Reading List – 10th September 2020

After a few weeks off, here is some catch up reading on key issues:

What Russia Really Has in Mind for Belarus – And why Western leaders must act

A look at one possible plan that President Putin has for his troubled neighbour and how it migh unfold. The authors argue that rather than an army of Little Green Men, there are a load of Little Grey Men inside Belarus gradually moving it closer and closer to Russia.

Democracy After Coronavirus: Five challenges for the 2020s

This is a long read – a great study on the difference that the pandemic has made to elections and the wider issue of democracy. In this regard, this paper argues that there are five main challenges for democracies after coronavirus: protecting the safety and integrity of elections, finding the right place for expertise, coping with resurgent populism and nationalism, countering homegrown and foreign disinformation, and defending the democratic model.

Lessons learned with social media monitoring

Another long read – this time a look at how different domestic election observers have tried to tackle the task of monitoring what is being said and by whom on social media. Regular readers will know this is a keen area of interest of mine and this paper sums up the great work done by the various NGOs as well as the frustrations they face.

Turkmenistan and Armenia plan constitutional changes

Two former Soviet states are planning to amend their constitutions according to media reports. Although one change is likely to be much more significant than the other.

In Armenia the headline proposal would see the voting age lowered to 16. But the raft of changes are much wider than this. The so-called ‘stable majority’ system also looks set to be scrapped.

The voting age proposal currently has three options. One would be to retain the current age of 18. A second would see a reduction to either 16 or 17 for all elections. The third would allow the Parliament to decide the age for any given election. This last seems relatively chaotic as parliamentarians might seek to gain political advantage from their choice and young voters themselves would not know where they stood until weeks before a poll was due.

The stable majority system works like this: if no party or bloc emerges from an election with more than half the seats then a second round will be held between the top two parties or blocs. The winner will get enough additional seats to take them to 54% of the total number of seats. At the same time, if a single party or bloc wins more than two thirds of the seats then additional seats are created to give the opposition parties at least one third of all seats.

A useful take on the proposals can be found on the EPDE website here.

The relatively ceremonial modification comes from Turkmenistan where the creation of a Senate to replace the Khalk Maslahaty (or People’s Council) will be watched most to see who becomes the Chair of the new body and therefore likely next in line should President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov die suddenly. The chances are that this role will be taken by his son Serdar.

The replacement of the Khalk Maslahaty by a Senate of 56 members might seem like a step towards better democracy. But not all of the new Senators will be elected (eight will be appointed by the President) and elections in Turkmenistan have never really been that genuine. Adding a second chamber to the existing rubber-stamp Parliament is not going to make much difference.

How President Putin won his National Vote (and gave himself 12 more years in office)

Russian voters have approved President Putin’s plans to change the constitution (and coincidentally allow him to serve two further six-year terms in office) by a margin of more than three to one in a national vote held over the past week.

The fact, and even the margin, of victory should surprise no one since there was no opposition campaign allowed and the regime pulled out all the stops to both boost turnout and secure a yes vote. There were also no effective election observers on the ground to highlight foul play.

The constitutional changes were announced in January, supposedly as a means of rebalancing power towards Parliament and away from the President. But at the last minute, in a carefully choreographed intervention, President Putin’s supporters in the Duma suggested that the term limits slate should be wiped clean, effectively allowing the incumbent a further twelve years in office after his current term ends in 2024.

Originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus, the decision has been made over the course of the week of voting following the massive Victory Day parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary the end of World War 2.

Putin’s efforts to boost turnout are not unique to this poll. For his re-election in 2018 he received more than 70% support on a turnout around 65% and he asked for the same again this time. And once again there are a massive range of measures, both official and not, in place to help him get his wish. So many measures, in fact, that even the loyalist chair of the Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has warned that turnout fraud could discredit the entire process.

The most legitimate (and a move that other countries could do well to learn from) allows electors to change their polling location via an app to make sure they don’t miss out because of work or travel commitments. Train stations, ice breakers and even the polar research base all had their own polling stations for this purpose and cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin became the first person to vote online from space.

But, less officially, many tricks have been used to tempt people to vote. There were lots of beautification contests giving electors a choice over municipal spending to clear up local eyesores. Many polling stations hosted childrens concerts or offered cheap food and drink to encourage people along. Others held raffles with each voter given a ticket just for turning up. Sadly these might not have been quite the draw if the example of one Omsk polling station is anything to go by as the polling station chairperson conducting the draw happened to pick his own name in the contest to win an apartment.

