COVID-19 and lessons from East and Southeast Asia: A new normal in elections?

23 September 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life as we knew it, and governments and citizens have staked claims on pursuing a new normal that is more socially, politically, and economically responsive. What does this new normal look like? And, how is it different from the previous business-as-usual? Here, I examine the elections in the East and Southeast Asian countries of South Korea and Singapore and attempts to address the new normal.

Why examine elections? Voting is the most common expression of citizen-participation, and elections are most widely used form of aggregating citizens preferences; further, elections capture symbolic social and civic values. Unsurprisingly, what impels the vote, as well as election outcomes, are long-standing fields of study in politics and political behaviours. Elections in the COVID-19 pandemic may be particularly revealing, given that recent times have seen increasing political disengagement and apathy. Will the pandemic be reason for further disengagement? Or will it underline that much is at stake to drive voters to the polls?

East and Southeast Asia are useful for examination, given that countries in the region – in particular, South Korea and Singapore – have been heralded as successes against the pandemic: their swift, coordinated responses of testing, tracing, quarantining, and treatment  have been largely credited for flattening the first pandemic curves in the respective countries. Further, the two countries have put in place respective sets of economic recovery policies and programs to navigate the post-pandemic economy. Whether and how these successes are rewarded at the polls promise to be instructive.

Election results for the two countries differed: whereas the South Korean incumbent government scored a huge victory, Singapore’s incumbent government lost in popular votes, if not in seats. Thus, South Korea’s general elections on April 16 2020, brought out the largest electoral turnout for parliamentary election in about 20 years: 66.2 per cent. President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party (DP) and its affiliates won a landslide, increasing from 120 seats to a 180-seat majority in the 300-seat legislature. Meanwhile, Singapore’s July 10 parliamentary elections saw the incumbent government under the People’s Action Party (PAP) take 83 of the 93 electable seats in the legislature based on 61.2 per cent supporting votes; the main opposition, the Workers’ Party (WP), took 10 seats. This contrasts against the previous 2015 elections, where the PAP won 83 seats with 69.5 per cent of the votes and the WP took 6 seats.

What accounts for the different outcomes? Academic research points to the comparative method, in particular, the “most similar” systems as the basis of systematic, robust study. The “most similar” systems approach compares cases that are vastly similar; their similarities are, then, controlled so that significant departures may be substantively tied to different outcomes.

Thus, commonalities between the two countries control rather than account for the differentiated outcome. South Korea and Singapore share a number of commonalities, including strong economic performance across the late 1960s through to the 1980s, significant per cent of the population classified as the middle-class, and top ranked education systems. And, as noted previously, the two countries were considered successful in containing the pandemic, with similar strategies of travel bans, contact tracing, and extensive testing that underpinned their success. Thus, South Korea was among the first countries outside of China to report infections from the COVID-19 virus: the first confirmed case was on January 19 2020 on the same day as the US. Yet, while US has 6,362,000 cases as of September 15 2020, South Korea has 22,000 cases, with 367 deaths. Meanwhile, Singapore earned initial wide praise for its prompt enactment of border screening, contact-tracing, extensive testing. In fact, it was held up as a model for controlling the pandemic without a total shutdown; however, the country was subsequently called out for a second wave of COVID-19, clustered mostly around migrant worker dormitories which brought to attention the overcrowded and poor living conditions of migrant workers in the country. With 57,500 cases and 27 deaths as of September 15 2020, Singapore has the fifth largest case-numbers in East and Southeast Asia, following the Philippines (266,000), Indonesia (222,000), China (90,100), and Japan (76,000).  

The conduct of elections in the two countries was also similar: for instance, outdoor rallies were banned and, instead, held virtually, a significant departure from the usual raucous, carnival-like campaigns. Polling day itself also saw a number of similarities, including safe-distancing in the voting line, masks, disposable gloves, hand sanitizers, and temperature screenings. In Singapore, the electorate was divided into two-hour slots within which time to cast their ballots, and an election app was launched to help track the voting queue and minimise wait time; in South Korea, advanced voting was extended that led to 26.7 per cent casting their votes in early voting. With these measures and precautions, South Korea has reported zero transmission cases from election day.

More similarities: like most countries, both South Korea and Singapore poured fiscal stimulus into their economies to stave off a significant post-pandemic economic downturn. The Singapore government has put in some US $65 billion in stimulus funds since January, the equivalent of about 20 per cent of the country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). Meanwhile, the South Korean government has also poured resources into the economy, to the tune of US $222 billion, or about 14 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The major difference between the two countries lies with how the stimulus funds are targeted. COVID-19 has exposed the paucity of social protection in East and Southeast Asia. Social assistance in East and Southeast Asia has historically been described as “productivist” or “developmentalist”: economic and industrial development objectives were prioritised by the state, while social policies were left primarily to families and communities on the basis of mutual support (Ratigan 2017). As a result, social protection policies were less wide in scope and less generous than many western welfare regimes: indeed, even with the expansion in the last decades, in Korea, social protection was 11.1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018 while Singapore expended about 8 per cent of GDP; as a comparison, the OECD average is 21.0 per cent. The underdevelopment of social protection is especially clear in light of the per capita GDP levels in the nations: the World Bank’s Databank reports Singapore with a per capita GDP of US$59,000 in 2019, while South Korea had a per capita GDP of US$29,000 (constant 2010 US$).

The targets of the stimulus funds for the two countries are different: Singapore has mostly focused on labour market measures, while South Korea has offered more comprehensive programs across social assistance, social insurance and labour market support. The table below, abstracted from the Gentili et al’s “Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19, Living paper”, shows the contrast.

Election graphs

Source: Social Protection and Jobs Reponses to Covid-19: A real-time review of country measures, “Living paper” version 12 (Gentilini, Almenfi, Dale, Lopez, and Zafar, July 10 2020)

What lessons may be gleaned from elections in the East and Southeast Asian countries of South Korea and Singapore? For one, the new normal in elections – with a change in electioneering that includes an increased use of technology and virtual interactions – is likely to stay with us even following the return of rallies and door-to-door canvassing. Meanwhile, the “most similar” systems comparison here shows that election success is not just tied to economic stimulus but, rather, stimulus funds that broadly provides social assistance and insurance, in addition to labour market supports. Incumbent governments and challengers around the world – including Australia – may wish to take note.

Filed under:

Updated:  19 August 2022/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team