. While economists were quick to adapt their GDP projections, other fields are having a harder time to predict upcoming changes. One of these fields is the very central topic of the state of our democracies and while the next influential election might happen far away, in the United States, we need to understand how the pandemic situation will affect both local and national elections. Data on this is, of course, limited but two recent elections, the national elections in South Korea and the gubernatorial elections in Tokyo may provide some first lessons for politicians and the public alike.
A Tale of Two Leaders
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea was in a difficult spot just six months before the April 2020 elections. His main initiative, normalization with North Korea had failed, a trade war with Japan had further weakened Korea’s struggling economy and his Justice Minister had just been caught up in a corruption scandal. Moon had come into office with an approval rating of 80%, in October 2019 it was reduced by half. Similarly, Tokyo’s first female governor, Koike Yuriko was in the middle of a mixed term. She had overseen the controversial relocation of Japan’s largest fish market and was far from keeping her campaign promise of eliminating seven problems facing the residents of Tokyo.
Both leaders won reelection in April and July 2020, respectively and both did so in historic landslide victories. Moon’s Democratic Party won more seats in Korea’s national assembly than any other freely elected Korean government before and the independent Koike achieved the second-highest vote count in Tokyo’s history, beating her next rival by more than 45%. Experts agree that what could be called Coronavirus politics played a significant role in both elections. But what exactly is that? What are the similarities between these two first big elections of the Covid-19 era?
1. Decisive Crisis Leadership
Both leaders were seen as proactively taking steps to effectively address the situation and solve the problems arising from Covid-19. Moon made disease response a national priority, ordered ministries to be available 24-hours and under his leadership, South Korea pioneered the much-imitated drive-through testing. In order to inform the public, Governor Koike played into her background as a news anchor and held televised daily Coronavirus update briefings, supported by sign language and even a weekly English language version. She introduced the concept of the “Three Cs” in order to avoid the risk of infection, requested the voluntary lockdown of businesses, and jumped in with financial compensation for the affected business when the national government was hesitant to guarantee it.
2. Exposure and Media Attention
The risk of infection massively undermined efforts by the opposition to organize election campaign events. While this only affected the last (but decisive) phase of the Korean national elections, it was an enduring reality throughout the entire process in Tokyo. Competitors of Koike either canceled events with live-audience or only informed the press. In many elections, the incumbent candidate has an inherent advantage due to them being well-known and having more opportunities to get into the headlines. Here the normal duties of the office inadvertently merged with campaign activities: While Moon and Koike could make the news by providing updates on the situation, thereby demonstrating their competent leadership (see point 1), the opposition did not have such opportunities, resulting in much lower name-ID. Further, the election campaign as a whole took a secondary position to the ongoing crisis, which shielded the incumbent candidates from critical questioning of their previous record.
3. Tactical (Dis)-Alignment
Early on, Moon made an effort to reach out to other heads of state. While at first, this was for coordination, South Korea increasingly became an authority in how to effectively fight Covid-19. This international cooperation with mass testing methods pioneered in South Korea further raised Moon’s and by extension South Korea’s appeal as an important international actor. While Moon aligned himself with other countries, Koike faced a different situation: The Japanese national approach to Covid-19 was slow and accompanied by a number of gaffes and missteps, which saw Prime Minister Abe’s approval rating drop dramatically. Koike used this opportunity to distance herself from the Prime Minister, who is also located in Tokyo and openly criticized the national government’s handling of relations with prefectural governments in an April 10 statement: “I initially assumed, that governors would get the authority of a CEO […]. [I feel] more like a middle manager.” By positioning herself as the antithesis to Abe both in actions and rhetoric, she rallied residents of Tokyo around her against the national government.
If the Korean national election and Tokyo gubernatorial election of 2020 teach us anything, it is that in situations of crisis, voters favor stability over the uncertainty brought about by political change. In the cases of Moon and Koike, both incumbent, well-known candidates profited from this and the rally-around the flag effect. Some restrictions stemming from the pandemic blocked their rivals from running full-on campaigns with big public appearances and thus made it much more difficult for them to break into a public discourse focused on the crisis, while the officeholders had ample airtime to demonstrate their leadership to voters.
This set of factors can be utilized by the incumbent if they display decisive leadership and position themselves in a politically opportune way, either associating themselves with successful actors or differentiating themselves from less well-perceived figures. As we move from management of an acute crisis to long-term management, political actors’ credentials as leaders in crises will become more important and we will see opposition candidates rely more heavily on the internet for communication. And as in-person events remain difficult at best, they will have to find creative new ways of campaigning. Certainly, we will be able to observe the next example at the US Presidential Election on November 3, 2020. It seems Covid-19 will remain a prominent issue until then and possibly longer than that, so political actors will have to adapt to a new normal of political campaigning.
Author: Jonas Läster
*Dieser Beitrag ist im Rahmen des Kurses Krisenmanagement in der globalen Sars-Cov2 / Covid19 Krise entstanden.