Overview: The Punishing Test
The coronavirus is subjecting countries around the world to a punishing test of solidarity at a time when many were already consumed with harsh political and societal divisions. As we argue in our recent book Democracies Divided, political polarization has in recent years been tearing at the seams of a large and growing number of democracies globally. The ultimate outcome of this solidarity test is highly uncertain. On the one hand, a grave public health emergency may draw a country together and give leaders a chance to rise above and even heal chronic partisan divides. Yet on the other, heightened public anxiety, strained governance capacities, and the differential impact of the virus on particular groups may exacerbate long-standing fissures. What is the balance sheet so far?
We address this question through ten short country case studies, authored by political experts from around the world. These studies focus primarily on countries already beset by severe political and societal polarization, including India, Poland, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States. But some examine other types of cases, either where deep-seated divisions appeared to be in flux (as in Kenya) or where polarization, though previously on the rise, was still only incipient (as in Brazil, Chile, and Indonesia). Although these countries vary significantly in how hard they have been hit by the coronavirus, in all of them the pandemic is now the dominant issue in their political and social life.
The case studies reveal a kaleidoscope of effects. In some countries, the virus has temporarily lowered political temperatures, even if underlying cleavages remain. In others, it has heightened tensions not between the main contending camps but rather within the government camp. In still others, it has reinforced a vicious spiral of polarization and democratic distress. The global crisis has thus created some windows of opportunity for political and societal actors to bridge existing divides, but overall, the picture is troubling. In most cases, the pandemic has amplified the already dangerous effects of polarization, with serious ramifications for public health, democratic governance, and social cohesion.
One case where the coronavirus has interrupted polarization and eased divisions at the political level is Chile, even though societal tensions there have persisted. The country has been wracked by intense divisions and turmoil since October 2019, when simmering grievances within Chilean society sparked months of mass protests. Yet the coronavirus outbreak, Andreas Feldmann writes, has “unexpectedly brought a respite to a restless society” by easing the pressure of constant protests and providing the government with a valuable opportunity to regain public trust.
India is another such case. As Niranjan Sahoo notes, although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long polarized Indian politics with his Hindu nationalist rhetoric and policies, he has championed national unity during the pandemic. Modi’s conciliatory messaging has proven unable, however, to contain rising societal polarization. Throughout the crisis, hate-mongering voices in the media and society have branded India’s Muslim minority as a vector of disease, fueling discrimination and even violence.
Thailand and Kenya highlight a different pattern. There, the virus has opened fissures within the governing camp, rather than reinforcing the existing binary divide between the government and opposition. In her contribution on Thailand, Janjira Sombatpoonsiri points out that traditionally pro-establishment groups—including public health leaders and even supporters of the monarchy—have criticized the government’s sluggish response. The urban middle class, a staunchly pro-government sector, also appears to have lost significant trust in the government over coronavirus-related corruption scandals. But even though Thailand’s pro- and anti-establishment camps share frustrations over the government’s policy failures, the two sides remain fiercely divided.
In Kenya, Gilbert Khadiagala observes that even before the coronavirus outbreak, an emerging power struggle within the ruling party had started to overshadow the traditionally dominant divide between the country’s two leading ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and Luo. The political crisis wrought by the coronavirus has accelerated these incipient changes, allowing Kenya’s president to purge dissidents within the ruling party and further bridge the Kikuyu-Luo divide. The government’s pandemic response has also galvanized a rare sense of national unity, though the virus itself has exposed the ethnic and regional inequalities that have long driven polarization. Thus, in Kenya, as in Chile, India, and Thailand, the pandemic has disrupted the existing binary divide at the heart of polarization, but the seeds of further strife remain present.
The most common—and concerning—pattern in our case studies is one in which the pandemic reinforces existing partisan divides and further strains democratic institutions. This tendency is evident in six of the ten cases: Brazil, Indonesia, Poland, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the United States. In these countries, divisive political leadership is the primary factor escalating polarization. National leaders have responded to the pandemic not by attempting to bridge long-standing divides but rather by doubling down on their use of polarization as a core governance strategy. These figures have exploited the current crisis in several different ways to rally their base and inflame divisions.
First, the pandemic has provided fresh fodder for attacking foreign enemies, the media, and other favored punching bags. In the United States, Thomas Carothers underscores how President Donald Trump has “built his coronavirus narrative around his favored partisan targets,” from the mainstream media to China and scientific expertise. His divisive leadership has widened a partisan divide among ordinary Americans in terms of how they view the crisis and governmental responses to it.
