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South Korean landslide changes Japan and Singapore election math

Abe, Lee and other leaders face judgment over coronavirus performance

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can learn lessons from the way South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government handled the coronavirus outbreak. (Nikkei Montage/Reuters) 

TOKYO -- South Korea's deft handling of the coronavirus pandemic powered President Moon Jae-in's ruling Democratic Party to a landslide general election win last week. The central lesson for politicians across Asia is that prioritizing public health, even over economic interests, can pay off at the ballot box.

This could change the political calculations for leaders facing national votes over the next couple of years.

New Zealand and Myanmar are set to hold general elections this autumn, Singapore has to hold one by April 2021, and Japan by October that year. There is also the small matter of the U.S. presidential election this November.

"The vortex of politics has shifted over the past few months -- crisis management is now the basic skill that people are seeking from their leaders, Richard Heydarian, an Asia-based academic and writer, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "The handling of the pandemic will be the central issue in upcoming elections. This is the new zeitgeist."

Ahead of the April 15 election, Moon's own approval soared as the daily number of infections fell to dozens from hundreds in February. Steps such as widespread testing and contact tracing, combined with a robust health system, have held the figure under 20 for each of the last six days.

Lee Young-chee, a professor at Keisen University in Tokyo, says that South Korea reacted quickly when reports of the new virus emerged from China because of the country's experience with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2015.

"The Korean government gave power to the disease control center, not to politicians," Lee told Nikkei. "Whereas in Japan, the bureaucracy just supported the political decisions of the [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe government."

Despite a relatively low number of initial cases -- excluding the passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship -- the number of infections in Japan is ticking up and now exceeds those in South Korea. While there have been few deaths and the numbers pale in comparison with countries such as the U.S. and Italy, Abe has been accused of acting slowly and reflexively.

A Kyodo News poll conducted April 10-13 showed Abe's support rate falling to 40.4%, a drop of 5.1 percentage points from a survey the previous month. Eighty percent of respondents said he declared a state of emergency too late.

Any further fall in support for the nation's longest-serving prime minister might deter him from calling a snap election -- a tactic he has regularly used -- or push his ruling Liberal Democratic Party to seek an alternative leader before the lower house poll that must be held by October 2021.

Tobias Harris, Japan analyst at Teneo Intelligence and author of an upcoming biography of Abe, said that compared with Moon, Abe has taken a "stop-start" approach to the crisis.

"He struggled with the Diamond Princess, got punished in polls, then apparently overreacted by calling for school closures, which then looked appropriate when the outbreak slowed," Harris told Nikkei. "He looked behind the curve as Tokyo's outbreak worsened and he hesitated to use the powers he had sought, scrambling to declare an emergency first in the seven prefectures, then nationwide."

Harris finds it "hard to see Abe personally regaining the political initiative enough to be able to call a snap election this year, especially if the outbreak is not contained."

"It's more likely that we'll see a snap election after the transition to a new leader than before," he added.

Yuko Kasuya, a professor of comparative politics at Tokyo's Keio University, said it is hard for Japan's ruling coalition to calculate when to call an election due to the evolving COVID-19 situation.

But, she added, "If there is any lesson that LDP politicians should learn from the recent Korean election results, it would be that they should be more concerned about managing public health, not the economy."

In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's government last month announced new electoral boundaries, and on April 7 introduced a bill that sets out special arrangements for voting amid the pandemic. These moves suggested a snap poll was on the cards as early as May or June -- well before the April 2021 deadline -- especially as the city-state was receiving plaudits for its outbreak response.

A recent spike in infections, however, casts doubt on an early election. Singapore has seen over 1,000 new cases per day for the last four days, mainly among the migrant workers who keep the economy ticking. The government on Tuesday extended the shutdown of non-essential workplaces and schools until June 1.

Lee's People's Action Party has ruled since independence in 1965. But this time the election will take place amid a historic economic downturn stemming from the pandemic as well as the U.S.-China trade tensions. Moreover, the PAP will be challenged by a new opposition party formed last year, which is backed by Lee's estranged brother.

"The public health concern in the dormitories was completely foreseeable given the living conditions there and early cases involving foreign workers," Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, told Nikkei. "It was the proverbial elephant in the room and the government's famed approach to pre-emptive problem solving failed miserably."

Still, Tan added that once local community infections stabilize under 20 a day -- migrant workers excluded from this selective count -- "the government is likely to argue that a general election, with the necessary precautions, can be safely conducted... They will point to the just-concluded South Korean election as an example."

Myanmar, meanwhile, is due to hold a general election for both houses of parliament in November, the first since the National League of Democracy headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi took power five years ago.

With a quarter of seats set aside for military-appointed lawmakers, there is no guarantee that the NLD will keep its majority.

The impact of the coronavirus on the vote is unclear. While there were only 123 cases in the country as of Wednesday, businesses are suffering from the government's instruction for people to stay home.

"There is clearly a question of whether the election will be held in November or not," Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in Yangon, told Nikkei. "It is a complex logistical exercise and require a lot of preparation. These preparations require government officials to travel around the country, and involve meetings, for example, the training of polling station workers."

The most watched election this year will be the U.S. presidential vote in November. The country is the worst-hit globally, in terms of coronavirus cases and deaths, but it is anyone's guess whether President Donald Trump's handling of the crisis will favor him or Joe Biden, his likely Democratic challenger.

An April WSJ/NBC poll put Trump's approval rating at 46%, about the same as the 44% who back his performance in the pandemic. But rising deaths and job losses in key battleground states create uncertainty about his re-election prospects.

"Absent the desire for unity that was amply displayed in the South Korean elections, it is hard to imagine that our presidential election will be calm and uncontested," Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told Nikkei.

"Should the coronavirus losses continue to grow, the November election will be determined by the anger of those who suffer the loss of family or friends and who suffer the loss of their livelihoods, rather than by pride in how our society weathered the storm," she added.

Additional reporting by Kentaro Iwamoto and Yuichi Nitta.

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