Corona vote gambles pay off for incumbents

Corona vote gambles pay off for incumbents
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow July 17, 2020

It’s a big gamble holding an election during a global pandemic, not just for politicians’ futures but for the health and lives of the population. A couple of months after restrictions started being eased across much of Central and Eastern Europe this has already been put to the test in several countries — each time successfully for the incumbents — and more will vote in the coming weeks. 

Several elections supposed to take place this spring were delayed, so as lockdowns were lifted from May the rescheduled votes started coming thick and fast. First up was Serbia, which saw the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) re-elected with a landslide to a parliament virtually devoid of opposition MPs. There was a similar outcome for the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) three days later. Russia’s referendum on constitutional changes that will make it possible for President Vladimir Putin to stay in power till 2036 was spread over several days at the end of June, with the first round of Poland’s presidential election — won narrowly by the incumbent Andrej Duda in the second round in mid-July — in the middle of that. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) then got another term in power at the delayed general election on July 5.

Most recently, voters in North Macedonia delivered a narrow victory to the ruling SDSM, though this owed to the government’s success in bringing the country closer to EU membership rather than its handling of the pandemic; North Macedonia has one of the higher infection rates in the region in per capita terms. 

Votes in Belarus and Montenegro are upcoming in August, and several other countries including Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania and Tajikistan are due to hold term elections this autumn — barring a second wave later in the year. 

Almost all of the votes so far appear to have seen the incumbents helped at least to some extent by the rallying round the flag effect as well as by their leaders’ successes in handling the pandemic — notably better than several major West European economies and the US.

Timing is everything 

The timing of the votes was all-important. They had to be delayed until after the peak of the pandemic but soon enough afterwards that ruling politicians were still getting a boost from the success of the early lockdowns and while the population were still grateful for the stimulus measures, yet before they really felt the impact of the crippling economic recessions expected this year. 

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party originally tried to organise a mail-in only presidential election in early May but this failed after coalition partner Accord opposed the plan. The election was scrapped at the last minute. 

Once lockdowns were eased, the logistics of holding a mass vote during a pandemic proved workable for the most part. Typically, polling booths and equipment were disinfected regularly, masks were required (or at least recommended) when voting. In Mongolia masks, plastic gloves and hand sanitisers were handed out to voters. In Poland, voters were told to bring their own pens. bne IntelliNews’ Warsaw correspondent reports that election officials made sure there weren’t too many people inside polling stations, which led to long queues building up outside, but overall the vote didn’t feel very different from a normal election. 

Croatia took steps including setting up polling stations in retirement homes so residents wouldn’t have to expose themselves to the virus when going to vote. However, it remained unclear until a couple of days before the election whether people suffering from coronavirus on the day would be able exercise their vote. The State Electoral Commission (DIP) caused a political storm when it said they wouldn’t; this decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court. 

In North Macedonia the vote was spread over three days in mid-July, to give everyone — including those infected with coronavirus — the chance to vote, under strict health protocols. Voting started on July 13 for those who had tested positive for the virus or were self-isolating, with ballot boxes taken to their homes. However, reportedly only 716 requests to vote were submitted by around 5,000 people in quarantine. The following day was for sick people and people with disabilities, prisoners and people in care homes for the elderly, and July 15 was the main voting day for everyone else. 

Russia’s constitutional referendum took place over an even longer period under procedures that Maria Domanska, Senior Fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), described as a farce. 

“In the conditions of the pandemic the vote, which was held in contravention of the current constitution’s provisions, turned into a farce,” wrote Domanska on July 2. “Under the pretext of ensuring public safety, the options for early voting (in total the voting process lasted a week), as well as voting online and outside polling stations, were greatly extended. The latter also included voting in private homes with virtually no restrictions. These are the least transparent options for voting possible; they lack any effective supervision by observers, and open up the broadest space for falsifying both the turnout and the results.”

In terms of election monitoring, the OSCE/ODHIR observed several elections in the region, but wasn’t able to safely deploy large teams of election monitors. 

“The health of our staff is a priority, and the safety considerations as well as ongoing restrictions on international travel are creating challenges for all our election activities. This is particularly the case regarding the deployment of long and short-term observers, who are sent directly by OSCE countries. At present, our election observations are therefore made up of smaller but highly qualified teams of experts, ensuring that our assessment of any given election remains credible, accurate and objective,” a spokesperson for the OSCE told bne IntelliNews

Pandemic conditions also affected campaign activities, for example virtually ruling out rallies, though a few large-scale events took place in some countries. 

Virtual campaigns and social distancing 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic kicked off the SNS’ campaign with the country’s first virtual rally, and according to the OSCE post-election report, “Campaigning was significantly more vibrant in traditional and social media, with most contestants turning to Facebook and Twitter to connect with voters.” Aside from that, the campaign was largely “low-key”. 

