For the first time since Rachel Zeng became eligible to vote, the Singaporean was unable to do so in July 2020. In an article that she wrote for The Online Citizen, the human rights activist based abroad said that she originally planned to fly home to the Lion City to cast her vote and to cover the political rallies for the news site.
However, COVID-19 threw a wrench in Zeng’s plans. She wrote, “… Not only am I unable to fly home … without incurring huge personal costs, both financially and personally, I have been unsuccessful in registering myself as an overseas voter.”
Zeng was not alone in her frustration at being unable to exercise her democratic right due to the pandemic. The coronavirus also restricted the rights of voters in South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
In other countries, citizens experienced delays in elections, and some were not able to vote at all: At least 16 elections in the Asia-Pacific region were disrupted within the period covering February 21 to December 13, 2020, due to COVID-19 health risks.
Do such risks warrant putting off elections? What if such postponements are pretexts for suppressing the people’s right to vote? What if the entirety of citizens’ engagement in the political process is placed at the ballot box—with little to no room for prior public deliberation and discussion of important issues that will inform their decision—in large part because citizens are prevented from expressing their views and the media is gagged?
Frayed democracy and malign actors
During these perilous times, malign actors have used the pandemic to consolidate their control over public affairs and to undermine fundamental rights, cracking down on popular dissent and showing obvious disrespect for democratic practices.
Asia is certainly no exception.
In Hong Kong, Beijing has been asserting greater control over the beleaguered city by clamping down on dissent through the imposition of draconian laws, the most controversial of which is the National Security Law. This gave rise to protests, defying the law.
To make matters worse, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers to postpone the 2020 elections scheduled for September 6, 2020. The move, attributed to a surge in COVID-19 cases, was backed by Beijing.
However, it was widely seen by citizens as a way to neutralize increasing support for the opposition and the pro-democracy movement. Furthermore, at least 12 opposition candidates were already disqualified by the election authorities.
In Thailand, widely popular youth-led opposition Future Forward Party was dissolved after the Constitutional Court decided that the party’s loan of 191.2 million Thai baht ($6.36 million) from its founder Thanatorn Juangrungruangkit, a businessman critical of the military junta, was a form of donation. This move, according to the Election Commission, violates the Political Party Act, which limits donations to 10 million Thai baht ($332,728) per year per donor.
As the party’s penalty, 16 of its leaders were banned by the court from participating in politics for 10 years. Also, the party’s other members in the Parliament were given 60 days to “find a new party.” The dissolution of the party effectively nullified the votes and left the more than 6 million Thais that voted for it without proper representation.
This caused an outpour of condemnation from the Thai people, who just formed a civilian government in 2019. Public outrage has fueled a movement calling for accountability from the government under the leadership of military junta leader-turned-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and reforms in the country’s all-powerful monarchy.
As if it wasn’t enough that the nation was already reeling under the weight of strongman rule pre-pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency in March, effectively weaponizing COVID-19 against critics and peaceful protesters.
Thailand’s experience—an all-too-familiar narrative in a region that is slowly yet steadily deteriorating towards authoritarianism—throws into stark relief a fundamental principle: The robust health of a democracy is anchored on citizens’ confidence in public processes and society’s shared respect for fundamental rights. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the social and political issues citizens were facing to begin with, and further eroded the foundations of democracy, a system of government that was already under attack.
In 2020, according to the V-Dem Institute, there was a surge of autocratization in 92 states, which comprise 54% of the global population. Two of the top 10 main autocratizing countries are in Asia: India and Thailand.
The institute defines autocratization “as any substantial or significant worsening on the scale of liberal democracy in a country.” This year’s surge has been the most severe in two decades.
The events in Thailand, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia demonstrate the weakening of, if not outright disregard for, democratic institutions and time-honored democratic practices. They also manifest the expanding influence of malign actors and their anti-democratic machinations in the region.
Disrupting elections, for example, removes the people’s inalienable right and power to choose their leaders and hold those in power accountable for their actions. In turn, this erodes fundamental freedoms and weakens democracy and the quality of civic space citizens experiences.
Postponing elections, however, is not necessarily undemocratic, especially if it is done within legal parameters and reflects the will of the people.
