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.
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.
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 CNN 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 CNN as he campaigned in the Jogno district of Seoul. Despite that, CNN 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Journalist Iqbal Athas contributed reporting from Colombo, Sri Lanka.