Reading List – 15th February 2021

Election officials held in Myanmar ‘in bid to prove fraud’

The army in Myanmar is seeking to justify its takeover of the government by suggesting that elections held at the end of last year were fraudulent. In those elections, the National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won an easy victory. According to the Guardian, election officials are being arrested in an attempt to prove fraud.

Moldova’s Parliament Rejects Government Lineup Put Forward By President

Newly elected President Maia Sandu has failed to see her nominee for prime minister of Moldova approved by the parliament. This was an expected move as it is the first of two such rejections necessary to allow for the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. President Sandu hopes that new elections will allow her to cement a governing majority in the country.

EU support for Russian democracy is inadequate

In an article first appearing in the FT, Constanze Stelzenmüller argues that the EU has failed to develop a united approach to Russia following the arrest of Alexey Navalny.

Kazakh elections in social media

The Memo 98 organisation has crunched the numbers from last month’s elections in Kazakhstan.

Reading List – 12th February 2021

Unfinished Business in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

The pre-eminent western expert on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Thomas De Waal, has written a long read analysing the challenges facing the various parties in the dispute over Nagorno Karabakh. He makes it clear that the peace accord signed in haste in November leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Elections Ahead

András Tóth-Czifra looks at the Russian Duma elections due to be held in September. Alexey Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ scheme is dividing the parties and also sets challenges for the Kremlin. Whilst the leaderships of the various systemic opposition parties have denounced Navalny, many of their supporters see smart voting as a means to benefit in the forthcoming polls. 

Overturning Trump’s Facebook ban would set a dangerous precedent

Steve Feldstein looks at the challenge in front of Facebook’s Oversight Board as they decide whether the former President should be allowed back onto the platform. Feldstein is clear that he thinks the ban should continue as he weighs up the various international standards on free speech and incitement. Whilst he only looks at this from the point of view of Trump’s Facebook ban, the decision mirrors that which (at least in theory) should be in the minds of US senators hearing the impeachment trial. 

End of Myanmar’s Rocky Road to Democracy?

Sana Jaffrey gives a brief but pretty comprehensive run through of the recent history of Myanmar and the likely effects of the military coup there. 

America Is Back. Europe, Are You There?

Daniel Baer, in Foreign Policy Magazine, suggests that Europe has acted precipitously to seek to gain an advantage before President Joe Biden’s feet are properly under the Resolute Desk. And whilst America needs to recognise its own failings, the EU has damaged its standing with what he calls ‘childish actions’. 

Rising EU-Russia tensions are good news for Ukraine

On much the same subject, Oleksiy Goncharenko suggests that the failure of the EU mission’s recent talks with Russia led by Josep Borrell could be good for Ukraine. 

Why the Belarusian Revolution Has Stalled

Finally (sorry for the long list today) Ryhor Astapenia of Chatham House examines three reasons why he believes the Belarusian revolution has apprently come to a halt. He suggests that Lukashenka has kept the rulling classes largely behind him, that the opposition has failed to break out of its ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ base, and that international actors are concerned about what might replace the current president if he is forced out.

UK government publishes update on new rules for May local elections

The UK Government has published plans for how they are seeking to make sure that local elections in England can go ahead as planned on 6th May. This will be a massive set of elections as by-elections have been cancelled since the start of the pandemic and last year’s local polls were also postponed. Elections in Scotland and Wales are also due, but these are devolved matters for the parliaments of those countries.

The guidance issued by Chloe Smith today largely seems to get things right, although there are a couple of decisions still to be taken and they are important ones.

The biggest positive is that this guidance has been issued now and not delayed further. The government is determined to go ahead with the elections and has set out how they intend to make that happen.

