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Pandemic Politics: Minor Parties

Across the world, COVID-19 has upended every aspect of society, ranging from social interaction to free movement. Naturally, it has also impacted how those of us who live in democratic nations choose the leaders to take us through this crisis, with some campaigns in countries badly hit by the virus opting to avoid in-person contact with voters. In this series, we will be looking at changes in pandemic-era voting to glean insights into how the new environment shifts political choices (part 2, 3, 4).

First up: be warned that countries and regions holding elections this year are unlikely to be perfectly representative of democracies in general. While the democracies listed here are a pseudo-random sample of democracies around the globe, each one has its own peculiarities which will affect its own election results. Analysing elections, as opposed to polls, has the benefit of avoiding issues such as sampling error or systematic biases in surveys (non-response by certain groups etc), but do keep in mind that the results here may not generalise to all countries, though they do serve as a baseline for how voters have shifted during the pandemic.

Below are the criteria we used to decide which elections to include for this analysis:

  • Elections were generally agreed to be fair and impartial, and held in nations with a Democracy Index >= 6 (if no DI available, author judgement is used)
  • Election ended 11/March/2020 or later (the date WHO officially declared COVID19 a pandemic)
  • Either one of the following is true for either the last election or the 2020 election:
    • An individual minor party won 5% or more of the vote
    • A minor party or independent candidate won a seat
  • Opposition or other significant parties (won >= 5% of vote at last fair election) did not boycott election
  • To minimise the impact of personality politics, legislative elections were used, instead of executive elections.
  • Election has to be a general election of all seats in the legislature, not a by-election.
  • Where there were separate constituency and proportional elections held simultaneously, the results of the proportional election were used.
  • Major parties must be reasonably apparent. (includes alliances/coalitions of parties which function as a major party)
  • If major party status is unclear in a system with separate constituency and proportional elections held simultaneously, the vote share of the parties in the constituency elections will be used to determine which party holds the apparent status of major party.
  • If there are two rounds, the minor party vote from the first round was used.

On average, minor parties have held their own in the pandemic era

(if you’re on a mobile device, scroll right for full data or turn your device landscape)

Nation/regionRegionSwingPrev. minor2020 minorEnd dateSystem type
South KoreaAsia-8.24132.815/AprProportional
Suriname*South America19.3417.2436.5825/MayProportional
Saint Kitts & NevisNorth America-2.7510.818.065/JunPlurality
Dominican RepublicNorth America-10.1437.7827.645/JulProportional
Sri LankaAsia5.0511.9617.015/AugProportional
Trinidad & TobagoNorth America-4.888.713.8310/AugPlurality
Northern TerritoryOceania3.232629.2322/AugMajoritarian
New BrunswickNorth America-430.3126.3114/SepPlurality
BermudaNorth America5.130.55.631/OctPlurality
New ZealandOceania6.3418.0724.4117/OctProportional
Australian Capital TerritoryOceania3.524.928.417/OctProportional
British ColumbiaNorth America-0.8119.3418.5324/OctPlurality
Average (asterisk elections excluded)0.622.423
Average (plurality systems)0.517.318.8
Average (proportional systems)1.427.428.8

*: These are countries with peculiarities which are very likely to have significantly affected the numbers calculated above. Details are available in the full dataset: Download here.

It appears that the pandemic has had very little impact on the minor party vote on average, although of course there is large inter-country variation. Contrary to what some people think, if anything minor parties appear to have (on average) gained very slightly during the pandemic, although the difference is non-significant. As the graph below shows, the change in the minor party vote seems to be roughly what you’d expect if the pandemic had no effect at all:

Histogram of minor party swings in 2020 pandemic elections.
Graph of minor party swings in pandemic elections, along with a t-distribution fitted using maximum-likelihood. Note that there appears to be little shift or skew to either side.

While keeping in mind that this is still a very small, non-random sample size (n = 23), the politics of the pandemic don’t seem to have been particularly bad for minor parties. If we assume that the impact of the pandemic on politics is greater in countries/regions with more COVID-19 cases (e.g. personal contact with a COVID-19 patient, lockdowns etc), we can also compare swings in the minor party vote with the number of COVID-19 cases in each electorate:

Scatterplot of COVID caseload per capita vs minor party vote swing.
Graph of COVID caseload per capita versus minor party vote swing, along with a linear regression fitted using ordinary least-squares.

There just doesn’t appear to be much of a correlation between COVID-19 caseload and the minor party swing either, with the very weakly negative slope more an artifact of the outliers than a clear trend. For the stats-minded: the p-value of the regression is 0.94, with an R2 of basically 0. The overall conclusion appears to be that pandemic elections have not had a major impact on the minor-party vote when compared to the last election.

Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the pandemic has had no impact whatsoever on voting intention for minor parties. For example, it might well have been that the minor party vote was primed for a large swing which the pandemic disrupted in favour of the status quo; one possible example of this is the British Columbia election, where the combined minors were polling upwards of 30% in late 2019 but fell to 19% by the time of the election (they ended up winning a combined 18.5%). We will explore swings in polled voting intention and the possible issues with those in future Pandemic Politics pieces (part 2, 3, 4).

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