Politics on Hold: What’s On and What’s Off Due to Coronavirus

Rosalind Mathieson

(Bloomberg) -- Politicians generally are sociable creatures, out and about meeting the public, business leaders, union chiefs, bureaucrats, and each other. The global spread of the coronavirus is making that harder. It is putting key multilateral gatherings on hold or forcing leaders to meet virtually, without the in-person contact that can smooth the way for coordinated responses.

Several countries or cities are under lockdown, mass events canceled, schools, bars and restaurants closed. Borders are being shut. The global travel industry is in crisis.

The need for leaders to be visibly in charge and reassuring is ever-more pressing, and for the machinery of government to be running smoothly. That’s also important to counter the worst conspiracy theories doing the rounds on social media on the virus, and limiting the momentum for groups trying to piggy-back on border closures to push anti-immigration messages.

Countries must be openly sharing information and using regional and global frameworks to combat the virus, according to Frank-Jurgen Richter, founder and chairman of Zurich-based international think tank Horasis. “Such massive collaboration will have its challenges, but big challenges require big responses,” he says.

Group of Seven leaders spoke on Monday and pledged to work together to minimize the economic hit. Beyond business and market disruption, however, COVID-19 is also impacting election schedules, while geopolitical tensions haven’t vaporized just because the virus is sucking up all the attention. Here’s how politics is being affected:

Sick or self-quarantined politicians

The fact politicians mix and mingle exposes them to the risk of catching the virus. And some are. The ranks include senior Iranian officials (some of whom have died), a junior U.K. health minister, a junior French environment minister, Indonesia’s transport minister, plus the head of one of Italy’s ruling coalition parties.

Australia’s home affairs minister tested positive after recently meeting White House officials including Ivanka Trump in Washington. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s aide contracted the virus and was part of a delegation that met with U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in Mar-a-Lago. Bolsonaro and Trump have been tested and came up negative.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been in self-quarantine after his wife fell sick with the virus. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s wife also tested positive, a local newspaper reported. Romanian ministers entered quarantine after a lawmaker from the Liberal party who attended a meeting tested positive.

Meetings, parliaments

G-7 foreign ministers will chat via video conference later this month after their scheduled U.S. summit was scrapped. Association of Southeast Asian Nations finance ministers and central bank governors were due to gather on March 25-27 in a beach city north of Hanoi — that has now been deferred to an unspecified date.

Face-to-face Brexit talks in London between negotiators from the U.K. and European Union have been canceled. Officials are looking at potential video conferencing.

Russia has nixed its annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which was planned for early June. It’s a key platform for President Vladimir Putin and in the past has attracted the leaders of France, China and Japan.

Canada’s lawmakers have suspended parliament until April 20 in a motion that included a provision to pass the new North American trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico.

To the south, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador held off on social distancing, with video showing him kissing and hugging supporters. And on Sunday Bolsonaro posted footage of himself mingling with pro-government, anti-Congress protesters, fist bumping supporters outside the presidential palace in Brasilia.

Election impact

French municipal elections did go ahead on Sunday but turnout was a record low. On Monday President Emmanuel Macron announced the second round of the vote would be delayed.

In the U.S., the states of Georgia and Louisiana delayed their presidential primaries, and Democratic Party rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have canceled public campaign events. Their campaign debate on Sunday was held without an audience. On Monday, Governor Mike DeWine said he was asking state courts to extend Ohio’s primary until June 2.

The U.K. has postponed local elections scheduled for May, including voting in the London mayoral race. The U.K. Labour Party canceled a special conference to announce the election of its new leader, which was due on April 4, with a scaled-back announcement to come in its place.

The government of Uruguay will decide this week whether to postpone May 10 elections for provincial governors and assemblies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has postponed next month’s party conference, which was due to pick a new leader. Outgoing CDU chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has said the convention will be rearranged “as soon as the situation around this epidemic permits it.”

Serbia late Monday suspended all preparations for parliamentary elections scheduled for April 26 after imposing a state of emergency.

The coronavirus has, however, thrown Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu an unexpected lifeline after the Justice Ministry delayed his corruption trial -- scheduled to start on Tuesday -- until May.

And in Romania, lawmakers approved a new government led by Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, putting aside political differences to give him the power to confront the virus outbreak.The confirmation of Orban’s cabinet in a confidence vote ends wrangling that began when opposition forces shot down an identical lineup last month.

Other hotspots

The concentrated attention on COVID-19 doesn’t mean other tension points have gone away. Frictions over Syria continue, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warning a buildup by Syrian government forces in northwestern Idlib threatens a recent cease-fire deal with Russia.

The early-March truce followed weeks of fierce clashes between Syrian fighters and opposition forces backed by Turkey to control Syria’s last rebel stronghold. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to unleash waves of refugees on Europe unless he gets help carving out a buffer zone in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

Erdogan, Merkel and Macron will meet -- by teleconference -- Tuesday on that issue.

Then there is Putin’s oil-price war with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which saw global prices plummet at a time financial markets were already reeling from the virus. So far there is no sign of either Putin or MBS, as he’s known, backing down.

Attacks on bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops meanwhile risk inflaming tensions with Iran. The American military struck back last week at an Iraqi militia closely associated with Iran which the U.S. believes was responsible for a rocket attack that killed two Americans and a Briton. Iraq said more rockets hit a base north of Baghdad on the weekend.

North Korea in turn seems to be missing the spotlight and Trump’s attention. The regime in Pyongyang has been firing off short-range ballistic missiles, in leader Kim Jong Un’s first such provocations after saying on Dec. 31 he was no longer bound by a self-imposed freeze on major weapons tests.

So what is still on?

The Kremlin says an April 22 vote is going ahead on Putin’s planned constitutional changes that could allow him to rule until 2036.

Poland’s presidential vote is still scheduled for May 10, though campaigning has been curtailed. North Macedonia is planning to hold its April 12 elections.

There’s no word for now on the long list of Group of 20 ministerial and lower-level meetings scheduled in the run-up to the summit in Saudi Arabia late this year. Japan says it has no plans to defer the Summer Olympics, with the torch relay going ahead as planned in the country from late March.

And EU leaders are due to meet in Brussels toward the end of this month. No word yet on whether that will now become a virtual gathering.

--With assistance from Irina Vilcu, Andra Timu, Walter Brandimarte, Ania Nussbaum, Gregory L. White, Tim Ross and Kait Bolongaro.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rosalind Mathieson in London at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wes Kosova at wkosova@bloomberg.net, Karl Maier, Tony Czuczka

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.