This article by Dr.Gerstenfeld was recently published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), and republished here with the author’s consent.
Political Leadership during the Coronavirus Crisis
In times of major crisis, those in power have an increased advantage over their opponents if they perform even halfway reasonably. To be more accurate, it is not that the leaders objectively have to perform very well. They only have to be perceived as doing so.
With the Coronavirus in — partly lethal– full swing, an intermediary analysis of how leaders’ performance is perceived may help us to better understand future political developments in various countries. Parliamentary committees of inquiry on the handling of the crisis may play a role in how the perception of leaders develops in some countries.
A structural handicap of those in opposition is that the only tool they can use is their words. There is also a second aspect. In that period media mainly gives attention to those who are in charge of the measures taken.
Before entering into an assessment of the present, it is helpful to at least look at one concrete past case – that of the run up to Germany’s 2002 parliamentary elections. In early polls, the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a socialist, trailed behind his Christian opponent, Edmund Stoiber, leader of the Bavarian CSU.
In the summer of 2002 huge rainfalls started in the Czech Republic and eastern Germany. The Elbe River overflowed. There was massive destruction. Schröder showed leadership in the crisis while Stoiber could only talk. Schröder had another crucial advantage over his opponent. During the crisis he virtually monopolized TV. This greatly helped how he was perceived. Schröder won the election by a tiny margin.
An assessment of the current situation in a number of countries shows that the Corona crisis has helped raise the popularity of several of those in power, but not all. In the German 2017 parliamentary elections, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) grouping led by Chancellor Angela Merkel remained the largest. They received 33% of the vote. This represented a loss of 8%. The substantial fall in popular support could be ascribed mainly to the irresponsible immigration policies of Merkel from 2015 onwards. Later polls showed a further decline in support for the CDU/CSU to around 25% or a bit more. Yet in the three last polls of March 2020 this figure jumped to approximately 35%, even higher than in the 2017 elections. In many of the pre-Corona polls, the Christian parties received only a few percent more than the Green party. Currently it has about twice as much support in the polls than the Greens.
Merkel has announced that she will not be a candidate for chancellor in the 2021 elections.1 In 2018, she already gave up the chairpersonship of the CDU. Her successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was not very successful and resigned her position in February of this year.2
It is not only the top position that has a volatile effect on popularity polls. Before the Corona pandemic outbreak, elections for a new CDU chairperson were planned. The leading candidate seemed to be economic expert, Friedrich Merz. He had been a German and European parliamentarian. From 2000-2002 he was chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction in the Bundestag. Currently, he however holds no political position and cannot distinguish himself.
The second most liked candidate, Armin Laschet, is the minister president of the largest federal state of Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia. He is thus in a somewhat better position than Merz. Initially it was thought that the Minister of Health, Jens Spahn, would also run for the chairpersonship. Laschet, however agreed with him that if he were to be elected, Spahn would become his deputy. As Minister of Health, Spahn has had much opportunity to be in the limelight. He is now very positively perceived.
Often the chairperson of the CDU, the bigger of the two Christian parties, is the preferred Christian candidate for the chancellorship. The Corona crisis has however changed perceptions. Bavarian Prime Minister, Markus Söder, has been a central figure in this crisis in his home state. He appears very determined and is frequently seen on TV. In the past, Söder has maintained that he sees his place in Bavaria and not as a candidate for the chancellorship in Berlin. In the meantime Söder has become the favorite for this position of many in the CDU. The question is whether he will give in to pressures to run.3
In France, the popularity of President Emmanuel Macron has greatly improved. Different polls give somewhat different figures.4 According to the daily, Le Figaro, at the end of March 2020, 43% of the French were satisfied with his performance. This is the highest figure since April 2018. At the end of February, the figure was 32%. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has also gained in popularity. Currently, 42% are satisfied with his performance as opposed to 36% one month earlier.
There are many precedents of the French population becoming more satisfied about their leaders in times of crisis. An increase in the popularity of the previous President François Hollande, a socialist, occurred after the attacks by Muslim terrorists in Paris in 2015. Similarly, the popularity of center-right president Jacques Chirac increased substantially after September 11, 2001.5
In the United States the situation is less clear as far as the general election is concerned. Democratic Challenger Joe Biden still leads polls with varying percentages over President Donald Trump. A Grinell College poll on April 1 found that 49% of the public approves of Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis and 47% disapprove. An Economist/Yougov poll on the same day found 50% approval and a disapproval of 46%.6 The approval rates are though very volatile.
In the UK, the conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson – who is currently hospitalized — has high approval ratings overall: 73% as opposed to 24%. The same is the case on its handling of the Coronavirus outbreak, 72% as opposed to 25%. Among cabinet members, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, has the highest public approval: 77%. Fifty-four percent of the population are however dissatisfied with the performance of Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was replaced on April 4.7
Even in Italy, very heavily hit by the Corona pandemic, there is a huge increase in satisfaction among the public of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his government: 71% in March 2020. In February satisfaction with Conte was only 52%.8
According to a poll carried out by the Israel Democracy Institute, 60% of the Israeli population are satisfied with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dealing with the Corona crisis. The Health Ministry’s Director General, Moshe Bar Simantov, had an even higher satisfaction rate of 68%. Other public figures were seen far less positively by the public. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s activities were considered positive by 40% of the respondents. Blue and White leader, Benny Gantz, received 34% and former Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, 31%. The incoming opposition leader, Yair Lapid, was viewed positively by only 18% of the population. The poll also asked for opinions on institutions. Hospitals received a positive score of 83%, the media 58% and the Finance Ministry 39%.9
That being said, this is a period of high volatility of opinions. It is thus important to record these figures as a picture of the moment. Current public perception offers a basis from which to analyze how opinions may evolve during, and in particular, after the end of the Corona crisis. Then these leaders will face a huge number of challenges in many areas.