Because of Covid-19, there was a fear that many electors will be dissuaded from voting through health concerns. A new law passed earlier this month extended the limited right to vote from home and allowed electors to vote in courtyards outside polling stations where it is thought the virus cannot be transmitted so easily. And in Moscow region a new internet voting system has been developed with more than 93% of those who registered to use the system turning out to vote, although there are allegations that people have been able to vote both over the internet and in person.

These changes would make life a lot more difficult for independent poll watchers if such existed. Longstanding domestic groups such as Golos no longer have the right to attend polling stations. If they want to observe they must join state-run Civic Chambers whose leaders – themselves state employees – will decide the wording of any observation statement. And because it is not a formal referendum, the law ‘does not envisage’ the presence of missions from the OSCE or any other credible international group. A group of far-right and other Kremlin-loyal politicians from Germany’s AfD and Italy’s League parties have been flown in to give approval to the poll, however.

There are reports of an effort to develop tracking software so that businesses can see whether their staff have voted. Such concern is usually unwarranted. Most companies rely to a greater or lesser extent on state contracts and, with the result of any poll or election a foregone conclusion, most employees recognise that their jobs are at risk if their firm does not record a high turnout. The odd vote against is accepted so long as participation is high. With the popularity of the regime so low, however, extra precautions have been taken. Notwithstanding that, there are some sections of society where high participation can be guaranteed and more than 90% of the military have voted.

In the past, apartment blocks in areas with historic records of low turnout, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, would find themselves ‘accidentally’ left off the voter list. Residents who turn up to vote receive an apology and are added to a special supplemental list. But anyone who fails to turn up was never on the list in the first place and so does not impact on turnout levels. Without observers on the ground, it is impossible to tell if that tactic is in use again, but it is reasonable to assume so as the President seeks the strongest mandate possible for his reforms. There are also the usual allegations that polling station officials have cast votes on behalf of those who do not turn up, even if they are dead. Anything to ensure that the area they are responsible for doesn’t draw attention to itself with a significantly low turnout.

Perhaps the only constraint on President Putin is that he could not afford to stretch credibility too far. Those who voted against the proposals or who boycotted the event altogether needed to see their decision reflected in the locally declared result. Whilst a WCIOM poll found that just 42% of Russians believe that the results will relate to the actual choices made by voters, the 70/70 formula was devised to be just about credible whilst giving a comprehensive thumbs up to the idea of President-for-Life Vladimir Putin.




Poland’s Presidential Election to go to second round as incumbent Duda leads

Poland will go to the polls again in a fortnight as the election for a new president goes to a second round. In yesterday’s first round, the incumbent Andrej Duda came top, but fell well short of the 50% needed to win outright. He will face Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski on July 12th.

At the same time, the blowback for Duda’s last minute visit to the United States, which was seen as an endorsement and unwise intervention in the election by President Trump, continues. The Brookings Institution has run an article explaining why a President getting involved in another country’s elections is a bad idea.

In yesterday’s poll, President Duda secured 43.7% of the vote and Mr Trzaskowski 30.3%. Journalist Szymon Hołownia, running as an independent, was the only other candidate to reach double figures. Turnout was around 63%, much higher than the 49% of eligible citizens who voted in the last contest in 2015. The election was originally scheduled for May but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the failure of Parliament to agree an all-postal voting system.

Although not a member of the governing PiS party, President Duda has been endorsed by them and his platform is based on their right wing nationalist programme. Mr Trzaskowski is a member of former governing party Civic Platform and only became the party candidate on May 15th after the original candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska stepped aside having run a lacklustre campaign. His late entry into the contest and rising poll numbers give credence to the idea that the second round could be very close.

UPDATE: The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has just held its press conference to announce its preliminary findings on the election. Bear in mind that this was a small Special Election Assessment Mission consisting of just eight experts and not a full mission able to visit many polling stations.

ODIHR praised the administration of the election saying that despite Covid-19 and the short notice legal changes, the administration was generally good and transparent and the practice of publishing results broken down by polling station is to be praised. But they went on to say that these legal changes had an impact on candidate registration, voting methods, campaign finance, campaign and the resolution of disputes. In addition, a number of previous recommendations have not been acted upon.

