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.

Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit

I’ve written an essay for the Foreign Policy Centre Think Tank about President-Elect Joe Biden’s pledge to hold a Summit for Democracy within the first year of taking office. I argue that this is a great chance to make democracy and elections interesting again but that will only happen if the summit is inclusive and not preachy.

You can read the essay here.

What does the election of Maia Sandu as President of Moldova mean

Moldova in the last decade or so has been split between three political forces, the pro-Russians led by out-going President Igor Dodon, the pro-Westerners led by new President Maia Sandu and the oligarchs such as Vlad Plahotniuc who have taken so much out of the country. Typically two of these forces will band together to try to see off the third. Sandu became PM when she allied with Dodon to get rid of the oligarchs. But she was outmanoeuvred by the other two less than a year later and before any of her anti-corruption measures could have significant effect. Now Sandu has defeated Dodon (and credit should be given to him for conceding so quickly), apparently with the support of the oligarchs.

Much of the victory is apparently down to the votes of Moldovans living abroad and there are reports of long queues to vote in both Birmingham and London in the UK – and no doubt many other diaspora voting stations as well.

So what does this mean for Moldova and its relationships with the rest of the world:

1. Russia

There have been reports that President Dodon and others in his party used to run their speeches and major policies past the Molodova desk at the Russian MFA. And whilst there has not been much outward sign of Kremlin concern about Moldova, the country is still part of their ‘near abroad’ and a domino which Russia will be concerned does not fall irrevocably to the West. There are many tools in the Russian armory, including formenting civil unrest or undermining the incoming administration. Which, if any, will Russian employ?

2. The West

One outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal has been to highlight just how disengaged the countries of the west had become from the conflict and the belligerents. Despite the USA and France supposedly being co-chairs of the Minsk Group, their one attempt at mediation failed and it was Russia which has emerged as the key player. Much the same is the case with Moldova. It is considered a small and insignificant country by much of Europe. Maia Sandu is not just pro-western but has been laying out her requests for co-operation with the EU and other bodies for a number of years. The people of Moldova have put their trust in her and if she cannot deliver then she is unlikely even to make it to the full term of her office. The Moldovan economy is small, so effective levels of support will not cost very much and can focus on key changes which help to stamp out corruption. Sandu and many Moldovans might ultimately want their country to join the EU but that need not be immediately on the table. Some have argued that the new President must make the first move and it is clear that the EU and others cannot give away the farm. But without some early wins in terms of either aid or policy changes, it is unlikely that Sandu will be able to be effective at all. Getting ahead of the oligarchs has to be the key to her presidency.

3. The oligarchs

Vlad Plahotniuc and others may no longer be in day to day control of Moldova but their writ still runs large across the country. They have proved in the last 12 months or so that they can buy up MPs to create a new bloc and it is clear that without their support Sandu would probably not have won the Presidency. What their price will be is going to be key. Plahotniuc is facing legal challenges in the USA and elsewhere which he would no doubt like lifted. He might also believe that he should be free to keep wetting his beak in the country’s meagre economy and will be eying increased western support keenly. The defining moment of Sandu’s presidency is therefore likely to come early. She will either be in hock to the oligarchs or make a decisive break from them.

4. Transnistria

The Trasnistria conflict is very different from Nagorno-Karabakh. If nothing else, there is regular trade across the unofficial border. But it is still a conflict in which the Minsk Group and others have proved powerless to effect a solution. Russia has a major interest in keeping hold of its major arms dump so close to NATO and on Ukraine’s western border and so will be unlikely to sponsor any significant peace deal. Indeed, the last proposal was transliterated into the Ukrainian context as a possible solution in Donbas. There is no silver bullet of a solution, but increased engagement from different players will both persuade the people of the region that they are understood and ensure that further changes to their detriment are less likely to take hold.

The OSCE/ODIHR preliminary statement on the second round of the Presidential election can be found here.

Tanzanian elections marred by allegations of fraud

The Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Tanzania have been marred by widespread accusations of fraud and violence, as reported in the Guardian, al-Jazeera and New York Times.

