Elections during Covid-19

Whilst the world is trying to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the normal functionality of most states is taking a back seat. That includes elections and democratic processes. The challenge for all leaders is to ensure that emergency measures put in place for times of crisis are rescinded as soon as they can be and normal democracy and personal freedoms are once again allowed to flourish.

So far, at least 20 countries have had elections postponed and more decisions are needed all the time. A few have tentatively named new dates in the autumn, but most are as yet un-scheduled. Some ballots have struggled on, but it has become clear that this will not be possible for much longer. Elections which had hoped to get under the wire, such as France’s local elections, have been pushed back. In the first round, the government asked voters to stay three feet apart and bring their own pens. Despite these and other measures, turnout dropped from 63% in 2014 local polls to 45%, prompting President Macron to postpone the second round. 

And yet there remain a few polls which may still take place. According to International IDEA, “elections in South Korea (15 April 2020), Russia* (public vote scheduled for 22 April 2020) Bolivia (3 May 2020), New Zealand (19 September) and Romania (late 2020) are being held as originally scheduled despite concerns related to COVID-19.”

(*Note that the Russian vote has now been delayed).

The decision for lawmakers is how they can balance democracy with the health of their populations. Can mitigation measures be put in place to allow an election to go ahead, or will it put the health of voters and poll workers at risk? And is there a risk that one section of the population – typically older people – will be less inclined to vote, thus affecting the legitimacy of the outcome?

Reading the expert scientific opinion, we know that the virus can be spread by sneezing and coughing and by social contact. It is yet to be shown how long the virus can live in the open air, but places where large numbers of people can be expected to gather are at risk and such comings together have been banned in many states. Facemasks and disinfecting might help, but probably not enough to ensure that busy polling places are not without at least a degree of risk. And it would not be practical to ask every person to wear a mask or to wipe down all surfaces between each voter.

Even if it were possible, the level of concern among voters would be significant and would surely affect turnout – a factor that is not in the interests of any candidate, nor of democracy.

In those cases where elections have happened regardless – often in a country’s early stages of dealing with Covid-19 – various mitigation measures have been tried. For instance, in Israel, special polling places were set up for roughly 5,500 people self-isolating and these featured plastic sheeting and poll workers in protective gear.

Postponing elections is an easier option, but it has a significant impact on the democratic legitimacy of those who stay in office longer. And in many countries it is simply not legal to extend terms. Over the past few years, the annual survey of the state of democracy in the world has shown a small degree of backsliding. One of the tenets of a democratic society is that elections are held regularly and freely. Postponing them obviously risks this and so must only be taken as a last resort. In cases such as North Macedonia’s parliamentary elections slated for April 12th, the delay is less important as these were early polls in any case. Postponing them until the originally scheduled date in the autumn might not have a significant impact on the democratic health of the country.

One might also argue that the democratic deficit created by postponing local and mayoral elections for a year is not huge as these are less powerful positions. But it may still be the case that a postponement is unconstitutional. In an emergency session of parliament on 15th March 2020, Austria passed the ‘COVID-19-Law’. The law does not mention elections, but allows for far reaching restrictions to public life, including bans of assembly for more than five persons. Local elections scheduled for 15th March in Vorarlberg and for 22nd March in Styria have both been cancelled. Indefinitely postponing elections is not in Austria’s Constitution and its election laws prescribe: “In the event of circumstances that prevent the beginning, continuation or completion of the election, the election administration can extend the election or postpone it to the next day.” If a new date is not pencilled in soon then it may be that such instances will result in court fights.

Another case of concern is the vote on a new constitution for Chile due to be held on April 26th which has now been postponed to the autumn. This vote was the outcome of many years of protests about the Pinochet-era constitution. Instead of voting to replace widespread restrictions to personal freedoms, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced a 90-day “state of catastrophe” to confront the growing outbreak. The move gives the government extraordinary powers to restrict freedom of movement and assure food supply and basic services. The military is permitted to intervene and uphold order when necessary. A significant test of every country’s leadership will be how restrictive the measures are that they feel they need to put in place and how soon they can start to ease them. 

