We are by now familiar with vaccine nationalism — an outbreak of which threatens to overshadow this week’s EU virtual summit — but what about vaccine elections?
The US election last November may have been decided by Donald Trump’s erratic mishandling of the pandemic, but at that point the country’s impressive vaccination programme was not yet under way. If Americans had gone to the polls a few months later, with up to a million jabs a day thanks to a supply surplus secured by the Trump administration, Joe Biden might not have taken the White House.
That is, of course, pure speculation. The US did not have a vaccine election. But Israel, which just held its fourth general election in two years, had one. The result, according to exit polls, gives the centre-Right Likud by far the largest number of seats, with at least 30 out of 120 in the Knesset. Despite the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is 71, has been Prime Minister since 2009 and will appear in court next month on alleged bribery and fraud charges, Israelis have rewarded him for the success of the vaccination programme (other accomplishments, such as the Abraham Accords, were marginalized, ed.), which has astonished the world. Had a majority of the adult population not been inoculated, with lockdown lifted in time for the election, it is unlikely that Netanyahu would now be in a position to form another Right-wing coalition, having seen off his rivals Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz yet again.
Hence Israel’s vaccine election was another first for a country that punches above its weight not only in the Middle East but, increasingly, on the global stage too. By demonstrating its ability to procure and distribute vaccines in record time, the Jewish state has reminded critics of its prowess in peace as well as war. Netanyahu’s political future is still uncertain — while he remains Justice Minister, Benny Gantz will ensure that his trial goes ahead — but the Israeli Prime Minister’s re-election will not be lost on other leaders in the same position.
The only one who is almost certain to ignore Netanyahu’s example is Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the world’s leading Covid denier. Latin America’s largest country has seen its hospitals descend into chaos, mainly due to its government’s defiant failure to take public health measures against the pandemic. With nearly 300,000 Covid victims and a rising death toll of well over 3,000 a day, the embattled Brazilian President has just appointed his fourth health minister in a year. The emergence of the notoriously virulent Brazilian variant has forced Bolsonaro to abandon his initial hostility to a vaccination programme, though he is still fighting lockdown measures. Having lost the patronage of Trump, he is now begging China to supply his stricken country with its own vaccines, for which Beijing will exact a heavy political price.
In next year’s presidential elections, Bolsonaro will probably face his veteran predecessor Lula da Silva, recently released from prison for corruption. In a contest between Right-wing and Left-wing populists, the result may turn on whether the population has been vaccinated against Covid by then. Brazil was once a vaccination trailblazer in the Southern Hemisphere; many voters may ask why this time the country was failed so badly by its politicians.
In Europe, President Emmanuel Macron is enduring harsh criticism for the sluggish start to the French vaccination programme and also for the country’s failure to develop its own vaccine. As in 2017, next year Macron will be challenged by the indefatigable Marine Le Pen, but also by other, perhaps more formidable, new candidates from the Right. In particular, a former health minister under Sarkozy, Xavier Bertrand, is certain to stand, while the dark horse is the maverick journalist Eric Zemmour. The latter appeals to the same anti-Islamic and anti-immigration electorate who normally vote for Le Pen, but — thanks to his Algerian Jewish background and charismatic appearances on TV — has the potential to broaden his base far beyond that of the nationalist far-Right.
In a close French election, the decisive factor may well prove to be Macron’s leadership — or lack of it — during the pandemic. In particular, his rash and unscientific comments about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (claiming that it was “quasi-ineffective” for the over-65s) have spread confusion in a nation that is anyway mistrustful of vaccination. Now Macron has ordered the French army and firefighters to assist at 35 mass vaccination centres in a desperate bid to get the programme back on track, but he has disdained to follow the British example of mobilising hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Indeed, Macron’s maladroit handling of vaccination makes him a sitting duck. An opinion poll shows Bertrand on 21 per cent and Zemmour on 17 per cent, compared to Macron’s 31 per cent. In a vaccine election, the French President’s hauteur may not play well against the populist auteur of Le Suicide français. All Zemour has to do is to remind voters of Macron’s “quasi-ineffective” campaign against Covid.
There will be other vaccine elections over the next year or two. Politicians will be judged by their success or failure to protect the public against the pandemic. Those who have been found wanting are more than likely be unceremoniously ejected from office. Fortunately for her, Angela Merkel is standing down before September’s federal election in Germany, but her legacy is badly tarnished by her abject failure to stave off a third wave of coronavirus with a rapid vaccination programme like those of Israel or the UK.
Fortunately for him, Boris Johnson does not face re-election until 2024, by which time other factors will doubtless have eclipsed the pandemic. But we should not rule out the possibility that on May 6, Britain too will have a vaccine election — and that the Tories will be rewarded at the polls.
Daniel Johnson is the founding Editor of TheArticle. For two decades he was a senior editor, editorial writer and columnist for The Times and the Daily Telegraph, before leaving to set up Standpoint magazine, which he edited for 10 years. He contributes regularly to Daily Mail, Wall Street Journal, Commentary, New Criterion, National Review and other papers, magazines and websites.@DANBJOHN| @DANBJOHNSON
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