Elections, democracy and the pandemic year

By Max Walden
Editor, Election Watch

As 2020 draws to a close, Ghana's opposition has said it will challenge the result of December 7's election. In one of West Africa's most stable democracies, opposition supporters now claim that the incumbent's victory was rigged and are petitioning the supreme court to overturn the result.

Along with every aspect of our societies, economies and political systems, 2020 has illuminated the weaknesses in electoral democracies worldwide. Civil society groups and scholars have sounded the alarm over the COVID-19 pandemic’s acceleration of democratic decay and authoritarian creep across the globe, as governments implement draconian curbs on civil liberties under the guise of public health measures.

Elections were routinely delayed, in some cases indefinitely, by autocrats from Hong Kong to Chad. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA): “The COVID-19 pandemic has swept through a world that was in many ways ailing democratically, with more countries experiencing democratic erosion, backsliding — aided by the rise of populist parties in government — and deepening autocratisation than at any time since the third wave of democratisation in the 1970s.”

Decay and resilience

The United States, for centuries seeing itself as a beacon of democracy, has seen its reputation tarnished by Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat in the 2020 election and for his administration’s woeful handling of the pandemic. As Dr Adrian Ang U-Jin wrote in November, "all signs point to the final ten weeks of the Trump presidency being disruptive, a fitting if unfortunate end to an administration that began its term with the theme of 'American chaos'."

Many believe Trumpism will continue to be a powerful force in American politics far beyond 2020. While it was not enough to win him the White House again, Trump did win the votes of 74.2 million Americans. An annual Gallup survey saw Trump unseat Obama as the most admired man in America in 2020. At the same time, Kamala Harris’s election as the first woman to be US vice president is seen by many as a step forward for American democracy.

Kamala Harris stands in front of a US flag
Pic: Flickr

While in some places COVID-19 was a pretext to undermine electoral democracy, in others, governments were seen to irresponsibly endanger voters. Despite having the worst coronavirus epidemic in Asia apart from India, Indonesian authorities decided to push ahead with nationwide regional elections on December 9. The country once viewed as a democratic overachiever in Asia and the Muslim world continued on a path of regression during 2020, not least due to the rapid proliferation of political dynasties.

Civil society groups fear that proposed changes to Indonesian electoral laws threaten to further limit women’s representation in politics and sideline issues like labour rights, the environment and anti-corruption efforts. In neighbouring Singapore, the ruling People’s Action Party continued its undefeated run since 1959 in July’s polls. Sri Lanka saw the consolidation of the power of the Rajapaksa family after a landslide electoral win in August, which is likely to see further marginalisation of the country's Tamil community.

In Thailand, meanwhile, pro-democracy activists again took to the streets in huge numbers calling for greater democracy, reform of the monarchy and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha – believing that the March 2019 elections were rigged. Provincial elections were held across Thailand in December 2020 as the country experienced a resurgence in the virus, having previously controlled its spread well.

Thai democrats have certainly fared better than their so-called “milk tea alliance” allies in Hong Kong. Pui Man Katy Chan has highlighted how the Hong Kong government’s delay of the city’s September elections, allegedly due to COVID-19, signals the end of electoral democracy there and has made calls for a parliament in exile mainstream. Nevertheless, their anti-China stance has seen some Hong Kong democrats embrace Donald Trump, who has actively undermined faith in democratic institutions in the United States and indeed around the world. They have parroted Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud after the victory of Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Female Belarusian protesters hold with flowers
Pic: Flickr

But there were many causes for hope. Belarusians stood up to long-serving dictator Alexander Lukashenko after August elections widely considered to have been rigged and were met with a brutal response from authorities. Dr Julie Fedor wrote for Election Watch about how Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia is seeking to prevent another “colour revolution” in its sphere of influence, despite an ambivalence towards Lukashenko. The fight for representative democracy in Belarus continues.

Kyrgyzstan’s October elections delivered a supermajority for pro-government parties, and the result was annulled after rolling protests. A new election will be held there no later than July 2021. Malawi saw its presidential elections rerun in June – only the second African country to do so – and subsequently a transition of power. This came after months of protests and pushback from the opposition. For being the only country recognised by Freedom House to have improved democracy and respect for human rights during the pandemic, The Economist magazine deemed it ‘country of the year’ for 2020.

The Democracy 2020 virtual Global Roundtable in November brought together 58 speakers from 5 continents and an audience of almost 600 from 54 countries to assess the health and trajectory of constitutional democracy. While the pandemic loomed large, optimism shined through from speakers with the possibility of addressing fundamental issues like voter suppression and highlighting where pushback and resilience can be found – namely among civil society, opposition parties and younger demographics.

Here's to 2021

Democracy and elections will continue to exist in 2021 and Election Watch at the Melbourne School of Government will be here to bring you must-read analysis. Scholarship, events and engagement through the Melbourne School of Government’s Renewing Democracy project will also continue.

Western Australians go to the polls in March after a year of intense isolation from the rest of the world due to COVID-19. Labor Premier Mark McGowan's tough border closures have gifted him soaring approval ratings, which will make it tough for the opposition. This is especially as Western Australians look to New South Wales, where Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian's relatively laissez faire approach to pandemic management appears to have birthed a major outbreak pre-Christmas. Queensland voters rewarded Labor's Annastacia Palaszczuk for 'hard' border closures at the October 31, 2020 election.

Australia’s Pacific neighbour Samoa will hold a general election in April, with more than 200 candidates registered in the country of 202,000. Hong Kong’s government has promised to hold an election in September. Whether or not those polls go ahead under increasingly assertive rule from the Chinese Communist Party remains to be seen. In any case, pro-democracy candidates have been disqualified from running and those in office have resigned, which will leave only pro-Beijing candidates on the ballot.

Japan will hold a general election in October, which will test Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who replaced the long-serving Shinzo Abe in September 2020. Malaysia, meanwhile, looks likely to call a general election. Further afield, Scotland will vote for its next parliament on May 6 amid the fallout of the pandemic, Brexit and resurgent Scottish nationalist rumblings. It will be one to watch.

As Associate Professor Tom Daly of the Melbourne School of Government wrote this year, “we need to remind ourselves that democracy’s strengths are legion. In the US, and across the world, the fight for democracy – real government for the people, by the people – never ends.

“In fact, it’s only beginning.”

Banner image: A man pushes back against Thai police riot shields at a pro-democracy protest in October 2020. Source: Prachatai


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