Theo Venter: The political consequences of major disasters

2020-05-10 06:00
How governments deal with Covid-19 could manifest at the ballot boxes. (iStock)

How governments deal with Covid-19 could manifest at the ballot boxes. (iStock)

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If there is a perception that the government acted too slow or not at all, incumbent governments may experience political retaliation at the next election, writes Theo Venter.


Literature on global disasters, such as WWI, the 1918 Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, WWII, climate change, and to a lesser extent national disasters like Katrina, the Zuma presidency and the Australian bush fires, usually claim political victims in the aftermath or at the first election - if it does not happen earlier in the ruling party or governing coalition.

Natural disasters, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, are social and political phenomena, despite their medical and biological origin. Social structures create vulnerability to natural hazards and governments are often seen as responsible for the effects of disasters.

The essential question in this essay is: Do social trust, political trust and government satisfaction generally change following natural disasters of global conflicts?

Several other examples exist, such as the recent bush fires in Australia, Hurricane Katrina, the 1996 Kobe earthquake and the two large tsunamis.

What is the role of media coverage, for instance, to explain the change in political attitudes?

What is the literature and research telling us on how people are going to react when this crisis is over?

The question is: Can a disaster, like the Covid-19 pandemic, influence election outcomes? 

South Africa went into the Covid-19 crisis extremely vulnerable on several issues, such as a poorly performing economy, a very high level of unemployment, and still suffering the economic disaster brought on by nine wasted years of the Zuma administration.

Despite these vulnerabilities, the government bought into the lockdown model of mitigating the coronavirus risk early on.

The advantage of such early start-up is severely challenged by the ability of sustaining a lockdown over time, without losing the trust of the people. 

Lockdowns or emergency situations during disasters can only be successfully sustained if the people involved are cared for in terms of their basic necessities, such as access to clean water, access to food, access to sanitation and electricity, and then only can the government start to contemplate the introduction of security forces in a legitimate role.

Decisions, such as a ban on smoking, does not augur well, and the total ban on liquor, however well intended, undermines the purpose of the lockdown measures. 

The impact of disasters on politics 

Research over many disasters brings about an interesting array of political responses to crisis, especially on incumbent politicians seeking re-election shortly after such a crisis.

What are the typical responses to a disaster by the electorate or people in political systems?

There would be an obvious difference between democratically governed countries and autocratically governed systems.

The following seems to be some of the possibilities: 

Natural disasters will negatively affect the legitimacy of the political system, depending on how effectively the pandemic is perceived to have been managed. 

The more a government's responsive is seen as efficient and timely, the stronger its legitimacy will grow and its political support.  

If there is a perception that the government acted too slow or not at all, incumbent governments may experience political retaliation at the next election. 

The overall government response quality will be higher in democracies than in autocracies, primarily driven by access to information.

However, in China during Covid-19, it seemed as if that government did well, based on the information we were allowed to get. 


The role of the media in developing and strengthening perceptions are crucial in disaster management.


Media and, to an extent, social media are the most effective lines of communication to the general public. 

There is also the role of blind retrospection, which means that when voters "are in pain they are likely to kick the government…"

In most cases, incumbents will pay at the polls for bad times, whether or not objective observers can find a rational basis for it. This is emotional voting. 

The focus is also often on approval of a leader, although we know that approval is not the same as voting for a leader - for example, President Bush enjoyed a 90% approval after 9/11, but that 90% did not translate into votes at the next presidential election. 

While governments are not responsible for these events and may not have the know-how to perfectly prevent the damages and fatalities caused by the disasters, they often face the challenge of maintaining legitimacy in the post-disaster context. 

Elections in 2020 and 2021 

Historically, the previous century provides some very interesting post-disaster political situations. Best known is the combination of the First World War and the Spanish Flu in 1918.

It created havoc in Europe and changed the political situation such that a Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and dictatorial Spain emerged before the Second World War.

What exacerbated the situation in Europe and the US between the wars was, of course, the Great Depression - an example of an economic disaster.

In South Africa, the depression was linked to a severe drought that increased suffering and also contributed the emergence of the NP as the winner after the Second World War. 

