The Coronavirus Is Delaying Elections Worldwide
Countries begin to reschedule elections after many were postponed due to the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has affected daily life around the world, leaving no country untouched. In some places, the virus has created a profound political crisis, while elsewhere citizens have been heartened by their government’s even-handed and scientifically informed response. But until there’s a vaccine, many politicians are worried about forcing people out in large crowds for any reason, creating a challenge for those countries that need to hold elections. While voting by mail has worked well in some countries, others, such as Poland, are finding how difficult it is to secure a free and fair election when ballots are delivered in a socially distant manner.
As a result, many countries have delayed or canceled elections and votes altogether for fear of harming public health, the electoral process, or for more blatantly political reasons. According to research from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, at least 56 countries have delayed national or regional elections due to the coronavirus pandemic. Below are all the countries that have postponed votes, and the implications of that decision for some key countries around the world.
The United States is currently in the midst of its 2020 presidential election race. Though the day of that vote, Nov. 3, has not been rescheduled, numerous primaries in various states and territories have either been delayed or switched to vote-by-mail. The switches are happening after a heated political battle in Wisconsin, where Democrats wanted to push back the April primary and local elections or switch to voting by mail entirely due to fears about forcing people into crowds to vote. Republicans disagreed and ultimately got their way after an eleventh-hour court decision. But when the votes were tallied, Democrats still won several important seats.
New York is one of the 16 states and two territories that have pushed back their Democratic primary. Originally the state wanted to cancel the April 28 primary election entirely, since Sen. Bernie Sanders had already dropped out of the race in support of the lone remaining Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, but a federal judge ruled the election must still take place. Now scheduled for June 23, the election will decide the number of party delegates allocated to Sanders and Biden, potentially influencing the party’s platform heading into the general election. The New York State Board of Elections has appealed the court’s decision to reinstate the election.
The other states and territories that have postponed their elections due to the coronavirus are Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wyoming, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The United States currently has the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world.
Chileans have been protesting in the streets for months to earn a referendum on a new constitution, but the coronavirus has put protesters’ hopes on hold. The referendum, scheduled this past November to be held on April 26, was postponed to Oct. 25 by the Chilean government due to the coronavirus. At the time, the country had the second-highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita in South America, though those numbers may have been influenced by the relatively high number of coronavirus tests performed per capita in Chile.
The federal government has used the lockdown to begin taking down protest art in the main plaza of Santiago, where the protests were often focused. Today, that plaza is largely quiet. Although some protesters wondered early on if the virus was a plant designed to thwart their efforts, today almost all seem to have followed the stay-at-home orders even as the central government has opted not to impose a national lockdown, El País reported earlier this month. Lockdowns continue in the Santiago metropolitan area as of May 15, and a new date for the referendum has not been formally set.
Serbia has postponed its April 26 election to June 21.. The country has confirmed over 10,000 cases since the outbreak arrived there on March 6, a number significantly higher than many of its Balkan neighbors.
Both major opposition parties have announced they will boycott the elections when they do occur, saying the control President Aleksandar Vucic’s right-wing Serbian Progressive Party has over most news outlets in the country prevents a free and fair election from taking place. Vucic has argued he would give parties 50 days to present their platforms before the snap election, which he said is plenty of time for each party to make their case. The Serbian Progressive Party maintains a strong majority in the country’s parliament, where it has been in power for eight years.
European Union members have tried and failed to convince members of the opposition parties to participate. Meanwhile, Vucic has been quick to praise China, which sent the country a large shipment of medical aid days after the Serbian government announced a coronavirus lockdown. In a speech after Serbia’s lockdown began, Vucic said, “By now, you all understood that great international solidarity, actually, does not exist. European solidarity does not exist.”
The local governments of Galicia and the Basque Country have pushed back their elections due to coronavirus concerns. Spain has been stuck under one of the most tightly enforced lockdowns in Europe, and it has only slowly begun to reopen. Though the two provinces have not been the worst-hit, the Basque Country and Galicia have the fifth and eighth most coronavirus cases in Spain, respectively.
The Basque regional elections were supposed to have taken place on April 5 but were postponed by the regional president, Íñigo Urkullu, shortly after Spain announced its stay-at-home order.
Galician President Alberto Núñez Feijóo announced in February he would also hold a snap election on April 5 to coincide with the Basque elections, but he later postponed the election as well. He has since been criticized by the other major political parties for saying he would set the election date for early July. Feijóo made the decision after a meeting with the opposition’s leaders despite their concerns about public health, leading many to criticize him for behaving unilaterally and with “a hidden agenda,” El Mundo reports. The earliest date that election can be set is July 12.
The Dominican Republic has pushed back its general elections from May 17 to July 5 after consultations with 22 political parties. Previously, municipal elections took place across the country on March 15. During those elections, Carolina Mejía, a member of the opposition Modern Revolutionary Party, won the mayorship of Santo Domingo and became the city’s first female mayor in what was considered a key indicator ahead of the national elections.
The country had already encountered problems running elections with a new electronic voting system. In February, elections were called off due to technical issues after people had been waiting in line for hours to vote. Protests took place for over a week, culminating in a thousands-strong turnout in Santo Domingo on the Dominican Republic’s Independence Day, which featured speeches and performances. The Organization of American States had previously been invited to stay and monitor elections as tensions ran high in the country.