Councils have been given extra money to cope with problems due to Covid, such as having to find alternative venues or hire extra staff. The government is determined that venues used as vaccination centres should not be used and schools should be avoided wherever possible – especially if it would mean closing the whole school for a day. They have also mentioned the problems of small venues where social distancing isn’t possible and the ventilation aspect has also be recognised. What is not referred to is extra training both for new staff and for existing staff to cope with changes to the usual practices. Of course, local authorities will have to work out whether £92m is enough to cope with the additional burdens and I suspect many new venues will be needed.

As for voters, they are being told that they should wear masks unless exempt, but we will have to wait to find out whether refusal to wear a mask without an exemption is sufficient grounds for staff to refuse to allow a person to vote. That is important as staff have to feel safe in their work.

Voters are encouraged to bring their own pen or pencil to vote, although it is assumed that there will be a stock of pens to be used if they forget. Social distancing and regular cleaning will also be in operation, but all election day related activities will be considered essential travel.

Voters are being told to apply for postal votes if they feel at all unsure about voting in person, although the paper makes the case that if a person feels confident to visit a supermarket then they should have confidence in going to vote. Local authorities are being encouraged to contact clinically extremely vulnerable people to offer them postal or proxy votes. However the government has (rightly in my view) come down against all-postal polls due to the risk of fraud and increased costs.

The option of proxy voting is also heavily promoted and the rules are being changed so that people can apply for an emergency proxy vote up until 5pm on election day if they have tested positive or are isolating. However, the usual need for an attestation (ie a doctor to confirm illness) has been removed and so this essentially becomes an ‘on demand’ provision.

One area which is not yet clear is the nominations process. Secondary legislation and subsequent guidance is going to be issued within the next two weeks.

The major weakness in the paper has to do with the political campaign. Parties are being told that they can use many campaigning methods which do not involve social contact – online and telephone campaigning and the use of postal or paid-for delivery. The government says they have increased expenses limits to cover this. However, these methods – particularly paid-for delivery – are expensive and may have the effect of limiting the chances of less well off parties and independent candidates. Recognising this, the government says it will consider whether volunteer leaflet delivery and other activities including canvassing will be allowed for the period of the regulated campaign – ie the four weeks or so immediately before polling day. Clearly that is likely to depend on the pandemic situation at the time. That is not ideal and I hope that the government consider relaxing the restrictions as early as possible in this regard, but the implication does appear to be that for the campaign period at least there will be additional campaigning possibilities.

Reading List – 4th February 2021

A fortnight that shook Russia … and what next

Nigel Gould-Davies assesses the Navalny case – from his dramatic return to Russia to his arrest and improsonment. Why does this somewhat detached figure who has no vast army of support in the country scare the authorities so?

Global democracy has a very bad year

The Economist publishes their annual survey of the world’s democracies

Why supporting resilient political systems is key to a successful Biden democracy agenda

Patrick Quirk explores how the new US President might make his promotion of democracy into a meaningful foreign policy.

Perspectives | What the Second Karabakh War tells us about the liberal international order

Reviewing the Second Karabakh War, Kevork Oskanian suggests that the breakdown in the liberal international order is apparent in the way that the conflict was resolved and sets massive challenges for those who might want to see the Trump administration as a mere blip.

The Future of Democracy and State Building in Postconflict Armenia

Laure Delcour argues that the EU has lot a lot of ground in its relationship with Armenia and that the country’s pro-democracy reforms since 2018 may now slip backwards

How can the UK organise elections during Covid-19?

The UK is due to hold one of its most complex set of elections in May but there are significant questions about whether they should be held during the current phase of the Covid-19 pandemic and, if so, how to make them safe. The lessons from other countries have been mixed. Where elections have been held, there have been significant changes to normal practices as well as huge costs and lead-in times.

The US-based election support group IFES has been closely monitoring elections during the pandemic and the general picture has been that whilst the majority of elections were postponed during the first part of 2020, more and more have been held on schedule since then.