Two very influential people and their political parties during the Second World War eventually paid the political price after the war. Winston Churchill was voted out of office in 1945 and his friend General Jan Smuts lost the election in 1948.

However, nobody gave President Harry Truman a chance for a second term in 1948, but he surprised everybody and was victorious.

This shows that the electorate has a very nuanced, emotional and, sometimes, irrational voting behaviour in the post-conflict and post-disaster period.

Margaret Thatcher turned the Falklands War into a political victory, but President Bush (Snr) could not do the same in 1993 against Bill Clinton after the first successful invasion of Iraq.

Similarly, President Jimmy Carter ultimately paid the price for the military disaster in Iran in 1979. In a sense, Brexit (as a looming economic disaster) also claimed Theresa May in 2019. 

A look around the globe shows that at least 20 countries are going to have national elections towards the end of 2020 and during 2021.

In the case of South Africa, we will of course have nationwide local elections in April or May 2021, which may also fall into this category.

The following table lists 20 such countries: 

Election in 2020 (if possible) 

Lesotho (?) 

New Zealand (September) 

Hong Kong (September)  

Singapore (September) 

Tanzania (October) 

Egypt (November) 

United States (November) 

Romania (December) 

Venezuela (December) 

Croatia (December) 

Elections in 2021 

Ecuador (February)  

Netherlands (March) 

Mexico (July) 

Zambia (August) 

Germany (August) 

Norway (September) 

Russia (September) 

Argentina (October) 

Japan (October) 

Chile (November) 

Closer to home

One of the challenges for the ANC during the Covid-19 disaster is that they will probably not have their own internal NGC (National General Council) during 2020, but that there will be nationwide local government elections in April or May 2021.

It is well-known that the ANC paid a huge price during the 2016 local government elections for the Zuma economic and state capture disaster.

Will Covid-19 continue that trend or will the role of Cyril Ramaphosa counter that trend like he did in the 2019 general election?  

The Covid-19 challenge has become more of an economic problem to South Africa than the already serious health challenge.

Providing jobs, food and services are going to be more difficult in the next two years and it immediately translates into what the ruling ANC will do about it.

During the election phase, will the people retaliate against a government that could not care for them during the lockdown?

Will the voters turn out, like in 2016, or will the voters forgive the government?


I think the nature of the dominant party system in South Africa will again save the ANC. Ramaphosa is more popular than the ANC, a regular occurrence in ANC leadership since Mandela, with exception of Zuma.


Opposition parties will make further inroads into ANC support, mainly in the urban centres, but despite the Covid-19 crisis I think the ANC will sustain its support just above the 50% level.

Ramaphosa should use Covid-19 to consolidate his power base in the ANC and will have to bring his loose coalition of support in the ANC much closer, ahead of the next leadership election in 2022. 

The US

Donald Trump is facing a similar existential challenge in November 2020.

He was busy building an enormous winning coalition around his economic miracle in the USA, but Covid-19 destroyed that in the same way as the economic plans of Ramaphosa was destroyed.

Although they are completely different types of political leaders, they have both built their presidencies on economic change and development.

Trump is already gearing himself up to find alternative political strategies towards the election on 3 November, 2020.

China will become the new political enemy, and Covid-19 will make Trump the "knight in shining armour" that saved America, despite indications that he moved late in the process and that he was not completely convinced of the severity of the virus in the beginning.

On the other hand, Ramaphosa moved early and his challenge will be to sustain the lockdown for political successes.  

Why are politicians rewarded for natural disasters?

While voters switch channels to avoid the millions of dollars' worth of political advertisements late in a campaign, in a crisis they tune in for information from major political leaders and media messages.

They seek guidance and assurance that help is on the way, as well as comforting empathy.

Studies show that natural disasters influence voters' perception of incumbent politicians.

Covid-19 is no different.

Trump tried to be upbeat about the pandemic but became far more subdued when mortality in the US reached 50 000 and even stopped his regular press conferences when the tally reached 70 000.

Ramaphosa took a far more stately approach to his press conferences, but communication failed when he allowed his ministers to continue the process.  

- Theo Venter is a political and policy analyst, NWU Business School 

Read more on:    donald trump  |  cyril ramaphosa  |  pandemic  |  governance  |  leadership  |  coronavirus
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