The mission reserved its major criticism for the media coverage which it said was polarised and biased. In particular, they said that the state broadcaster TVP failed in its legal duty to provide balanced and impartial coverage. Instead it acted as a campaign vehicle for the incumbent and provided negative portrayals of the main challenger. Some TVP reporting had xenophobic and anti-semitic undertones, the mission said. The National Radio and TV Council – the media regulator – has been too passive and did not actively monitor the coverage of the campaign, they conclude.

The mission also criticised the campaign which it says involved negative rhetoric from the leading candidates and inflamatory spech by the incumbent which was at times xenophobic and homophobic.

You can read the full statement here.

The lack of scrutiny created by coronavirus scares me. It will only help autocrats – article for The Independent

I’ve written an article for The Independent about the risks that authoritarians will use the Cover-19 pandemic to gain ground as elections go ahead without proper international observation.

I’ve also suggested that the decision to merge the UK’s Foreign Office with the Department for International Development is an opportunity for the country to become a global leader in election observation.

You can read it here.

Reading List – 19th June 2020

Belarus will hold a Presidential election on August 8th and Ryhor Astapenia, a Fellow at Chatham House has written a piece suggesting that, although President Alexander Lukashenko will win this time, the three pillars on which his rule is cemented appear to be crumbling and it is time to consider a Belarus without him in charge.

In his preview of the election, Andrew Roth for The Guardian looks at the measures being taken by the Lukashenko regime to crack down on the candidates running against him. Many of these opponents come from within the establishment and therefore have more credibility than previous electoral contestants.

At the same time, the Director of ODIHR, the election observing wing of OSCE, has publicly called on Belarus to issue the necessary invitation for international organisations to observe the election. Issuing such an invitation is a requirement of Belarus’ membership of OSCE.

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Ben Noble has written a very interesting article looking at the national vote in Russia which starts next week. The point that stood out for me was that the vote only goes to emphasise the weakness of existing state institutions such as the Duma and Constitutional Court.



Quinton Scribner and Dr Richard Connolly have written a Chatham House article on the likely effect of the virus on Russia’s economy. For me this provided the clearest explanation yet of why Russia is so reluctant to spend the national ‘rainy day fund’ that they have built up over the years.


Parsing Putin – what the Russian President’s article says about World War 2 and modern history

President Putin’s article in National Interest on the Great Patriotic War is very well worth reading to understand how is is seeking to portray the history of that period, particularly in light of the proposed changes to the constitution which would make it a criminal act to deny the official version of history. That is the message for domestic consumption at least.

But it’s message to an international audience is contained in its last paragraphs. It calls for a new conference of the modern great powers – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – a plea for Russia to be readmitted to polite diplomatic society. Given the context of an article about the destructive power of world war, this is a none too subtle hint at the alternative.

The structure of the article is a selective tour through the history of the 20th century. First and foremost, Putin states that it was the Soviet Union – all component parts of it – that was primarily responsible for defeating Hitler and Nazism.

As for the causes of the Second World War (and he does give the conflict that name on one occasion), he says that it was inevitable following the Treaty of Versailles and the feeling of injustice that this provoked in Germany. That’s a cause that is referred to also in western history teaching – or at least it was when I was at school. In addition, he says that Western firms helped Germany by investing in factories there that would be used to produce arms and that the borders drawn by the First World War victors (the Soviet Union being concerned in its own on-going revolution by this point) meant continued resentment in many parts of the continent.

But it is the ‘Munich Betrayal’ to which President Putin returns on a number of occasions as his pre-eminent reason for the Second World War. He says that France and the UK regarded Hitler

“as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals”.

He points out that Stalin did not meet with Hitler and that it was the division of Czechoslovakia, in which Poland was also complicit, that was the final straw.

And it was as a result of the Munich agreement and the decision by the Western Powers to allow Japan a free rein in China that the Soviet Union was forced to sign a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement)

“to buy precious time to strengthen the country’s defences”.

Putin accepts that the secret protocols to Molotov-Ribbentrop (those that agreed the division of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia) were worthy of condemnation but notes that the Soviet Parliament did just that in 1989 whilst the West continues to deny the impact that their joint agreements with Hitler had.

Once the war started, Putin claims that the decision by the French and British not to fight hard in the West allowed the German to concentrate their resources in the East. He suggests that this was a deliberate ploy to break the Soviet Union and that Soviet forces only invaded Poland as a last resort.