The UK was one of those countries to postpone the regular local elections due in May 2020. And since that time by-elections have also been delayed except in Scotland where a number were held in late 2020. This has led to a large number of councillors and other elected officials – including the Mayor of London – serving past their time. It is proposed that all the delayed polls would be held in May 2021 alongside all those due at that time. This would mean elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd, Mayor and Assembly in London, county councils, many district councils, and Police and Crime Commissioners, as well as a myriad of other polls and the delayed by-elections all being held on the same date. 

But with the UK undergoing a significant third wave of pandemic infections, the question of whether these should go ahead has been raised. And whilst vaccinations are going well, the question is whether enough will have received the job to ensure the safety of the elections.

So just how practical is it to try to hold elections in a pandemic? IFES brought together election officials from four countries which have held national votes in recent months to learn what they did. These countries were Georgia, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. None are exactly analogous to the UK in their electoral systems, but their experiences are still valuable.

First and foremost, this seminar was looking at the polling day experience. The process leading to election day started with much more training for poll workers. As with these countries, the experience factor in the UK is significant. The same group of staff is drawn on for election after election. And where new people are involved, they are generally slotted in with experienced staff. But where a whole new set of skills and procedures are needed, everyone needs training. Meaning lots more zoom seminars organised either by the Electoral Commission or by local authorities. That is a massive burden and requires poll workers to be identified with enough time to receive the training. Experience of elections around the world shows that simply relying on common sense or a written briefing leads to very varied results.

The countries all confirmed that they needed far more poll workers than would normally be the case. Partly this was due to people unwilling to risk themselves in an environment they did not feel was safe. Others came down with Covid-19 or had to self-isolate after contact with someone with the illness and so had to be replaced, up to the last minute. One solution – combining or eliminating individual polling stations – was carried out in the USA, but must be done in advance so that voters know where to go.

As well as training officials, the voters also needed to know what to expect. From social distancing to mask requirements, the rules have to be clear in advance if there are not to be arguments in polling stations. In the case of masks, one can imagine that this would be a make or break factor for some voters and for some staff – so the government has to be absolutely clear about the rules from the off and the decision widely advertised. It cannot rely on ‘common sense’ as this means different things to different people. Poll staff who feel unsafe thanks to people breaking the rules may decide to walk off the job rather than sacrifice their health. 

In both Moldova and Ukraine there were temperature checks at the entrance to polling stations. Anyone with an above average reading or who was displaying any signs of a respiratory infection was refused entry and told to request to vote from home – in the UK context an emergency proxy vote is available, but only until mid-afternoon. Ukraine tried to have special polling booths which would only be used by those displaying Covid-19 signs, but this did nothing to shield poll staff and they ended up being used by all voters at busy times.

Polling equipment needs to be kept sanitary and so should be disinfected between each voter. Together with the need for social distancing, this will also inject a delay. And voters must either be asked to bring their own pen or pencil or be given a fresh one, with some way of making sure that they are either carried home or sanitised each time. Moldova insisted that polling places were large enough and well ventilated, factors which would require an audit of all polling stations and new venues being found to replace any which failed to pass muster. Such an audit needs to be undertaken well in advance of election day.

Georgia required many poll workers to either isolate for 14 days before election day or to have a PCR test. Ukraine demanded a PCR test three days before election day. Isolation is an onerous burden in a situation where suitable people are already thin on the ground and staff would probably need to be compensated for this, adding huge extra costs. And whilst the availability of tests in the UK is pretty good, organising one for every potential poll worker would also be a big undertaking.

As with any additional burdens, adherence can be hit and miss. Ukraine reported that compliance with the new rules fell as the day wore on. So any additional burdens need to be clear and manageable with plenty of support offered to staff.