More of Poland’s presidential campaign took place via traditional media and online than in a typical election. “Contestants resorted to campaigning through the broadcast and online media, and social networks as means of traditional outdoor canvassing, including display and distribution of paraphernalia, were used less,” wrote the OSCE in a interim report, also noting that “regulations on the number of participants and social distancing measures were not always respected, according to the police.” 

bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Ulaanbataar writes that in Mongolia — which had only recorded 215 cases since the start of the pandemic as of election day on June 24 — rallies were more or less the same as ahead of previous elections, even though social distancing rules were set: there could be no more than 10 people present at a rally and they had to stand 1.5 metres apart. However, many of the parties, including the ruling party, broke this rule. Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh was photographed shaking hands and in close proximity to crowds of people, though he did wear gloves and a face shield.

The safe option 

Another feature of the campaigns was that the incumbents in some countries at least were in a position to boast about their handling of the pandemic. 

This was particularly true in Mongolia, which managed to keep the number of cases to just a couple of hundred despite being landlocked between China, where the virus originated, and Russia, which has one of the world’s largest outbreaks. This helped the MPP take 62 of the 76 seats in the State Great Khural, albeit down slightly from the 65 seats won in the previous general election.

Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic personally benefitted in the polls from his handling of the crisis. His HDZ campaigned under the slogan 'Safe Croatia’ – presenting Plenkovic as a safe pair of hands to steer Croatia through the pandemic and economic crisis. 

This was somewhat undermined by the sudden upturn in coronavirus cases in the days before the election — an upturn personally associated with Plenkovic who was photographed wth players and watching from crowded stands at the Adria Tour tennis tournament that was called off after several players tested positive for the virus. However, this did not overshadow his government’s earlier successes as the HDZ roundly beat opponents from both left and right. 

Overall, Croatia’s election was well timed, as it took place before the expected impact of the loss of much of its usual tourism revenues. Despite being one of the countries most open for international visitors, Croatia is still expected to have a poor year, which is forecast to result in one of the deepest contractions in GDP across the emerging Europe region this year. 

Poland’s incumbent Duda and PiS party would most likely have done better with an earlier election, as Duda only just managed to pull off a victory in the second round. The leaves PiS able to continue its controversial reformist agenda, including the overhaul of the judiciary that has set Warsaw on collision course with the EU. 

The extra couple of months gave Poland’s largest opposition party, Civic Platform (PO), time to replace its original candidate Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, who was trailing Duda in the polls, with centre-right mayor of Warsaw Rafal Trzaskowski.

“The fact that Duda’s electoral strategy was premised on there being a May poll meant that when the election was postponed, he needed to re-invigorate his campaign. Moreover, as the ‘rally effect’ waned, the election dynamics once again changed with the economic slowdown arising from the pandemic putting pressure on the state budget and making it difficult for Duda to offer any substantial new social spending and welfare pledges,” wrote Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex, in a post published by the LSE’s European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) blog. 

“This forced him to recalibrate his campaign message to claim that Law and Justice was the party best placed to oversee recovery while protecting families and low-income households,” Szczerbiak added.

Still, Duda beat Trzaskowski in the run-off vote, by 51.14% of the votes to 48.86%. Turnout was 68.12%, the second-highest in the history of Poland’s presidential contests since 1990.

High-risk strategy 

In Serbia, the SNS’s victory in the June 21 general election owes much to perceptions of Vucic and his leadership during the pandemic. Serbians also welcomed the €100 handed out to every adult to help them through the lockdown.

“The campaign centred around the COVID-19 pandemic, with governing parties campaigning on claims of successful containment of the virus, and opposition accusing the government of misusing the crisis for electoral gain,” sad the OSCE’s report on the election. Among the other issues in Serbia, “the status of Kosovo, foreign policy, the date and integrity of the elections, boycott and questions about the genuineness of some candidatures also featured as campaign topics.”

The timing was good from the point of view of the SNS winning the election, but all the developments since then point to a far too early opening up of the country from lockdown. 

Data show an increase in the number of coronavirus cases shortly after the election, with higher numbers of new cases continuing for the following weeks. The voting process itself was safe due to the measures taken at polling stations, and the more likely cause of the new wave of infections was the lifting of Serbia’s strict lockdown measures on May 6, after which life practically returned to normal. After May 6, bars and restaurants reopened, weddings and parties resumed, as did potential super-spreader events like football matches with thousands-strong crowds. 

Allowing normal life to resume meant that the government avoided a mass boycott of the vote by people who feared infection. Turnout of at least 30% of the electorate was needed; in the event it was close to 50%. 

However, even in the days immediately before the election, officials are understood to have been worried about an upturn in new cases, and spikes appeared in some towns shortly after election day. 

Just over three weeks later, COVID-19 cases in Serbia are continuing to rise. Field hospitals have been opened to take care of all infected people who need medical attention. Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar warned on July 13 that the healthcare system is overloaded, with all units treating patients with coronavirus now getting extra capacity. 

