In countries that contained outbreaks quickly, some leaders gained or regained the trust of voters. Before the coronavirus struck their countries, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had one thing in common: Their brightest days in office appeared to be behind them.
In South Korea, Moon faced mounting calls to resign last year amid slowing economic growth and mounting political scandals. Hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition calling for his impeachment. Meanwhile, Merkel responded to pressure to step down, saying the term set to end in 2021 would be her last, after what would be more than 15 years in office.
When the coronavirus crisis hit, both Moon and Merkel faced initial criticism for their responses. For weeks, Merkel hesitated to impose major restrictions.
But when both leaders began to act decisively, they emerged as role models in their regions. South Korea pursued a relentless testing and contact tracing strategy, which Germany also adopted.
Germany’s death toll is only one-fourth of Italy’s, although Germany is more populous. Meanwhile, South Korea has confirmed at least 259 deaths, compared with more than 80,000 in the United States, the country with the highest number of confirmed cases.
Both Merkel and Moon used testing and contact tracing to avoid full lockdowns. Merkel’s approval ratings have surged to 68 percent in May, up from 53 percent in February. Some 67 percent of Germans said in a survey earlier this month that they approved of her government’s coronavirus approach, according to Infratest dimap.
Meanwhile, Moon’s government won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections last month, after a campaign that focused on the government’s pandemic response.
In New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern implemented a strict lockdown to stamp out the virus at the end of March, pollsters have marked a similar boost. For several days last week, there were no confirmed new cases.
In a Colmar Brunton poll conducted April 20 and 21, 87 percent of respondents said they approved of Ardern’s handling of the outbreak.
Despite some early signs that trust in her pandemic response could boost overall approval of her performance as prime minister, a different polling company urged caution: “The conventional wisdom is that natural disasters (and wars) are usually good for governments but that those effects can wear off quickly,” it warned, according to the New Zealand Herald.
The same note of caution may apply to world leaders who have not contained major outbreaks in their countries but have still seen their approval ratings rise. The United Kingdom, for instance, now has the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll — but Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains popular.
“Nobody wants to say out loud that Johnson was lucky to be hospitalised by the virus but there’s an element of truth in that,” Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in an email. Johnson contracted the coronavirus at the end of March and was subsequently moved to an intensive care unit, but he has since recovered.
“It’s bought him considerable sympathy that otherwise would have been in much shorter supply — especially considering the powerful case that can be brought against him for acting too slowly on locking down, securing sufficient supplies of [personal protective equipment], and setting up tracking and tracing,” said Bale.
Recent polls showed that while Johnson’s own approval rating may remain relatively high, Britons increasingly disapprove of certain aspects of his government’s crisis response.
Bale cited public disapproval with the government’s “delay in locking down” and “shortages of vital equipment and testing” as evidence that “things could turn very sour, very quickly” for Johnson, amid mounting pressure from the opposition Labour Party.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s handling of the outbreak has drawn disapproval from the majority of Americans, with 54 percent of respondents to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll last month giving the president negative marks. Views of his performance hew mostly to partisan lines, with the vast majority of Republicans approving of Trump’s efforts. But he still retained an overall approval rating of 49 percent, nine points above his term average, according to Gallup polls last month.
New trouble could still lie ahead of Johnson, Trump and other leaders who seem to be weathering the storm. Experts say voters tend to rally around their leaders in times of crisis and turn on them during economic downturns. The coronavirus pandemic falls into both categories, and in approval ratings around the world, we see these competing impulses at work. As the acute, initial crises wane and the economic effects mount, the long-term impact on political fortunes remains to be seen.
In contrast to leaders with rockier records, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has won praise across the political spectrum for his approach, even with his country at the initial epicenter of the crisis in Europe.
Conte’s political career appeared to have crumbled last year when he resigned amid the collapse of his governing coalition. Far-right leader Matteo Salvini was rising rapidly in the polls.
In the middle of a pandemic, however, the politician Italians rallied behind was not Salvini. Instead, 59 percent of respondents in a May 5 poll by the Ixè Institute said they trusted Conte, an increase of about 20 percent since he imposed a lockdown two months ago — the first such measure in the West, since emulated widely.
But as Italy traverses a long, painful path out of the lockdown, patience appears to be wearing thin.
Some local politicians and opposition rivals have begun to protest Conte’s plans or vowed to reopen quicker than scheduled. Confidence in Conte has begun to fall slightly, according to Ixè and other pollsters.
The coronavirus has had an opposite effect in Chile: Major anti-government protests against President Sebastián Piñera that began last year have given way to a de facto truce in the midst of the pandemic. Piñera’s approval rating has more than doubled — to about 25 percent — and confirmed deaths remain relatively low.
Bolsonaro’s opponents blame him for underestimating or deliberately ignoring the crisis, which has already cost more than 12,000 lives in the country. With far lower testing levels than most other nations, Brazil’s real number of deaths and cases is likely to be much higher than official figures show.
Bolsonaro is far from the only leader to see his popularity drop as infection numbers rise. After Japan initially appeared to have the outbreak under control, cases there spiked last month, which led to criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over low testing levels and contradictory guidance. Surveys by the Mainichi Shimbun daily and other polls showed public disapproval with his cabinet’s handling of the pandemic cross the 50 percent threshold between March and April.
But new daily cases have since declined. With Japanese elections scheduled for next year unless a snap vote is called, Abe’s party may still have time to prove critics wrong. In the United States, Trump has fewer than six months to do the same.