The pressure on election administrators is only part of the problem. The leading election observation group OSCE/ODIHR made it clear when the government of Poland sought to restrict parties’ rights during the general election in that country that the political campaign is as much a part of the election as the voting process. Of course, different countries have different norms when it comes to the campaigns. In the case of those represented at the IFES seminar, none really have the British system of delivering leaflets or knocking on doors, relying much more on TV broadcasts, social media and public rallies. The UK has these methods too, of course. But the ability to canvass and to deliver leaflets using volunteers is key to the UK system and, as the government has recently made clear, is not allowed under the current regulations. As the elections coming up – especially in England – are largely local ones, restricting the campaign to the media and to paid-for deliveries is likely to favour incumbents, the bigger parties and those with more money. At the bare minimum it would seem necessary to offer each candidate a Freepost delivered by Royal Mail in the same way that candidates in a general election are.

As we have seen in the UK, parties have been quick to blame each other for perceived rules breaches. That was also the experience in Georgia where campaigning, even following the rules, was blamed for a spike in cases. Like it or not, there will be references to the police and so having clearly understood rules will be key.

There are other technical aspects of the system in the UK which need addressing too. Candidates need to be nominated for election – typically by ten electors who sign a nomination form. Romania developed an online nomination process and such a system could be copied but needs to be developed fast. In elections where financial deposits are needed, how will these be paid? And the ability to oversee the count is important in the transparency of the election process. How will candidates and their representatives, as well as the media, be able to see fair play?

In summary, the lesson from the IFES seminar is that elections can be organised in Covid-19 conditions, but they require a lot of extra planning. As well as auditing premises and recruiting and training many extra polling staff, there will need to be decisions made on things such as nominating processes, temperature checks, mask requirements and testing or isolation of poll workers, and massive advertising to explain the rules to voters. These same adverts need to make clear how those who either have Covid-19 or are isolating for another reason can vote, including the ability to apply for an emergency vote on election day itself. But the UK context throws additional questions about how fair the election will be for candidates if they cannot campaign freely.

The government has options, of course. But changing to an all-postal vote is not one of them. The last time this was tried, there were many instances of fraud as voting papers were hoovered up by unscrupulous people in houses of multiple occupation, student halls and even in family homes. The rules have changed significantly since then to require postal voters to give their signature and date of birth to election administrators and these are thoroughly checked before a vote is counted. The postal voting system is generally considered to be safe as a result. But it is simply not possible to gather and process these personal identifiers in time for an all-postal ballot in May. Individuals can and should be encouraged to sign up for postal votes using the improved system, but this will only go so far. (IFES has produced a guide to the particular needs of postal voting during the pandemic.)

The only viable alternative to instituting all the measures outlined above and copying the lessons learned from Eastern Europe would appear to be a delay in voting until a time when it is felt circumstances will be safer, probably in the summer or autumn. That is clearly a political, as well as a logistical, decision. But whatever happens, voters, candidates and election administrators need answers sooner rather than later.

Reading List – 28th January 2021

Putin hails extension of New START Treaty

Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed the decision to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty by a full five years. The decision came after a telephone conversation between the Russian leader and President Joe Biden. 

The remainder of the coversation focussed on a range of issues including the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and both sides are stressing that the nuclear deal doesn’t indicate a wider re-set. However, the ability to harvest low hanging fruit at least shows that President Putin has not yet decided to test his new opposite number.

Mirziyoyev signals crack down on lazy ministers and governors

President Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan has made a string of public comments about the need for his ministers and regional governors to smarten up their act. From decrying the number of meetings they are holding in their offices in the capital, Tashkent, and urging them to get out more, to warning that one or more of them is about to get fired, the President is setting out a public face of being on the side of the public and against lazy bureaucrats.

It has long been suggested that Mirziyoyev’s main concern is to see his country rise in a number of key international indicators covering economic as well as social indices. He recognises that if his country is to attract investment from abroad then it must be seen as a good (or at least improving) place to do business. Hence the major focus in his announcements about corruption.

The president faces re-election later in 2021 and, whilst no one seriously believes that he will not win another term, he is clearly anxious to make the support he receives as genuine as possible. The flurry of press comments appears to be as much for the domestic as for foreign ears.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says platform will halt political suggestions

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said that the tech giant will scale back on the way that its algorithm makes suggestions about political sites. This move had been signalled in relation to American users.

