Seoul It’s just after lunchtime at a central Seoul market and a crowd in hot pink jackets is gathering.
Pink is the color of the country’s main opposition party, the conservative United Future Party, and this crowd of supporters is staging a legal campaign rally ahead of Wednesday’s election of 300 members of the National Assembly.
Large public gatherings are a jarring sight during a pandemic.
But South Korea has never postponed an election before — and the coronavirus is not stopping this one.
Like many democracies around the world, South Korea has been faced with a predicament: how to hold an election during a pandemic without spreading the virus.
At least 47 countries have postponed elections due to the coronavirus outbreak, including Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, France and Ethiopia. Others, like the United States and New Zealand, are still deciding whether to proceed with their scheduled votes.
Many of those countries are at different points in the virus outbreak. South Korea peaked early, prompting praise for the government’s handling of the pandemic. The country isn’t in lockdown, and of the more than 10,500 confirmed cases, more than 7,400 have recovered.
Nevertheless, South Korea has made a number of election concessions for the virus.
More than 11 million people — or 26.7% of registered voters — cast their vote in advance to avoid crowds, according to the National Election Committee. Early voters, and those casting their vote on Wednesday, will have their temperature checked at the door. Polling booths will be regularly disinfected and anyone with a temperature of more than 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Farenheit) will have to vote in a special booth. About 20,000 additional workers will be dispatched to put in place the extra measures.
Special voting booths have been set up at government-run isolation centers, and those under self-quarantine will be allowed to leave their house to vote after polling booths close to the public at 6 p.m.
Voters talked to were supportive of the decision to go ahead. Some said the pandemic made voting even more important.
“I’m not too worried about catching the virus at the polling station as we’ll keep social distancing in mind,” said 53-year-old Lee Chang-Hoe, who runs a fish tempura shop at the market in Dongdaemun where the UFP rally took place. “Just like a frozen river in winter, even though there is thick layer of ice on the surface, water must flow underneath — I think it’s the same for the election, even during this coronavirus outbreak, elections must go on.”
But experts warn that going ahead with an election and delaying an election both come with risks — not just to public health, but to democracy.
“Intuitively, we think postponing an election sounds anti-democratic,” said Toby James, a professor of politics and public policy at the University of East Anglia. “But actually democracy in some ways could be undermined by holding an election in these times.”
Going ahead with an election
There’s historical precedent for going ahead with elections in a time of crisis.
In 1864, the US held a presidential election despite the country being in the midst of a civil war. During the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak that killed about 675,000 people in the US alone, the country went ahead with its mid-term vote, although the turnout was very low, according to the New York Times.
As James points out, postponing an election is not something democracies like to do, both for the health of the democracy and for practical reasons. “Elections are a huge logistical task. They take years of planning, it’s very difficult to unpick from those arrangements,” he said.
The Australian state of Queensland went ahead with its local body elections on March 28, with the state’s electoral commission calling elections “an essential service.” But there was a backlash — medical experts warned that holding an election posed a “lethal risk,” and political experts warned there could be a lower turn out.
Like South Korea, the state took precautions. Voters were asked to bring their own pencils and hand sanitizer was supplied at polling booths. Those in isolation due to Covid-19 were allowed to vote by telephone, and around a third of voters cast their ballot during the early voting period, reducing the numbers of voters on election day.
In Australia, voting is compulsory — and anyone who didn’t vote in Queensland faces a possible $133.45 (about $86) fine. Nevertheless, early figures put the turnout at around 75%, down from around 83% during the last election.
“You don’t know how many people would have liked to have voted, but felt too concerned,” said University of Queensland electoral law expert Graeme Orr.
Low turnout is one of the risks of holding an election during a pandemic. James noted that turnout also dropped in France’s mayoral election in mid-March and Mali’s long-awaited parliamentary election held two weeks later.
Detailed information on voter demographics hasn’t been released, but James noted that some at-risk groups may have chosen not to vote, which could affect the final count.
Orr said Queensland should have suspended in-person voting, and instead held an all postal ballot.
Although US President Donald Trump claimed that voting-by-mail is “corrupt” and “dangerous,” due to the risks of voter fraud, experts believe that postal voting will be key for any country holding an election during the pandemic.