Brazil’s far-right populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, has taken a leaf from Trump’s book, Matias Spektor argues. Fearing that any association with establishment ideas or institutions could taint his image, Bolsonaro has egged on street protests; attacked state and local officials who have imposed quarantines; fired his popular health minister; lambasted the media, legislature, and courts; and clashed with his respected health minister, who ended up resigning. The president’s “incendiary response to the pandemic,” Spektor concludes, “has brought polarization in Brazil to a level not seen in decades.”
Another common polarizing leadership tactic is to exclude the opposition from the crisis response. As Joanna Fomina argues, Poland’s ruling populist party has antagonized the opposition by ignoring its policy recommendations and passing legislation in midnight voting sessions that shut down debate. Similarly, Ahilan Kadirgamar notes that in Sri Lanka, the president has sidelined the opposition-held parliament, which he dissolved in early March, and has sought to claim “sole credit” for a relatively successful pandemic response.
In both these countries, where elections are scheduled for late spring or summer, the government has also dragged hot-button sociocultural issues into the pandemic debate—even though some of these issues have little relevance to combating the virus. In Poland, the government has revived legislative proposals that would severely restrict access to abortion and criminalize sex education, two initiatives that the ruling party previously withdrew after mass protests. In Sri Lanka, the government has stoked identity fissures by imposing restrictions on Muslim communities in the name of public health that flout international guidelines.
Yet another way leaders have stoked polarization is by stripping the opposition of its powers at the local or state levels. In her contribution, Eve Warburton describes how Indonesia’s president became embroiled in a “polarizing feud” with an opposition governor over the latter’s plan for a lockdown. The president not only mobilized social media influencers to attack his opponent but also invoked new emergency powers to assert the central government’s authority. Senem Aydın-Düzgit similarly highlights that in Turkey, the pandemic has intensified the national government’s preexisting efforts to curtail the autonomy of local officials. The government has even opened criminal investigations into two opposition mayors over their efforts to launch donation campaigns during the pandemic.
Ratcheting up polarization amid a national health emergency has dangerous near-term consequences for public safety. Heated partisan divisions jeopardize public health by hindering an effective response to the crisis. The divisive rhetoric of leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump undermines the social unity and solidarity needed to convince populations to accept the sacrifices of social distancing. What is more, tensions between local and national governments undercut the ability of local officials to contribute fully to the pandemic response. In Indonesia, such power struggles delayed the implementation of containment strategies; in Turkey, they have even prevented opposition municipalities from running soup kitchens and field hospitals.
Heightened partisanship in the pandemic context also has wide-ranging negative ramifications for democracy. For one, it frequently results in emergency measures that undermine political freedoms. In Indonesia, the government has given police the power to arrest citizens who criticize any public official in relation to the pandemic. In Turkey, the ruling coalition has cracked down still further on opposition media outlets for their critical coverage of the pandemic response. And in Sri Lanka, the president has exploited the crisis to empower the military and promote a militarized mindset toward governance that historically has harmed minority groups.
Furthermore, the pandemic creates opportunities for illiberal governments to manipulate electoral processes. In Poland, the ruling party has refused to postpone the presidential election this May despite public health concerns, because its candidate, the incumbent president, has a tremendous political advantage amid the pandemic. He has received a crisis-driven boost in the polls and can continue to hold public meetings and press conferences, whereas his opponents are all but prevented from campaigning. Sri Lanka’s government has rushed to hold snap parliamentary elections before the pain of an economic downturn fully hits. In the United States as well, Trump has resisted calls for expanded voting-by-mail on the grounds that it would hurt his party.
Finally, at the societal level, the pandemic is aggravating tensions between majority and minority communities, fueling intolerance and even violence against the latter. In Sri Lanka, voices in the media and on online platforms have spread a hateful narrative that blames the country’s Muslim minority for the spread of the virus. In India, where an Islamic organization’s event became a hot spot that spread the disease, Muslims have been accused of “coronajihad” and beaten by vigilante groups.
Although the coronavirus is having diverse effects on polarized societies, the overall landscape is foreboding. In some important countries, divisive leaders are reacting to the pandemic not by reaching high for national unity but aiming low for partisan gains. In those places where the pandemic has thus far reduced or disrupted preexisting fissures, the reprieve from polarization appears tentative at best. It is not too late for political elites and civic actors around the world to find opportunities in the crisis to reduce divisions and break away from old patterns of reflexive partisanship. But doing so will require raising both sightlines and political standards—a hard task at any time, but all the more difficult in the midst of an emergency ripe for partisan manipulation.