The reports carry quotes from local observers and opposition political parties but nothing from international election missions because credible groups have been denied entry or failed to receive the invitation and assurances they needed that their teams would be treated fairly.

From a European perspective, the organisation that covers most elections in Africa is the EU. A Polish MEP asked in September about the envisaged mission, but the answer confirmed that there would be none.

“As the EU did not receive an answer from the Tanzanian authorities to its application for accreditation that would ensure that the standard terms of reference for an Electoral Expert Mission would be respected, in particular in terms of access and dialogue with the electoral management bodies, the intended deployment of such a mission became unfeasible.”

The big regional organisations are the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community, but only the AU was present and deployed at relatively short notice. There is nothing on their website to indicate a statement on the conduct of the election.

The only other missions that I can find any evidence of are the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and the East African Community (EAC). The first of these is a small NGO which has worked with the EU in the past. They had a small short term mission and are due to issue a statement tomorrow (UPDATE: No statement has been published on their website as at 18:20 GMT 30th October)

The EAC sounds like an august body and their mission was led by the former President of Burundi, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya. It declares that its mandate will be: 

“to observe the overall electoral environment, pre-election activities, the polling day, the counting and tallying/announcement of results.”

Part of the problem is that the mission only arrived in country on Friday 23rd for an election the following Wednesday. By any standards it would be impossible for the team to assess the pre-election environment, let alone the campaign, voter registration, election staff training, voter education or any of the other key activities that take place before election day. This is particularly the case as on the first two days of their deployment the mission members were taking part in briefings 

The EAC mission promises that a statement will be made on Friday 30th (and I will update at that point), but I am not especially hopeful of it being a fair and unbiased account as the head of the EAC, Libérat Mfumukeko, said in their launch press release:

“we expect a successful mission and we very much believe that this will further strengthen the democratic process and advance development in the region”

UPDATE: The EAC statement says they visited 160 polling stations. They give a positive report on the processes and note no negative aspects and conclude:

“Generally, the Mission is of the view that the Election process was conducted in a credible manner.”

This is a preliminary statement and a final report will be published at some point in the future.

At a time when Covid-19 is making normal work very difficult, it has been shown by OSCE/ODIHR and others that election observation missions can still take place in a meaningful way. That is not a criticism of the EU, SADC, Commonwealth and other groups that might have been present. They have to prioritise the safety of their teams and if the normal guarantees have not been given then it is understandable that they have stayed away

So it appears that it is a deliberate decision by the Tanzanian authorities to refuse to provide the usual invitations or guarantees to potential missions. It would be good to hear from governments whether they consider this to be a deliberate act and, if so, what they will be doing in response. Holding elections behind closed doors so that the results can be unfairly manipulated demands a diplomatic response and I hope that one will be forthcoming.

UPDATE: This post was updated on 30th October to take account of the presence of the AU mission, the EAC preliminary statement and the lack of anything from the EISA or AU.

The myriad of ways in which post-Soviet democracies choose to break down

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Elections are fundamental to democracy, but elections are merely one pillar supporting a democratic system and there are growing numbers of countries where that pillar is crumbling.

The last decade in Europe and the US has shaken our faith in democracy. The US is no longer the archetype that others aspire to. Its electoral system, many features of which were exported around the world, have proved to be quite dysfunctional and manipulable. And while much of Europe still maintains strong elections which accurately reflect the views of the voters who participate, there are also countries where this is no longer always the case.

Elections by themselves are not enough to maintain a healthy democracy. They may increase accountability and inspire citizens, but they may also lead to nationalist hysteria, the oppression of minorities and can legitimise dictators. In post-Soviet Eurasia, many elections have had a negative effect on democratic progression and the events in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in recent weeks have shown that change comes not necessarily from elections but from protests or rejection of elections.

International organisations in the West have focussed on elections as the lynchpin of successful democracy. Samuel Huntington’s two turnover test – two changes of power as a result of elections – is just one example of the western fixation on elections as central to democratic success.

But electoral fundamentalism, as David van Reybrouck calls it, is a gross simplification of how democracies function and survive. 