Putin identifies Churchill as being in favour of working closely with the Soviets (despite his hatred of Communism) to defeat Germany and acknowledges the efforts and sacrifices of UK, US, Chinese and French nations in the fight against Hitler but is clear that these were a mere supporting act to the leading role played by the Soviet army.

Finally, Putin turns to the United Nations and says that having countries with veto power is necessary to keeping the peace as it forces the big powers to negotiate and to find compromise, just as they did at Yalta, Tehran and other wartime conferences.

Facebook announces Voting Information Center in effort to register 4 million new voters

Facebook have launched a big push to register more peoople for this autumn’s US elections. Among the tools they have created is a ‘Voting Information Center’. From this summer, anyone logging into Facebook, Messenger or Instagram will see a banner advertising the function. Facebook claim they helped 2 million people to register in 2016 and in 2018 and they want to double that number this time.

2_VotingInfoCenter_FBThe Information Center will have information about registering to vote as well as absentee or postal votes, depending on the particular rules of the state they live in.

In addition, Facebook has finalised their opt-out system for political adverts. Users will be able to toggle a switch to block all political and issue based adverts – anything that has a ‘paid for by…’ label. That’s fine, but it is a blunt instrument. There is no ability to choose only to block certain adverts. And it will be interesting to find out (if they will tell us) how many users take up this feature. The good news is that this feature will slowly roll out across other countries that have an advert register.

There are also a couple of small tweaks. The ‘paid for’ disclaimer that indicated a post was an advert used to disappear when an ad was shared. Now that label will stay on the post. Finally, the platform is tracking the amount spent by political contest so that users can identify better what money is being spent where, not just by who. Hopefully that feature will roll across to countries where campaign finance is more tightly regulated as soon as possible.

So, as you might expect, I have a number of concerns about this scheme, even if the overall proposal is very welcome:

  • First, however big and bold they are making it seem, this is still not the grand vision that Facebook has been lacking for so long when it comes to political posts, adverts and electoral interference. Until we know what their long term gameplan is, they will continue to fiddle around the edges.
  • Second, once again we are looking at a big initiative rolled out for a US election. There is absolutely nothing to indicate when such provisions might be made available in the 150+ other countries in which Facebook has a major influence on voters. Yes – the US election is the biggest single contest this year and Facebook is based there. But having a completely America-centric view on things is deeply damaging to the platform’s reputation in many other countries.
  • Third is what is not being said. Facebook is claiming: “By getting clear, accurate and authoritative information to people, we reduce the effectiveness of malicious networks that might try to take advantage of uncertainty and interfere with the election.” My fear is that they will use the existence of the Information Center as an excuse for not acting as they should when leading figures break the platform rules. A month ago President Trump had a post tagged on twitter because it was deemed that he was aiming to spread mistrust in the election system. This was about the only area in which most platforms are prepared to act (although Twitter also censored a post which it claimed was glorifying violence). This week he has again claimed (without justification) that ‘Democrats will stuff ballot boxes with thousands of fake votes’. That, again, is a post aiming to spread mistrust in the election and should have been blocked. But it hasn’t been. If Facebook starts pointing to the information center as the reason they aren’t taking down such posts when they appear on their platform then they will have failed voters rather than served them.

French municipal elections to conclude on 28th June

France is going ahead with the remainder of its municipal elections on 28th June. This excellent paper by International IDEA and others explains the background.

In short, there are about 35,000 municipal bodies (local councils) in France, the vast majority of which are very small – with fewer than 1,000 voters. They elect councillors in a two round system. The first of these rounds was held on March 15th and the second was scheduled for a week later.

The first round was held the day after President Macron instituted a lockdown. The problem was that the law in France did not allow for the elections to be postponed. When turnout fell dramatically, the political parties agreed by consensus to postpone the second round and this was subsequently confirmed by a new law.

More than 30,000 councils didn’t need a second round as the winners had secured more than 50% of the vote in the first. But there remained almost 5,000 municipalities (including the biggest cities) which did.

The emergency law decreed that the second round needed to be held by the end of June. If not, it implied that the elections should be scrapped altogether and started from scratch as soon as possible. But it was unclear whether this would apply to those municipalities where the elections were ‘finished’ as well as those which needed a second round.

In the event, President Macron and French political leaders have decided that the second round can go ahead on June 28th – before the deadline. This comes as lockdown is being eased cross the country. What will happen to turnout – particularly among older sections of the population – remains to be seen as France does not make provision for early, home or postal voting.