The government had been planning to introduce a curfew in Belgrade on July 11-12, but this sparked angry protests that turned violent, and the plans were dropped. The protests started on July 7 as a revolt against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and decision to hold elections during the pandemic. They swiftly turned into attacks on the police and institutional buildings and destruction of public property, mainly because of the involvement of far-right groups.

Russia took a similar approach to Serbia by lifting the lockdown and holding delayed Victory Day parades when there were still a large number of new cases reported daily, to give the impression everything had returned to normal. This allowed the constitutional referendum, delayed from April 22, to go ahead. 

The gamble paid off for the Russian government too: 77.93% of voters cast their votes in favour of the proposed changes to the constitution and just 21.26% against, though the result was the subject of numerous clams of vote rigging. The turnout was 65%.

In North Macedonia, 50.86% of voters turned out to vote in the general election, compared to 66.79% in the previous election in 2016. Even though this was the lowest turnout since the independence of the country in 1991, it was much higher than expected given that it took place during the coronavirus pandemic and was held in mid-summer, when many people had left the cities for their summer houses. 

The elections were seen as a referendum on the ruling party’s progress towards EU accession, after years of delays. The ruling SDSM also brought the country into Nato earlier this year. These two factors gave the party a narrow edge over its conservative rival VMRO-DPMNE, according to preliminary results. 

However, bne IntelliNews’ correspondent in Skopje wrote ahead of the vote: “There is not much enthusiasm among people in North Macedonia for the July 15 snap general election due to fears about the seemingly unstoppable coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic that has taken 360 lives so far and its economic and social impact.

“People are generally disappointed about the overall situation and there is no enthusiasm even among strong supporters of one or other party for these elections,” she added. 

Lukashenko under pressure 

The next election to watch is in Belarus. Unlike his counterparts in other countries in the region, long-standing President Alexander Lukashenko handled the crisis extremely badly, which has contributed centrally to one of the biggest challenges during his two and a half decades in power. 

At the outset, Lukashenko largely dismissed the coronavirus as a threat, giving Belarusians such helpful advice as to go out in the fields or drink vodka, and declining to introduce a lockdown even as most of Europe and all of Belarus’ neighbours were doing so. The result: one of Europe’s highest case tallies in per capita terms.

This came on top of general unhappiness with the government’s management of the economy, and an economic hit from the loss of the so-called Russian tax manoeuvre that is expected to cost the Belarusian budget up to $3bn in the coming years in lost revenues. 

“The people are angry with Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko’s economic mismanagement that has left Belarus as one of the poorest countries in Europe. But it seems his flagrant disregard of the dangers from the coronavirus (COVID-19) is what has pushed popular sentiment over the top,” wrote bne IntelliNews editor-in-chief Ben Aris in a comment on the situation on June 25. 

“Lukashenko’s popularity in the last four years has been oscillating around 20-30%. Not much, but enough if you control the Election Committee and have no real rivals. … But then came the coronavirus,” Tadeusz Giczan, PhD researcher at the University of London School of Slavonic & East European Studies, wrote for bne IntelliNews in June.

“The last remaining part of the social contract between Belarusians and Lukashenko – limited freedoms in exchange for security – has been irreparably broken. And now, against this backdrop, a presidential race has started.”

This resulted in a presidential race that looked like it would include several credible alternatives to Lukashenko. Then in mid-July the central electoral commission declined to register the president’s two most prominent opponents, Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo, as candidates. Ex-banker Babariko had previously been detained on money-laundering and bribery charges. Protests erupted in Minsk and several other cities as a result. 

The central electoral commission has registered Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of popular opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, who has been jailed for several weeks following anti-Lukashenko protests in May. However, since Tikhanovskaya was registered, Lukashenko joked about only allowing people who had served in the army to stand for president — thereby barring Tikhanovskaya and any other woman candidate. 

Another of Europe’s longest ruling politicians, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, will see his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) face voters in the August 30 election, timed for a month and a half before the mid-October deadline, thereby avoiding a potential second wave in the autumn. 

The DPS benefitted from the authorities’ handing of the coronavirus, and the government is implementing measures to support the economy that is expected to be among the worst hit in the region, as it is highly dependent on tourism. However, this success story was dented when the virus was re-imported by arrivals from Bosnia & Herzegovina and spread rapidly, resulting in localised lockdowns.

In addition, the biggest opposition parties have moved closer to a coalition agreement ahead of the August 30 general election and might pose a challenge to the 30-year rule of the DPS. 

Next up will be the term general elections due to take place in several emerging Europe countries this autumn, provided a new wave of the virus is avoided. Otherwise, the drama of delayed elections will have to be played out again in the winter.

With contributions from Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje, Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw and Anand Tumurtogoo in Ulaanbataar.