On a practical level, Paddy Ashdown thought similarly. When he became the High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina he criticised the idea that elections were enough to bring peace and democracy to that country. He pointed out that the rule of law was vital and his efforts were in combatting corruption as a precondition to engendering citizen confidence in the system.

In the post-Soviet world there are a number of examples of what might happen. But as Tolstoy suggested, there is no single model for how democracy breaks down. Whilst we may think of the space as being solely led by authoritarian regimes, this is not the case and it is not possible to read across from one to another except to understand that our focus should be wider than simply counting ballot papers.

Belarus is perhaps the closest to the perceived authoritarian model. A leader who has been in power for many years – in this case having won in a genuinely competitive contest in the first place – dictates the desired result before election day. The state then makes his wishes come true.  In that case there was, for the first time, a sea change in public mood that has resulted in many weeks of street protests. Rather than a rise in pro-Western or anti-Russian feeling as some would have it, this may be a case where citizens see the types of democratic freedoms across their borders with Lithuania and Poland and desire some of that progress for themselves. In this case it is geography that may set them apart from, say, Tajikistan where a very similar result was declared in similar circumstances, but without any apparent public objection. So whilst the incumbent attempts to portray his rivals as stooges of the West, the protests continue to be successful precisely because they are homegrown and not dependent on American (or Polish, or German) money or influence.

Whilst Belarus looks to be a long and drawn-out battle, some recent elections have been set aside with remarkable swiftness. Kyrgyzstan has been referred to on many occasions as an island of democracy in a sea of central asian authoritarianism. The truth is that this is another country where electoral practices are a veneer over a deeply flawed democracy. The different parties there are not ideologically based but instead founded on clans and regional identity. Elections have long been a battle between the north and the south with most electors controlled either by clan loyalty or by payment. Even after a peaceful handover of power in 2017, the new President chose to imprison his predecessor rather than risk him trying to control the country from behind the scenes.

After last month’s parliamentary elections produced a deeply unconvincing result with just four parties declared to have met the 7% threshold, the public took to the streets. This was the third such revolution in two decades and Kyrgyz people are so used to rioting that there are established civilian groups that coalesce to protect property and businesses. In double quick time President Jeenbekov acknowledged the result was flawed and promised fresh elections. But this was not enough for the mob who demanded, and got, his resignation. The presidency, prime ministership and parliament itself is now in the hands of a nationalist politician who was elected to none of these roles and fresh elections are due next year. The EU has rung the alarm bells at this change and has stated that Jeenbekov is the only legitimate leader in the country until such time as new elections are held. But whilst these might result in additional parties being elected to Parliament and a formal change in President, it is unlikely that the institutions will be more firmly grounded. A fourth revolt is only a matter of time.

In Kyrgyzstan, as with any other country in the region, the role of Russia is a constant question. Russia has a lot on its plate at the moment with Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin does not appear to be paying much attention to Bishkek, mostly because they know there is little they can do, but also because there are none of the potential leaders who scare them. There is no move to unite with the West, with China or with any other strategic opponent. And Russia has proved able to squash every attempt so far among the central Asian states to co-operate more closely in their economies – the issue that concerns Moscow the most. These efforts are being led by the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan but are routinely dampened down by Russia which wants its Eurasian Economic Union to be the only game in town.

Other countries – outside the former Soviet world – give greater hope that constitutionality and the rule of law can win through. In both Malawi and Kenya, deeply troubled elections have been declared void by constitutional courts and re-runs have ben ordered. But these results have only been possible thanks to strong and independent judges, something that is very rare in even the best of the former CIS countries.

Armenia and Azerbaijan and countries which are very different politically. Azerbaijan has modelled itself closely on the authoritarian model with an unwritten deal that promises economic prosperity and good living conditions in return for a loss of political and electoral rights. This trade, however, relies on the continued prosperity bought by petro-chemical resources and the gas price crash and general economic slowdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic may start to induce tensions.

In contrast, Armenia has long practised the concept of seemingly competitive elections and changes of power. But at crucial moments the country has had to rely on street protest and revolution to change course.