Campaigning in a pandemic
In a healthy democracy, elections are a time to discuss a wide range of topics.
But right now, there’s really only one topic dominating conversation. James points out that holding an election during a crisis means discussion is often limited to how well the government is responding to it.
“It doesn’t allow a full range of issues to be discussed, and it does really undermine a sense of democracy,” he said.
That was the case during the election in Queensland, where there was no space to talk about non-pandemic issues, Orr said.
Another issue is the difficulty of communicating with voters. If countries are in lockdown, rallies, door-knocking, meeting voters in shopping malls — might not be possible.
That was something that former South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon found during this year’s campaign. He said hugs and handshakes can be more impactful than words, but social distancing has ruled that out for now. “We are limited in expressing our feeling this time,” he told as he campaigned in the Jogno district of Seoul. Despite that, spotted Lee hugging a supporter as he campaigned.
In recent years, electioneering in many countries has increasingly moved online — and online campaigns could become even more important during a pandemic. Those who can’t access the internet are already marginalized, but they could become even more isolated without other measures to reach them.
It’s even worse in countries with state-owned media. Without rallies, opposition parties have even fewer ways to get their message out.
“Incumbents always have an advantage,” said Sarah Repucci, the vice president of research and analysis for democracy non-governmental organization Freedom House. “But they have a bigger advantage in an environment where it’s difficult to get information out or get organized.”
Postponing an election
Faced with all those issues — and the unfolding health crisis — some countries have opted to postpone their elections.
But this, too, comes with risks, say experts. That’s because elections are necessary to keep the public’s trust, and to maintain the legitimacy of lawmaking.
In Australia’s New South Wales, for instance, local government elections have been delayed by one year, meaning mayors and local councilors will stay in power for 12 more months.
Sri Lanka has yet to announce a new date after calling off a parliamentary election set for April 25. The cancellation has left the island in a constitutional predicament — parliament had already been dissolved ahead of the election date, so technically the country has no parliament.
Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has said he will pick a new date in May. Repucci said rescheduling is vital to retain public trust in the process. She said any decision to delay an election should be done with cross-party support, to avoid situations where leaders are making unilateral decisions to extend their terms.
And when countries do eventually hold their elections, they should make sure remote voting is available for everyone, but also allow some sanitary, in-person polling stations, Repucci said.
“Democracy has survived through many different kinds of environments,” she said. “It’s going to look different, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have the same fundamental components that are so important to a democracy.”
A slide into authoritarianism
Elections are only one part of a functioning democracy.
In some countries, leaders have taken on extraordinary powers to allow them to restrict freedoms so they can control the deadly spread of the virus.
In New Zealand, the government has declared a state of emergency for only the second time in the country’s history, giving the government sweeping powers including the authority to close roads, evacuate any premises, and exclude people from any place. But it also set up a special committee led by the leader of the main opposition party to allow them to scrutinize the government’s coronavirus response in the absence of a sitting parliament.
Hungary’s parliament, by contrast, voted to allow the country’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely in order to combat the pandemic, prompting concern that the move could be a power grab.
To Repucci, this is reminiscent of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when countries around the world pushed through restrictions as part of their fight against terrorism. At the time, the rules played on people’s fears — but in many countries, the rules were never reversed.
One example of this is the Patriot Act in the US, which was brought in following 9/11 and gave the government broader surveillance powers.
“We are already seeing (leaders) using the pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their role and to put measures in place that are there indefinitely and would be very, very hard to reverse,” she said.
Both Repucci and James say that the real test will be after the pandemic is over.
“Will the president return those powers back to legislatures or will they try to hang onto them?” James questioned. “It’s very early to tell — what we do know is that this will be a huge test for democracies around the world.”
For South Korea, the first test is Wednesday.
While election campaigns in the country tend to be colorful affairs, featuring K-pop style dance troupes and quirky outfits, this election season has been more sedate. As they campaigned in Seoul, candidates wore gloves and face masks — one even wore a face visor.
But while it’s a different atmosphere, constituents such as 49-year-old construction worker Cho Seung-chul have every intention of voting on Wednesday.
“Many people are concerned because of the coronavirus,” he said. “I think this situation makes it more important for me to exercise my right to vote.”