Even the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes the need to postpone elections “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed.”
Article 4 states: “(T)he States Parties may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”
In keeping with this, and seemingly to help curb the flow of the pandemic, “(a)t least 70 countries and territories across the globe decided to postpone their national or subnational elections between 21 February and 31 August,” according to data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
This raises serious concerns, especially in states with severe democracy issues yet to be resolved. Elections are crucial in maintaining democracy. Without elections, those in power remain in power, and remain so without fresh mandate from the people. They retain the authority to impose policies that do not emanate from the people’s will.
In the case of Hong Kong, the postponement of the September 2020 elections for a year meant the continuation of the abuse of power by the incumbent leaders. What was ostensibly a health precaution was ultimately used as a tool to consolidate and sequester power away from the people.
Regardless of the intent, the disruption of such a crucial political process will have inevitable consequences on the health of democracy in the long run, especially with the fragile nature of most Asian democracies at present.
For other countries, however, the clear choice was different: proceed with their scheduled elections despite the threats of coronavirus. South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka were among the few states that pushed through with elections despite the threats presented by the pandemic.
On the flip side, however, holding elections at such a vulnerable period could compromise election quality and subject public health to an extensive risk. This has been the primary issue faced by election managers on whether to proceed or not with scheduled elections.
In the case of South Korea, they opted opted not to exercise provisions of the Public Official Election Act, which authorizes the President and the head of the regional election commission to postpone an election for President or National Assembly, or hold a local election, respectively, in case of disasters or other unavoidable circumstances.
In April 2020, South Korea held its legislative elections as planned, with a record turnout of 66 percent in almost three decades.
However, to resolve the challenges posed by COVID-19—such as limited mobility, health risks to stakeholders, and logistical complications and delays—governments were forced to accept compromises, inevitably affecting electoral integrity.
For instance, campaigns and events were adjusted to ensure that COVID-19 health protocols were followed. In Mongolia, for example, the “government’s Resolution #188, 2020 encouraged meetings to be held online.
When online meetings were not possible, the regulations enforced measures and safeguards such as safe distancing, body temperature checks, strict ventilation, sanitization of the vicinity, and mask-wearing that had to be ensured by the campaign organizers,” reports The Diplomat. Similar situations also played out in Singapore and Malaysia.
As a result, voters had limited opportunities to interact with and get to know the various candidates and their platforms. While health risks posed by the pandemic may have warranted these restrictions, they may have had an impact on opportunities for deliberation, an integral component of electoral integrity.
Pushing through with elections also highlighted inequalities in voter access. In South Korea, while the domestic polls performed impressively, the overseas turnout saw a drastic drop, largely due to local movement restrictions in the different host countries.
Only 40,858 out of 171,959 overseas voters were able to cast their ballots for the 2020 parliamentary elections, a record low of 23.8 percent since the system was introduced in 2012.
Election transparency also took a hit. Under ideal circumstances, election monitors, both international and domestic, are free to assess all stages of the electoral process, which entails conducting interviews and visits to election-related venues such as those used for voter registration and campaigns. Mobility and travel restrictions, along with distancing rules, made these audits nearly impossible.
Credible elections form the foundation of democratic institutions. These election-related challenges are indicators of the need to further democratize political processes and recalibrate them to achieve wider representation of citizens in governmental functions.
Election issues cannot be treated and resolved in isolation. They are manifestations of the broader impediments to democratization: the marginalization of vulnerable sectors, gender gaps, weak mechanisms to protect fundamental freedoms, and poor awareness of democratic principles.
Voting rights are inalienable rights. These rights can only be realized by exercising other civic duties and empowering other citizens in demanding an expanded civic space. By undertaking such duties, citizens are empowered to mitigate further damage to the state of democracy and to ensure the health of democratic institutions.
Karel Jiaan Antonio Galang is the Asia Democracy Network Program Officer. He previously worked with the Asian Network for Free Elections as its Campaign and Advocacy Officer and focal point of the organization’s programs in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. He participated in at least 10 international election observation missions in Asia as an observer or analyst, and has published several election assessments and election observation manuals.