In both cases, a fundamental flaw has become the absolutist nature of policy over the disputed territory of Karabakh, or Artsakh to the Armenians. During Soviet times this island of mainly Armenian inhabitants surrounded by the Azeri SSR was not a major issue. But since independence in 1991 there has been an almost constant conflict and the current battles demonstrate that it shows no sign of abating. This is not a frozen conflict but the positions of each combatant have atrophied to the extent that no person can come to power in Armenia unless they promise that Artsakh is and will always remain Armenian. And whilst an authoritarian ruler is not so hidebound to electoral promises, the Azeri position has become a lot stronger in recent years as they have developed their military with modern weapons including drones and now have the overt support of Turkey as that country seeks to demonstrate its aspirations to become a regional power. If parties come to power time and again promising the impossible then this weakens faith in the electoral process.

Three elections are imminent in the post-Soviet world and each presents a different case to show how democracy is weak when it relies simply on elections.

In Ukraine, contests are taking place to choose mayors and local authorities. These polls follow the overwhelming victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election last year and his party, Servant of the People, in the parliamentary vote which followed soon after.

A novice politician, Zelensky has seen that in a country which has stronger democratic institutions than many, it is not possible to rule by presidential fiat. He has not been able to magic a solution to the Donbas or Crimean occupations, nor to solve the economic woes of the country. Frequent changes in government ministers do not help and, whilst his predecessors would marvel at his opinion poll ratings, these have been going steadily down as it becomes clear that likeability is not the same as administrative competence. In this case public confidence is not just waning in the individual, but also in the hope that a genuine change in the political system was in the offing. 

It is perhaps not too late to turn the situation around, but to do so probably relies on correcting the major failing in Ukraine which is the oligarchical system. With so many industrial leaders behind, and sometimes in front of, the scenes, the public realise that their elected leaders are not answerable to them but to the paymasters who control the media and jobs.

When it comes to local and municipal elections the system fails further. Most incumbent mayors do not align themselves with national parties but have their own local groupings. These groupings then control the allocation of municipal jobs and contracts. The national parties may divide the seats on local councils between them, but the power lies with mayors who are not answerable to anyone other than their oligarchic paymasters.

Moldova is another country where oligarchs have run riot, but the prominence of Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor does not tell the whole story as they control only one of three factions within political life. The second is the pro-Russian Socialist Party of incumbent President Igor Dodon and the third is the technocrat pro-western party led by Maia Sandu. Each of these groupings has at times aligned with another in an attempt to eliminate the third. The oligarchs were exiled for a while but then allied with Dodon to oust the government of Sandu before it could implement real change. Now it seems the oligarchs are backing Sandu as the best chance to knock Dodon off his perch – but at what price? In all of this, voters will continue to choose between contestants but their wishes only hold sway on a temporary basis as the real battles continue to take place behind closed doors. All the while the economy falls further and a portion of the country remains under effective Russian control.

In Georgia, elections exemplify a misplaced faith in parties as instruments of accountability and promoters of diffusion of power. Since 1991, some elections in Georgia have been genuine expressions of voter will, but most have solidified the parties in power and cemented the privileges of Georgia’s ruling political circles.

This is another country where street protests have borne fruit. In this case it is the opening up of the electoral system such that opposition parties are now more likely to gain representation. It is not quite the ‘everyone must have prizes’ system of the 1992-95 parliament when 26 parties were represented, but nonetheless the reduction to just 30 majoritarian seats (out of 150) and the lowering of the threshold to 1% represents a substantial change. In addition, the requirement that one in four list candidates must be a woman should ensure that female representation rises from the present, pitiful, nine, although there is no equivalent quota for national minorities. 

All these are important concessions from the ruling Georgian Dream grouping and they are a recognition of the need for compromise. Most importantly no one knows what the outcome will be – or at least whether Georgian Dream will win an overall majority. Uncertainty about the results is always a good sign. An NDI poll in the summer suggested an 88% turnout although 59% still didn’t know who they are voting for. Most voters will now have made up their mind, but the absence of constant polling – as in the US – means that the public, and parties, will enter election day uncertain as to the outcome.

