Event Reports

"The Alpha and Omega of a Representative Democracy”

by Arndt Meissner

The Impact of COVID-19 on Elections in South Korea and Europe

More than a year into COVID-19, the pandemic continues to affect all facets of daily life all around the world with a considerable impact on our democracies. To avoid the further spreading of the virus, parliamentary, regional or local elections are re-scheduled, alternative voting processes are introduced and new technologies are in the center of attention. Although geographically separated, South Korea and Germany aim on fostering cooperation and an active dialogue during the pandemic to assess best practices and plan further steps to this point. In this regard, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung together with the Embassy of the Republic of Korea held their third digital expert dialogue on "COVID-19 and Public Governance: The Impact of COVID-19 on Election Management and Voting Behavior in South Korea and Europe" on May 20th 2021.

In her welcoming remarks, the Korean Ambassador to Germany, Her Excellency Dr. CHO Hyun Ock, emphasized that free elections, regardless of the circumstances, are the alpha and omega of a representative democracy. The elections held in Korea and Germany during the pandemic have shown that COVID-19 not only has an impact on election organization and voting behavior, but also does not limit the citizens' sense of security as voter turnout remains very high. Following up, Barbara VOELKL, KAS Desk Officer for East Asia and the Pacific, emphasized the timing and relevance of the event in view of the German Super Election Year 2021, which will take place during the pandemic. The primary focus of the expert dialogue was to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on voting behavior and election management in South Korea and in Germany, as well as on initial findings from elections already held under pandemic conditions in countries around the globe.

The Impact of the Pandemic on Election Management and Election Results in South Korea and Europe

Ms. LEE Young-yi, Director General of Incheon-si Seo-gu Election Commission, stressed the importance of a profound election preparation under pandemic conditions and described the election options available in Korea. In addition to the classic Election Day Voting, Korea enables (i) Early Voting, which takes place two to five days before Election Day, (ii) Home Voting for those with health problems or people with disabilities, and (iii) Overseas Voting for all Koreans currently located abroad. The aim of the multi-layered voting method is above all to ensure a safe election environment. Particularly noteworthy: All citizens who tested positive up to two weeks before the elections (364 citizens) were permitted to exceptionally exercise their right to vote in Home Voting, whereas all citizens who tested positive in the last two weeks before the election (446 citizens) were able to cast their vote in Special Polling Stations under highest hygiene protection measures. All self-quarantined voters (11,151 eligible citizens) at the time of the election were allowed to vote at the Special Polling Stations or drive their own cars to cast their vote on election day after all "healthy" eligible voters had voted. The strict hygiene measures in place at the voting stations had one objective: to create a sense of security among all voters, according to Ms. LEE.

Prof. Dr. Uwe JUN, Professor for Political Science at the University of Trier, focused on the difficulties of an election campaign under pandemic conditions using the example of the state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. Especially the opposition parties had difficulties to attract attention and to set priorities without the traditional major offline events, door-to-door canvassing or information stands in pedestrian areas. It became clear that social media such as Facebook and Instagram were increasingly important, while the traditional instruments of indirect mobilization such as advertising posters and TV commercials still played an important role. As an election campaign trend, the personalization of the top candidates was particularly strong, as well as the thematic focus on innovation and stability. An unprecedented degree of mobilization for postal voting and the above-average rate of postal voters were observed. Prof. JUN noted that both regional governments were re-elected - a sign of the need for stability in the crisis?

However, the parliamentary elections in Korea in 2020 and the legislative elections in 2021 showed how quickly opinion can change, highlighted Prof. Dr. YUN Bee, Professor for Political Science at the Sunkyunkwan University. In 2020, South Korean President Moon and his Minju Party were still considered winners in the legislative elections as the government had the virus under control with measures such as the K-quarantine, the rapid contact tracing system and comprehensive testing. When it comes to national health crises, Prof. YUN said, the nation stands united. President Moon, who took office with an inequality agenda, came under heavy fire during the legislative elections in 2021 regarded as an important test of sentiment for the presidential election in the coming year. Before this election, it was revealed that high officials were being investigated for corruption, the LH scandal was made public and social injustice in the country remained high. Problems such as the low birth rate, the enormous gender pay gap, the fact that 17.4 percent of South Koreans live below the poverty line, and the lack of a social insurance network dominated these legislative elections. It remains to be seen whether this trend will prevail until the presidential election in 2022.

Dr. habil. Karsten GRABOW, KAS Desk Officer for Asia/Pacific and political scientist, reflected on the past elections as well as the preceding contributions and classified them in terms of election politics. There is a trend that a solid COVID-19 management makes it highly difficult for the opposition to be elected, especially in the Asia/Pacific region - with the Mongolian parliamentary elections 2020 or the New Zealand parliamentary elections 2020 supporting this hypothesis. The always existing advantage of governments e.g. due to the visibility of ministers and better financial allocation is even more distinct in pandemic times than prior to the pandemic. The difficulty of setting the focus of opposition parties in terms of content was particularly evident in the New Zealand election, where the dominant prime minister drove the opposition out of the public discourse, Dr. GRABOW said.

In the following panel discussion, Dr. LEE remarked that it was highly interesting that in Germany postal voting is also allowed in elections outside of pandemic times and enjoys great popularity. In Korea, despite the pandemic, a surprising number of voters came to the polls, a proof of the citizens' trust in the election and the organization. For this reason, in addition to security concerns, an expansion of home or postal voting is probably not planned. Prof. JUN added that postal voting is also not used equally in different population groups. For example, older, wealthier people in particular use postal voting, whereas less privileged people use this instrument less often. At the same time, it is also evident that postal voting mainly benefitted the CDU and the Greens in Germany, and less the Social Democrats or Liberals. Regarding the upcoming federal election, Prof. JUN and Dr. GRABOW agreed that the current drop of poll values for the governing parties related to crisis management dissatisfaction will dissolve towards the federal election. The progress of the vaccination campaign as well as the decreasing number of cases are working for the government according to Dr. GRABOW.

​​​​​​​Prof. YUN however explained the case of crisis mismanagement having tremendous consequences for the government in South Korea during the MERS pandemic in 2014. Then, the government was impeached due to mismanagement. The current Korean government is therefore not only measured in terms of what is happening today, but also compared with the government in 2014 and measured in terms of the learning progress since then. Adding on, Dr. GRABOW warned of the long-term consequences of an overruling of the parliament if executives take over in crises times. In the long run, he said, a top-down pandemic policy destroys trust in democracy as well as trust in the strongest political party. However, as he is currently working on a study "Parliaments in the Pandemic", he can partly assure that in the majority of cases the countries in Asia/Pacific have experience in fighting health crises. They are aware and well prepared, he stated. At the end of the discussion, however, all speakers agreed: Parties with outstanding digital campaigning capability have an immense advantage in elections under pandemic conditions. All major parties are working hard to build up these capabilities and abilities for a successful election campaign and address possible manipulation, hate campaigns or fake news.



Barbara Völkl

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