Covid-19’s impact on elections in the Indo-Pacific

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted almost all aspects of life, and elections have been no exception. Across the world, elections in 2020 were conducted under the shadow of the pandemic, providing a stress test not only for governments but also for the very process of casting votes. This year’s collection of Strategist posts by experts from different countries and fields, Indo-Pacific election pulse 2020, zooms in on some of the most consequential elections in the region—Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, Myanmar and, of course, the United States.

Unsurprisingly, public health and the economic, political, social and security implications of Covid-19 have loomed large on election agendas. Only the elections in Taiwan, which took place in January, before the pandemic spread globally, weren’t dominated by Covid-19. Rather, Taiwan’s was about China and Taipei’s survival strategies. President Tsai Ing-wen received a record number of votes (8.2 million) in a testament to people’s confidence in her ability to manage cross-strait tensions. But Tsai’s administration also proved to be well placed to guide Taiwan efficiently through the Covid-19 crisis. In fact, in many assessments, it was the world’s best performer.

For other countries, the pandemic has presented more of a challenge. People’s ability to exercise their democratic rights by casting their votes also increased the risk of infections.

In New Zealand, that caused the postponement of the election by a month after a small spike in coronavirus cases.

In Myanmar, the election was plagued by voter safety concerns after a large surge in coronavirus infections, and yet voter turnout was higher than expected. The election commission put it at around 70%, which narrowly beat a previous record turnout of 69% in 2015.

The US also recorded its highest voter turnout in over a hundred years as 65.1% of enrolled voters cast their ballots.

Amid a continually high count of Covid cases in Singapore, opposition parties called for a delay in the city-state’s election. Long queues at polling stations led to the extension of voting hours to 10 pm, leading to the highest voter turnout since the 1997 general election.

As the virus forced campaign activities online, candidates and electoral authorities also faced the challenge of countering misinformation, disinformation and cyber-enabled attempts at foreign interference, and it’s clear that many countries have a long way to go in safeguarding their elections against these new and increasing threats.

In Singapore, where for the first time the election campaigns took place without physical rallies of candidates and supporters, the government invoked a ‘fake news law’, claiming that a Facebook post by an opposition party contained ‘false and misleading’ information about government policies. While ostensibly the law seeks to combat mis- and disinformation, it’s been used as a weapon by the government to limit freedom of expression.

In Myanmar, Muslim candidates were hit with ‘racist abuse and misinformation’, and civil society organisations and journalists identified ‘dozens of networks of accounts, pages, and groups spreading ethnically and religiously charged falsehoods’.

In the US, President Donald Trump himself emerged as the biggest source of election disinformation, spreading incorrect information about the results, the counting and even the timing of voting, all to claim his own ‘victory’. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter also faced increasing scrutiny over their efforts during the US election, prompting the companies to do more to label or take down false or misleading information.

The Covid-19 pandemic turned out to be a legitimacy test for many governments. In most cases, the voters rewarded leaders for their competent responses to the outbreak. Nowhere was that more clearly demonstrated than in New Zealand, where Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party secured a second term in government after delivering one of the world’s most effective responses to the pandemic. Conversely, in the US, the Trump administration’s disastrous response to Covid, which has resulted in more than 230,000 deaths to date, cost him re-election. If the pandemic is a stress test, it’s one that Trump has not passed.

People’s appetite for risk is often lower during crises. The electoral victory of incumbents during this year’s elections—in New Zealand, Singapore and Myanmar—could also reflect a desire for stability and the security offered by known quantities, particularly during a time of regional and global upheaval. Taiwan would also fit into that category, although the threat perception there is mainly of Xi Jinping’s harsh politics, rather than the pandemic.

Despite perceptions that democracy is in some kind of creeping retreat globally, which is arguably being exacerbated by Covid-19, the election results show that democratic activism and accountability are doing well. New Zealand stands out as a prime example of a well-functioning democratic government that has secured the confidence of voters to get the country through the pandemic and deliver economic recovery. Opposition parties were able to make historic gains in Singapore, where the Workers’ Party achieved its most significant increase in its number of seats in parliament since independence. In Taiwan, the victory of the pro-independence party reaffirmed the island’s desire to remain democratic and resilient.

The situation in Myanmar has come under scrutiny by many due to the unfair disqualification of some ethnic minorities from voting. Some believe that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy provides the clearest path towards greater constitutional reform. Higher support for the league could increase pressure on the military to allow constitutional reform that could facilitate greater democratisation in Myanmar. However, the military appears to be unwilling to concede power, and the treatment and disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities in Myanmar places a serious question mark over the country’s democratic future.

In the US, while Joe Biden was able to pull off an electoral victory, 2020 will go down in history as one of the country’s most controversial elections. The structural problems with the electoral and political system in the US and the high degree of polarisation within American society have come to the fore, and conversations about necessary reforms will continue long after the Trump era.

The Indo-Pacific democracies, like all nations, have had their fair share of challenges this year, but those that had the additional task of conducting general elections and charting a course for the next term have done well. The year’s been short on good news, but here’s some: it ends on the rather positive note of good electoral outcomes.