Last Monday, Canada held an election to choose a new House of Commons. Next Sunday, Germany will hold an election to choose a new Bundestag. And sometime in October, Japan will hold an election to choose a new House of Representatives. Rarely have major elections in G-7 powers taken place close together.
Last August, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election in the hope of strengthening his hand, but results yielded almost no change. Trudeau’s Liberal Party emerged with the most seats, but not a majority, and will form a government from a minority position. The results suggest that Canadians wanted to stick with what they know rather than take a chance on change, particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging. Trudeau has been prime minister since 2015.
The upcoming election in Germany will choose a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel who is finishing a long 16-year run as chancellor. Polls have shown her center-right Christian Democratic Union party going into the election in a weak position, but with no party in a position to win a majority. Earlier this year, the Green Party jumped in the polls, but has fallen back recently as the center-left Social Democratic Party has gained support. A coalition government centering on one of the established parties is the most likely outcome.
Pandemic fatigue and public discontent over the recent Tokyo Summer Olympics caused Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s popularity to plummet, forcing him to resign as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. On Sept. 29, the LDP will choose his successor who will lead the party in an election that will most likely take place in October. The LDP is by far the strongest party and is in a strong position to maintain its majority in next election, ensuring that the new leader of the LDP becomes prime minister.
Canada, Germany and Japan differ in many ways, but the frame of the three elections is surprisingly similar. The frame is dominated by fear of the unknown. In Canada and Japan, fear of change dominates despite a lack of enthusiastic support for the existing government. In Germany, fear of the unknown has seen support shift toward two established parties that have dominated German politics since the 1950s.
In the past, all three countries have experienced elections in which voters have demanded change by landslide margins. What, then, explains the fear?
Two factors are at work: the pandemic and extremism. The COVID-19 pandemic is now 18 months old. Pandemic fatigue is real but increasing rates of vaccination offer hope that it will end eventually. Pandemic fatigue has put most voters in a sour mood, but the steady increase in vaccinations has pulled them back from acting on their emotions. They want competent policies to continue the progress that has been made.
Extremism is more complex. The last half of the 2010s saw a number of political shocks. Brexit and Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 received the most attention, but there were others such as Rodrigo Duterte's election as president of the Philippines in 2016, a strong showing by the far-right Alternative for Germany party in the 2017 election, and Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the 2018 Brazilian presidential election. The common thread running through these events is a mixture of populism and nationalism with a strong anti-establishment edge.
Since the pandemic hit, resistance to extremism has grown steadily. In 2020, Donald Trump became the first president in nearly 30 years to lose his bid for re-election to Joe Biden, a centrist Democrat and Washington insider. Trump’s inept handling of the pandemic contributed much to his fall, but voters were also tired of his bombastic style and extremist leanings. At the same time, voters chose a closely divided Congress as a check on the left-wing of the Democratic Party.
In the recent Canadian election, parties on both extremes did poorly. Likewise, polls in Germany show weakening support parties on both extremes and rising support for the centrist Free Democratic Party. In Japan, sustained support the LDP amid a fall in Prime Minister Suga’s popularity suggests that voters want a change in leadership but not direction.
South Korea’s presidential election in March will be the first important election next year. If fear of the unknown, of risky change, grips South Korean voters as it has voters elsewhere, then the candidate that projects competence and stability the most will win. The same will most likely hold true for the French presidential election a month later.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.