Covid-19 is affecting elections all over the world

THAT COVID-19 is disrupting lives and economies is painfully apparent. Even the democratic process is not immune. On August 17th Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, announced that she was postponing her country’s parliamentary election from September to October. Both her party and the opposition welcomed the decision. On July 30th, with forecasters giving him a one-in-ten chance of re-election in November, President Donald Trump floated the idea of delaying America’s presidential poll, but got short shrift from both Democrats and his fellow Republicans in Congress. Some lambasted the suggestion as “authoritarian”.

During the pandemic elections have been postponed not only in democracies but also in dictatorships (where you might suppose incumbents had less need to worry about the outcome). According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Swedish intergovernmental organisation, at least 70 countries and territories have rescheduled elections since mid-February; this includes 25 nationwide elections or referendums. Data from the latest edition of the Democracy Index from The Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company, shows that such suspensions have been carried out across the spectrum, from bona fide democracies to authoritarian states.

The three full democracies that have postponed their national votes had good reasons to do so. On March 18th, with 35 reported cases of covid-19 for every 100,000 people, Switzerland announced that it would be delaying its federal referendums, scheduled for May 17th. The next day, Chile rescheduled a vote to rewrite its constitution, due on April 26th. At that time, Chile had the highest number of reported cases per person in South America. New Zealand, a rare success story that went weeks without a single confirmed case, decided to postpone its election after the city of Auckland reported a new outbreak in spite of a lockdown.

Some authoritarian states have also had valid grounds for delaying votes. When Iran decided to postpone its second round of parliamentary elections on March 15th, it had the third-highest number of confirmed cases in the world. Other suspensions have been less defensible. On June 9th Chad announced that it was delaying its legislative elections because of covid-19, despite having relatively few confirmed cases of the disease. This was the fifth time Idriss Déby Itno, Chad’s president, had postponed the elections, which were first due to be held in 2015. Previously, Mr Déby Itno had blamed the delays on insufficient funds and attacks by Boko Haram, a jihadist group. When Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, in July announced that covid-19 forced the postponement for a year of legislative elections to be held in September, her government’s critics were quick to see the pandemic as just a pretext. It feared, they argued, a strong showing by the opposition.

Just as delaying elections is not inherently authoritarian, ploughing ahead with a vote can be antithetical to democratic principles. On March 22nd, after some delays, Guinea carried on with its constitutional referendum to allow its president to rule for 12 more years despite a severe covid-19 outbreak, making it difficult for opposition parties to campaign. As the world struggles to bring covid-19 under control, more election delays can be expected in the coming months. Will they all be justified? That is—or should be—for voters to decide.

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