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Election Anxiety: The Other Global Pandemic

Andrea Scoseria Katz, Washington University in St. Louis, School of Law

[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. For more information about our four columnists for 2020, please click here.]

On Monday, three days before Thursday’s televised encounter between U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates announced a rule change to the debate: each candidate will have his microphone muted while his rival delivers his answers to the moderator’s questions.

It may sound like a trivial procedural detail, hardly the sort of thing to get citizens’ pulses racing. But after a previous debate panned across the world as the worst in history, in which President Trump repeatedly interrupted his opponent and talked over the moderator, the rule change betrays a growing fear among Americans that, as far as concerns the 2020 presidential election, the usual norms of fair play, decency, and transparency may not hold by themselves.

This fall, national elections have or will take place in countries like New Zealand (October 17), Bolivia (October 18), Guinea (October 18), Egypt (October 25), Lithuania (October 25), Ukraine (October 25), Tanzania (October 28), Côte d’Ivoire (October 31), Georgia (October 31), Moldova (November 1), the United States (November 3), Myanmar (November 8), Bosnia (November 15), Brazil (December 6), Romania (December 6), Venezuela (December 6), Ghana (December 7), Indonesia (December 9), Kyrgyzstan (December 20), Niger (December 27) and the Central African Republic (December 27). And on October 25, Chileans will vote in a referendum on whether and how to initiate a constitution-making process to replace the existing 1980 text.  

Many are taking place in unusually fraught environments. New Zealand’s general election was delayed a month after an August outbreak of new Covid-19 cases in Auckland. Burundians voted for a new president on an election day marred by “reports of killings, arbitrary [opposition party] arrests, beatings, and voter intimidation during the campaigns.” Guineans went to the polls this weekend after months of protesting a constitutional change that permitted the 82-year-old incumbent to run for a third term, and even before the official results are announced, the opposition has stirred up controversy by claiming victory in the first round.

Meanwhile, Sunday’s elections in Bolivia took place amidst an economic standstill, spiking Covid-19 infections, widespread fears of fraud, and fierce protests against interim president Jeanine Áñez, whose government engaged in a months-long campaign of persecution and intimidation of journalists, trade unions, and opposition politicians after charismatic socialist Evo Morales resigned in November 2019 after a contested election. Even in orderly Chile, mass protests have turned violent ahead of the run-up to a constitutional referendum in which voters seem ready to jettison the country’s dictatorship-era constitution. Meanwhile, a highly polarized Brazil prepares for an ugly season of municipal elections, with supporters and opponents of the populist Jair Bolsonaro alike taking to the streets, the President’s son recently arrested for corruption, and an impending standoff between Bolsonaro and the Supreme Court leading Brazil watchers to speculate that the military may be forced to take sides in an eventual worsening of the situation.

The U.S., meanwhile, is bracing for what figures to be its most dangerous election since the nineteenth century. With President Trump assiduously sowing doubts about procedural fairness at every opportunity, his supporters spreading disinformation on online media, credible fears of Russian and Chinese cyberattacks, local- and state-level conservatives erecting obstacles to voting by mail-in ballot, and an amount of election-related litigation without precedent in history, it is no wonder that American voters are in a state of heightened alert.

For now, the Covid-19 pandemic seems not to have depressed turnout in other national elections; in fact, quite the reverse. Across the globe, citizens are mobilizing to vote. This is a good thing, but perhaps less so when many seem to be doing so out of fear. What can explain the semi-generalized pall cast over so many national elections, leading voters to feel that they vote, not for their preferred candidate, but for the fate of democracy?

In many contexts, democratically elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies have exacerbated such fears, causing citizens to believe that norms of fair play are in jeopardy. Social media exacerbates this effect by exaggerating the reach of authoritarian populists favoring histrionics over reason. Polarization is perhaps the critical factor, with its own complex set of causes, among them economic anxiety, ethnic and racial anxiety, growing regional inequality—and globalization’s compounding effect upon all of these. Polarization of political parties—and its problematic correlate, the sorting of populations into hermetic identity groups—can produce a characteristic sort of winner-takes-all politics characterized by decreased bipartisan cooperation, diminished trust, and eventual violations of broader norms. Ordinary citizens may start to feel that losing an election is a matter of life and death, leading to a loss of trust in processes.

In the U.S. at least, what has happened as a result is a massive mobilization of civil society groups against President Trump, evidenced by record totals of advanced voting and a massive funding advantage for Trump’s challenger, Biden. So far, so good. But just as polarization and the violation of norms has led to a mobilization of “small-d democrats,” said mobilization has led to a perverse response: renewed calls by the embattled populist president to convince his supporters that fundamental norms of fairness are under attack. Even if mobilized and indignant Americans may not pose a threat to democracy, they do pose a threat to Trump’s reelection, which, ironically, lends the President’s alarmism some credence.

As a result, for perhaps the first time ever, citizens and candidates alike are preparing for the prospect of a contested election, and—even more unusually—voices can be found advising the U.S. to turn its eyes to historically embattled democracies in Africa and Latin America for lessons. According to Washington University anthropologist Bret Gustafson, Bolivia returned from the brink of democratic collapse last November to provide the world with “a lesson in democracy” in this week’s elections, silencing widespread fear of fraud or voter intimidation through high turnout and an overwhelming margin of victory for MAS candidate Luis Arce that produced a convincing first-round win and restored Bolivians’ faith in democracy. 

Kyle Murphy, a former diplomat and senior Africa analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has derived a number of useful lessons from recent contested elections in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Gambia, and Madagascar. First and foremost, reports Murphy,

an overwhelming victory is the best way to close off a number of pathways for an autocratic leader to derail a democratic process. Another takeaway is that pressing key actors to commit that they will respect the will of the people can be effective. While President Trump has refused to make this commitment, pressure on Members of Congress and state officials has generated notable action. A third lesson … is that defectors from an autocratic leader’s administration or party can also be a powerful signal to voters regarding when it is necessary to put preserving democracy over party loyalty. It also helps mobilize opposition by showing fractures within the ruling party. And finally, it is hard to overstate the importance of bolstering the key leaders and institutions that run and oversee election processes at every level. … U.S. elections rely on multiple layers and leaders with different partisan affiliations, and Congress and the courts have roles to play. … [P]ublic pressure and attention to these roles reinforces their function and helpfully lionizes the individuals and institutions that faithfully protect the integrity of democratic institutions.

High turnout, early voting, and high margins of victory would all help to deflate the fraud narrative so unscrupulously being disseminated by the American incumbent. Still, circumspection is in order. Even if a clear electoral result and peaceful transition of power result in November, there will be more work ahead to rebuild shattered norms and voter trust. Rather than just demonizing Trump’s brand of authoritarian populism, reformers will need to work to offer voters a genuinely better alternative in the months and years ahead.

Suggested citation: Andrea Scoseria Katz, Election Anxiety: The Other Global Pandemic, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 21, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/10/election-anxiety-the-other-global-pandemic/

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Published on October 21, 2020
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