For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive and enjoy voter confidence, with accessible information on party policies and the differences between them and they have to lead to visible outcomes. One would also hope the elections would promote a degree of social integration rather than fragmentation. But despite the signing by over 40 Georgian parties of a code of conduct on September 12, there is little evidence of electoral features which will lead to a more qualitative democracy. 

Most seriously, elected representatives should govern because they have been given the power to do so by electors. But in Georgia they will not due to Inashvili’s overwhelming economic and political influence. This is the greatest challenge in Georgia right now.

The increased party list system helps opposition parties but it also helps solidify the powers of party leaders who control the lists and reduces the accountability of MPs to constituents. The elections are competitive, but how fair will they be. Georgian Dream has overwhelming financial resources and the apparatus of the state, particularly in the regions where the election process is opaque and GD has significant control over local government and over who gets appointed to the precinct electoral commissions. Polls suggest voter confidence in political parties and knowledge of what the parties are offering is very low. This is because parties have no staying power and appear and disappear frequently. There are a raft of new parties in this election, as in almost every election since 1991. But most parties – old and new – represent a clique or are crafted in the image of a strongman. Very few represent a coherent ideology. 

What is perhaps more worrying is that every election since 1991 has operated under different rules. This suggests a persistent disconnect between the population and the politicians. If every parliament so fails to reflect the will of the voters that the system needs to be changed then perhaps it is not the voting system that is failing. It is good that public pressure can bring political change, but in a democracy that should be through the ballot box rather than protests on the streets. 

For these reasons the 2020 election is unlikely to foster greater democracy or accountability. If these elections once again fail to produce a positive outcome such as better prosperity or increased accountability then they will chip further away at Georgian peoples’ faith in democracy.

All of this gloom and doom is not to suggest for a minute that elections and a wider democratic model should not be the aspiration of each country and should not be promoted by those in a position to influence things. There are signs of progress, albeit very slight. That Uzbekistan wants to eliminate polling day fraud and the ruling party in Kazakhstan is choosing its candidates through primaries are to be welcomed, even if they are comparatively tiny steps forward in countries which remain deeply undemocratic.

The UK Government is set to announce its strategic foreign and defence policy review next month and a focus on promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights must surely be front and centre. Equally, the election in the United States may well produce the return of an administration which values multi-lateral institutions and looks to promote its values more actively. Both Germany and France remain active in promoting liberal internationalism around the world, but the EU also needs to look close to home as both Poland and Hungary continue to present worrying evidence of democratic backsliding.

Rahmon secures another 7-year term as Tajikistan President

Emomali Rahmon has won re-election to the presidency of Tajikistan for a sixth term in a result that will shock precisely no-one. He is declared to have won just over 90% of the votes cast on an 85% turnout, beating four (male) rivals.

No election in Tajikistan has been considered to be genuinely free and fair since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Rahmon (then Rahmonov) has led the country since 1994 and is credited with ending the five year civil war. He is the only candidate exempt from term limits and has been granted the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’ by the lower house of Parliament. Tajikistan follows the ‘strong-presidential’ of most states in the region and its leaders have been elected for seven-year terms since 1999.

There had been some speculation that Rahmon might succeeded by his son Rustam Emomali but this did not come to pass and the incumbent stood against candidates representing the Agrarian Party, Party of Economic Reform, Socialist Party and Communist Party. All were broadly pro-government. Opposition activist Faromuz Irgashev and Saidjafar Usmonzoda of the Democratic Party were denied registration and the Social Democratic Party – the only formal opposition party in the parliament – announced it would boycott the polls.

Whilst the constitution of Tajikistan allows for free campaigning and equal access to the media, the reality was a lacklustre campaign with no rallies or activities on the ground – despite the election being a month earlier than is traditional for Tajik elections and the weather therefore being more conducive to outdoor activity. TV debates mostly consisted of candidates reading pre-prepared statements and had no questioning or back-and-forth. Domestic observers are prohibited in the country and only representatives of organisations which nominated candidates may attend polling stations. International observers are permitted, but OSCE/ODIHR was only able to send a small assessment team because of Covid-19. A longer term mission from CIS, a body which traditionally whitewashes authoritarian elections, was present.

