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Briefing: Partisan Politics During a Pandemic: From Consensus to Conflict

COVID-19 has had marked effects on political polarisation, attacks on the press, and concern for the health and equity of democracy. In this briefing, Tasha Kheiriddin examines the numerous and diverse ways in which the pandemic has affected political partisanship in countries around the world.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, several political and economic trends had begun to emerge around the globe. These included a rise of partisan politics and an increase in political polarization, coupled with the emergence of “strongman” type leaders, attacks on the free press, and a general concern for the health of democracy. This webinar examines the impact of the pandemic on these trends, particularly those related to partisan politics.

In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated political partisanship. The United States, Brazil, and Poland have all witnessed a politicization of the pandemic. US President Donald Trump stands accused of manipulating the nation’s response to serve his own reelection objectives as the vote approaches in November. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro likened COVID-19 to the sniffles; his attitude precipitated a showdown with the country’s Congress, which passed an aid package despite the President’s opposition, fueled by politics over Brazil’s upcoming mayoral elections. Meanwhile, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, initially refused to postpone national elections scheduled for May 10. Although these have now been deferred until August, the government took advantage of the pandemic to enact laws on abortion and other matters that had little to do with combatting COVID-19, but everything to do with its own political agenda.

Even a country such as South Korea, which has earned praise for its handling of the pandemic, has not been immune to partisanship. Polling done in March 2020 found that support for the government’s correlated strongly with political affiliation. South Korea was also in election mode, and held a national vote on April 15, 2020, in which the governing party and its supporting party won 60 percent of the seats.

Other countries, such as India and Sweden, have witnessed a reduction in partisan tensions. Sweden’s consensus on its government’s pandemic response is attributed to several factors, including its citizens’ traditionally high level of trust in the state. Another factor is the depoliticization of decision making; Sweden’s controversial decision to avoid lockdown was made by its Public Health Authority, not elected officials. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi managed to reduce political tensions by gaining multiparty support for the government’s pandemic response, but religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims, already inflamed by Modi’s controversial Citizenship Act, reached a boiling point after a Muslim religious gathering was discovered to be linked to 4000 cases of COVID-19.

Canada lies somewhere in the middle. While Opposition parties have criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response over issues such as border control and financial accountability, they held their fire for the first couple of weeks of the crisis. Tensions accelerated over the government’s proposal that it be given carte blanche spending power into 2021, as well as its desire to substitute a virtual Parliament for in-person sittings. The resumption of the Conservative leadership race has also raised the temperature as political rivals seek to score points with their electorate.

Ultimately, the intensification of partisanship appears to be greatest in nations where faith in government is weakest, where elections are scheduled for or have taken place this year, and where polarization was already quite heated prior to the crisis. It remains to be seen whether other jurisdictions will also see an increase in partisanship as governments reopen their societies and economies, as death tolls rise or fall within affected countries, and as the economic pain of the pandemic becomes more acute.

This briefing note was prepared by Tasha Kheiriddin in response to her webinar delivered on May 13, 2020. You can watch that webinar below.

Tasha Kheiriddin

Media commentator and political analyst

2004 Ontario Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Former Vice-President of the Montréal Economic Institute; Former Director for Quebec of the Fraser Institute

In addition to her career in media, Tasha Kheiriddin has worked in law, politics, advocacy, and academia. She served as the 2004 Ontario Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. She also acted as the former Vice-President of the Montréal Economic Institute, and is the former director for Québec of the Fraser Institute.


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