At the beginning of May, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree postponing parliamentary elections for the second time, to July 19. The decree said only that the decision was part of the government’s “preventive measures” to combat the coronavirus. Originally the elections were scheduled for April 13 before the government announced in March that they would be moved to May 20. The Syrian government imposed several measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including the shuttering of schools and the implementation of a curfew, but as the economy continued to suffer, it began lifting restrictions at the beginning of May.
This will be the third parliamentary election since the start of the 2011 uprising and the beginning of the country’s civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Even before the coronavirus made impact, Syria was already suffering from a destroyed infrastructure, a weak economy, and a devastated health care system.
The Russian government has delayed an April 22 constitutional referendum vote that would have allowed President Vladimir Putin to stay in power, as well as all elections initially scheduled from April 5 to June 23. The decision affected about 94 electoral processes at the local and regional levels.
Some Russian media outlets have reported the constitutional referendum might get pushed back to the fall or as late as December, as state officials hope the economy will rebound by then. The referendum would have ratified a constitutional amendment that allows Putin to serve an additional two six-year terms after his tenure expires in 2024. The nationwide referendum was the last step in the ratification process, having already been approved by the lower house of parliament and Russia’s Constitutional Court. As of early May, the government still plans to hold elections on Sept. 13, when 18 regions will elect governors, 11 regions will choose deputies for their legislative assemblies, and four single-mandate districts will select deputies for the State Duma.
In early May, the Indonesian government postponed Sept. 23 elections in 270 regions until December. In total, the decision affects the elections of nine governors, 37 mayors and 224 district chiefs. According to the government regulation mandating the postponement, the elections could be postponed again upon the approval of the government, House of Representatives, and General Elections Commission. Indonesia’s Election Commission had previously delayed election preparations after organizers tested positive for the coronavirus.
The postponement took time to become official. In late March, Indonesia’s House of Representatives Commission in charge of regional autonomy, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the General Elections Commission, the Elections Supervisory Agency, and the Election Organization Council agreed to postpone the elections. However, there was a delay in announcing the postponement as the groups searched for a legal mechanism to justify the postponement. According to the country’s Regional Election Law, district and local bodies hold a complete monopoly over their elections. In April, a senior official said a government regulation in lieu of law was the best way to circumvent the issue, according to the Jakarta Globe.
All election activity has been postponed until June. The election commission has 15 preliminary stages to prepare for an election. As of mid-April, five had been completed.
After the president called for a snap parliamentary election on April 25, Sri Lanka’s Election Commission postponed the polls until June 20. In a bid to gain legislative control, Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, dissolved the country’s parliament in March. With the new election date, major opposition parties in the parliament called on the president to reconvene the party in an order to avoid a constitutional crisis—the country’s constitution mandates the parliament be summoned no later than three months after a dissolution has been proclaimed. When the president refused, four major opposition parties petitioned the Supreme Court to review the change in election date and argued that the elections should not be held during the pandemic as the virus would restrict campaigning.
Sri Lanka has had a run of constitutional crises in recent years. In 2018, then-President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved parliament and appointed the current president’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also hoping to gain enough support in parliament after these elections to implement electoral reforms that would replace the country’s proportional representation electoral system, which allows minority parties to gain seats in the House.
At the end of March, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed a parliamentary election scheduled for Aug. 29. A new election date has yet to be announced, which has thrown the country into political turmoil, as some opposition parties accuse Abiy of using the coronavirus to stay in power beyond his constitutional mandate, which expires at the end of September. Other opposition parties have agreed to work with the president to form an interim government after their own mandate ends in early October.
The decision to postpone has also put the federal government in conflict with a regional government. The northernmost Tigray region has announced that it will go ahead with the original election date without cooperating with Ethiopia’s National Elections Board, which has claimed sole authority to conduct any type of election. This decision was made by the political party the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which, with its former partners in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition, had ruled the country before Abiy took power in 2018. In response, the parliament has set up a constitutional inquiry council to look into whether Tigray has violated the constitution.
Poland’s presidential election took place on May 10 with zero percent turnout, in what is being deemed a “ghost election.” Despite the National Electoral Commission stating that “there was no possibility of voting for candidates,” the election was never canceled. However, polling stations were closed.
The failure to cancel was in part the result of political infighting over President Andrzej Duda’s Law and Justice party’s proposal to have an all-postal vote and a disagreement over when a new election date should be scheduled. The party also refused calls to declare a state of emergency or a state of natural disaster, which would have postponed the elections, claiming that the coronavirus was not serious enough to warrant it. Until a few days before the election, it was still unclear by what method voters would be submitting their ballots and whether the vote would proceed at all. According to a resolution by the election commission, parliament now has 14 days to set a new date for presidential elections. Elections must then take place within 60 days of when the new date is announced.
Duda, whose term expires on Aug. 6, is running for reelection with the support of the nationalist Law and Justice party.
Correction, May 27, 2020: Elections in the Gabonese department of Lékoni-Lékori have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. A previous version of this article misstated the country where Lékoni-Lékori department is located.
Correction, May 25, 2020: A constitutional referendum in Chile has been rescheduled for Oct. 25 due to the coronavirus pandemic. A previous version of this article misstated the status of the postponed vote.
Jacob Wallace is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @_jacobwallace