Rahmon appeared to have genuine popularity in the early days as the person who brought the country out of civil war. But the economy is in decline and the effects of Covid-19 have been to make living conditions even more difficult. Tajikistan is reliant internally on trade with Russia and many hundreds of thousands of citizens work abroad for part or all of the year, sending remittances back to the country. Recently there has also been some Chinese investment as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and there is an attempt to relax some of the notorious border bureaucracy between the five central asian states – an initiative from Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. However it is clear that the country is struggling and does not have the petro-chemical or abstraction resources that some of its neighbours can rely on.

In common with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan is the subject of much speculation as to its future direction. Dushanbe has long had Russian military bases on its soil but has now taken the decision also to allow the Chinese to build a base in the East of the country. As with the other countries of central Asia, Russia has little interest in re-absorbing the states into its territory given the likely costs of doing so. But they view these states as ‘the near abroad’ – a backyard in which it does not intend to allow others to gain too much control. The presence of the Chinese base has also alarmed India following the clashes that have taken place between the two countries in recent weeks.

RFE/RL reported that many people had cast multiple ballots with those who did so saying that they voted on behalf of family members who could not get to the polls. This proxy voting has been common across Tajikistan and some of its neighbours for many years.

Nevertheless, Rahmon was delared the outright winner in a contest which envisaged a second round if no candidate won more than half the votes cast and fresh elections if turnout fell below 50%.

Result (source RFE/RL):

Emomali Rahmon (People’s Democratic Party) 90.92%

Rustam Latifzoda (Agrarian Party) 3.03%

Rustam Rahmatzoda (Party of Economic Reform) 2.15%

Abduhalim Ghafforzoda (Socialist Party) 1.49%

Miroj Abdulloyev (Communist Party) 1.17%

Turnout 85.4%

What makes this result interesting is that candidates were required to secure the signatures of 5% of the electorate in order to be registered. That four candidates should have managed this feat but failed to secure that same number of votes in the actual election is further testimony to the unsatisfactory nature of the election.

Reading List – 8th October 2020

Russia and Europe: Stuck on Autopilot

This is a long read which looks at Russia’s relationships with three key European players – Germany, France and the UK. Andrew Weiss of Carnegie argues that at a time when Russia could be exploiting EU and NATO weaknesses to subtly further its foreign policy ambitions, it is acting too bluntly. 

Germany has traditionally separated business ties from politics, but there are strong calls for the Nord-Stream 2 project to be cancelled or put on hold. Whilst these are being resisted by Chancellor Merkel and her likely successors, there is clearly a block to any new ventures.

President Macron has continued the French tradition of seeking closer ties with Russia, partly as a demonstration of an alternative view of Europe that does not rely on the USA. Russia has proved less responsive however and continues to undertake projects in Francophone Africa which the Elysee Palace views as treading on its toes. If Russia can have a sphere of influence then whay cannot France?

As for the UK, Russian money is deeply embedded here and the ISC report showed just how close the Conservative party and Kremlin have become. But activities such as the Skripal poisoning led to the UK co-ordinating a global response which Russia did not predict.

Europe’s Longest-Running Conflict Can’t Be Ignored

Another piece about the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict, this time from Thomas de Waal of Carnegie. Her argues that the conflict cannot be ignored and can only be resolved with Russian assistance. 

The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: 10 Things We Learned

Sophia Gaston, the director of the British Foreign Policy Group, looks at Dominic Raab’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for clues as to the outcome of the Government’s strategic foreign policy review.

There appears to be a very nuanced stance on China with a desire to keep them in the room and talking whilst also making sure they cannot dominate multilateral institutions while America is focussed elsewhere. There is even talk of a boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

However it seems the UK will continue to press the idea of being a champion of democracy and human rights whilst maintianing strong ties to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes.

As far as Russia is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of new policy around the corner. Perhaps sensing that strong action to counter corrupt money housed in London would simply highlight the claims made in the ISC report, Raab downplayed the issue, although he did raise the possibility of Magnitsky type action in the future.