Recognising that users are perhaps tired of their reading being dominated by political fights, Facebook has already been criticised by some campaign groups who fear that their attempts to put single issue messages in front of voters may be affected.

Reading List – 26th January 2021

Uzbekistan elections could be moved to autumn in proposed amendment

The Tashkent Times reports that the Uzbekistan Presidential elections due in December could be moved to October. The order has come from President Mirziyoyev who is due to face the voters.

The paper gives no reasoning for the move, but the winter weather may be a key factor in the proposal.

UPDATE: One other suggestion being touted is that the country is keen to have international observers in the country for the elections and a date that clashes with (Western/Catholic) Christmas makes this less easy to achieve.

India proposes relaxation of polling station link

The Indian Election Commission is proposing a raft of changes to election law to make it easier for electors to cast their vote. On National Electors Day (which seems like a good idea to copy), EC chief Sunil Arora has suggested that voters should be enabled to cast their vote from any polling station. In addition, the Commission is considering remote voting and extending postal voting to overseas electors.

A number of countries allow voters to move their registration to a polling station that will be convenient for them on Election Day. However the ability to simply turn up at any polling place without forewarning is more complex and will rely on a real-time updated electoral register. If India can manage this then it would be a significant advance. One potential challenge is that if a single polling place becomes unexpectedly very popular then ballot paper supply could be an concern. Issuing massive numbers of spare ballots ‘just in case’ also raises security concerns.

New article for FPC on Navalny and western policy

I’ve written an article for the Foreign Policy Centre on the Navalny protests in Russia and what they might mean for western policy. In short, I think that whilst the protests are extraordinary, and the treatment of Navalny by the Kremlin has been egregious, there is a risk to western policy makers putting sole emphasis on this one case to the exclusion of other issues. You can read the article here.

President Biden has said that he sees mutual self-interest in working with Russia despite the Navalny arrest.

Reading List – 22nd January 2021

Elections in Kazakhstan Yield Results as Predicted

Annette Bohr from Chatham House looks at the results of the recent Kazakhstan elections where the ruling Nur-Otan party gained the predicted widespread support and held its super-majority in Parliament. No new parties were allowed to register for the poll and poll monitors were denied access. Those who have criticised the event are facing prosecution.

The OSCE/ODIHR mission preliminary statement can be found here.

Azerbaijan seizing salaries to pay for post-war reconstruction

Eurasianet reports that state workers in Azerbaijan are being forced to contribute to three funds designed to provide support for armed forces members injured in the Second Karabakh War and for reconstruction efforts.

Turkmenistan: Big on gas, short on options

Turkmenistan has one of the largest fields of natural gas within its borders, but pipeline capacity and the global economic slowdown caused by Covid-19 means that it has few customers to sell it to. China is the major buyer but has slowed delivery. And proposed pipelines to willing buyers in India and Pakistan and across the Caspian to Europe do not exist yet. 

Reading List – 8th December 2020

Moldova has a new president – What next?

A run down of why Maia Sandu won the Moldovan presidential election – and by a huge margin – and what comes next for the country. Early parliamentary elections seem a foregone conclusion.

Russia loses patience with Belarus dictator Lukashanka

The Kremlin is seeking ways to secure an orderly transition in its closest ally, but nobody should be under any illusion that Lukashenka would be happy to go.

Facebook splits up unit at center of contested election decisions

Facebook has disbanded its elections team which was at the centre of efforts to try to rein in the wildest political posts. The platform claims that the work will continue but observers are concerned that this is another example of the inability of the social media giant to understand the importance it plays in elections around the world.

How Biden will impact Russian domestic policy

President-Elect Biden won’t just be causing Russia to reassess its foreign policy. There will be repurcussions on domestic matters too.

Biden’s Democracy Summit

A plug for my essay on what could make the President-Elect’s major initiative stand or fall.