The Challenge of Observing American Democracy

This is a great read for those of us interested or involved in the election observation business.

Moldova’s election looms – and so does trouble

There is a presidential election coming up in a former soviet country on the EU’s Eastern flank. It’s going to be a close contest between an incumbent who embraces Russia and a challenger whose outlook is more western.

The country is Moldova and, whilst the situation is very different from that faced by Belarus two months ago, there are sufficient similarities that should worry the west. The country will go to the polls on November 1st and then again for an almost certain second round two weeks later.

Moldova has been the site of a so-called frozen conflict almost since independence. Following a three month war in 1992, Transnistria has been a breakaway state subject to a tripartite agreement that doesn’t look like being resolved. Apart from anything else, the status quo allows for a Russian army base (and huge arms dump) to be sited on NATO’s eastern flank (and, considentally, on the border with Western Ukraine). There have been proposals to help end the stand-off, but the most likely was hijacked to form the basis of a solution to the Donbas conflict. It always seems to be the case that Moldova’s needs play second fiddle to wider regional or geo-politics.

Moldova’s major political problem is that it has three major forces which tend to balance each other out. The incumbent president is Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party. He has claimed to be equidistant between Russia and the EU, but few have ever believed this to be the case and that mask has slipped in recent months as his true colours as a Kremlin ally are to the fore.

Dodon’s main challenger is Maia Sandu of PAS. Sandu is a technocrat who was briefly prime minister and who lost to Dodon in the 2016 Presidential run-off by 52-48%. As Prime Minister, she relied on a coalition deal with the rather shaky PPDA party and an informal alliance with Dodon and the Socialists. Although favoured by the west, she has been outplayed by other parties in the past, never more so than when she resigned on a matter of principle that was engineered by the Socialists to expose her naivitée.

The other grouping centres around the country’s oligarchs. Chief among these is Vlad Plahotniuc, the former motivating force behind the Democrat Party. Plahotniuc was run out of the country and escaped to the USA where he is currently under investigation. Nevertheless, he maintains a lot of political influence in Moldova and, although the Democrats have withered away to almost nothing, he and his fellow oligarchs have been shamelessly buying up sitting MPs under a range of party names.

From doing a deal with the Socialists to get rid of Plahotniuc, Sandu is now contemplating a deal with the oligarchs to get rid of Dodon. Certainly she seems like the most likely candidate to make it through to a run-off with the incumbent and she will need to win the votes controlled by the oligarchs in order to triumph. What price she is willing to pay – especilly in terms of credibility – will be watched closely.

Polling in Moldova is not widespread, but the US group IRI carried out a survey over the summer which found that Sandu and Dodon were within 2% of each other in first round preferences, but that neither could manage the support or more than one in five of the electorate (not voting and don’t knows were 33% of the responses). 

Where the Moldovan elections echo those in Belarus is this suspicion of vote rigging. Sandu’s party has put up billboards in Chisinau declaring, “He thinks he can steal the election” (NG-Dipkuryer, September 20). But even as President, Dodon has not captured enough of the state apparatus to declare that he won 80% of the vote. But there might well be significant irregularities on both sides. Dodon would like to face anyone other than Sandu in the second round and Sandu herself will be reliant on the votes of people controlled by the oligarchs who have done so much to ruin the country.

If there are protests – and that seems likely whoever wins – then these will not just be about the election. The Moldovan economy has been wrecked in the decades since independence and GDP is less than a third of what it was in 1991. Dodon is as mired in corruption scandals as the oligarchs were but does not have the state apparatus to control the streets if it comes to that. The same IRI poll found 72% of respondents believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. Economic issues feature at the top of the list of concerns with political leadership and unprofessional governance next. Despite having a terrible record dealing with Covid-19, this issue doesn’t make the top three concerns. A despondent country in which neither of the main players can enthuse the electorate leaves the contest wide open to falsification.

Some are suggesting that the country has failed to such an extent that integration with Romania is the only answer. Such a move would not find favour either within the EU or Russia, but is demonstrative of the situation Moldova now finds itself in. With such embedded pessimism, even a solution to an electoral problem might not be enough to end any protests.