And what of the November election for the US President – the most powerful elected office in the world? There couldn’t really be a serious debate about extending this term of office because it would fall immediately into an argument about President Trump himself. But if there could be an objective discussion, where would that end up if the virus was still having a major effect on American life? And how do we even get to the November elections which are reliant on a series of primaries to determine presidential and down-ballot candidates?

Various suggestions have been made about alternatives to the normal voting rules and procedures, but the oft-touted concept of all-mail voting does not come without significant risks. In particular, fraud, or the potential for it, is much higher based on the experience of the UK.

The idea of implementing an all-mail ballot is an attractive one, but comes up against significant barriers in the US context. Chief among these is that elections are a devolved responsibility with states and counties having their own laws and procedures. Just 34 states have a vote by mail option and the federal government cannot mandate its adoption. That is not to say that states might not choose to provide such a choice where they currently do not, or to expand it where it is currently limited, but such action comes at a price – both financial and logistical. One state that will be trialling an all-mail vote is Maryland where a special election is to be held on 28th April. 

As an international election observer for more than 20 years, I know also that taking ballot papers out of the confines of the polling station carries a significant increased risk of fraud. And in a large election with many contests, there will be a significant rise in spoiled ballots and voter confusion in cases where there is not an official on hand to explain the process to those who may be unsure.

Such problems are exacerbated where the vote by mail is not obtained through choice but is universal. In the UK we trialled this over several elections between 2000 and 2002. The aim was to raise turnout in years which traditionally had low participation rates. The problem was that ballot envelopes are easily identifiable and can be taken by someone other than the intended voter. This happened chiefly where the voter had moved on or was not interested in voting and is an even bigger concern in multi-occupancy dwellings where residents have access to the mail of others. Where a voter has applied for a postal vote, they are more likely to raise the alarm when it does not arrive on time. But where they might not be expecting their vote to arrive in the mail, they may not know it is missing – particularly if they are someone who is less inclined to vote in the first place.

The other issue we faced in the UK was of unscrupulous campaigners stealing votes, pressuring voters and even creating ‘fraud factories’ to open up completed ballots and change them if they were not cast to the liking of the criminal parties. 

With accusations of electoral fraud common in the US in recent years, even the possibility that this might be happening would be enough for candidates from across the political spectrum to throw accusations. This would damage trust in democracy and the credibility of those declared the winners.

Whilst in the UK we continue to allow postal voting on demand, we have tightened the system significantly. The all-mail election experiment was abandoned and the signature and date of birth of all postal voters are held by election officials with every returned ballot having a signed declaration which is checked before the ballot envelope is included in the count. It is a long and costly business with an impact on personal privacy and also leads to some valid votes potentially being excluded. But it is considered the fairest balance. Campaigners in the US have already made this a point of contention with some arguing for ballots without a perfect signature match to be counted.

That is not to say that all-mail ballots cannot work. The Swiss use such a system and there are few, if any, accusations of fraud in that country. But it should not be thought of as a risk-free option for the USA or elsewhere, even in these extraordinary times. 

Technological solutions such as voting using text messaging, via the internet or by telephone were also trialled in the UK and found to have significant security risks. In a country where foreign agents are accused of having sought to disrupt the last election, it would be foolish to consider introducing more opportunities for hacking. The only country that routinely uses internet voting for public elections is Estonia and they have invested billions over many years into hardware and software to improve the security of the vote. The chances of any other country doing so for an election due in the next couple of years is negligible.

Inevitably, there is no easy solution to this challenge. Postponement, all-mail and technological solutions each have their benefits but also significant drawbacks. The debate to identify the least problematic option or options should continue. But it will only be successful if accepted by all parties and candidates as the best alternative.

UPDATE: International IDEA has now produced a technical paper looking at the options for holding elections.

Reading List: 25th March 2020

The EU Council of Ministers has given the go ahead to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. The move had been delayed following an objection from President Macron of France in December.

Opening accession talks is a long way from the countries actually becoming members of the EU, but it is a hopeful sign for countries which have already made substantial economic, social and political reforms with a view to membership.

 

In an expected move, President Vladimir Putin has announced that the ‘public vote’ on changes to the constitution will be delayed from its 22nd April date due to the coronavirus. It will now be held ‘at some future moment’.

The constitutional reforms were announced by President Putin in January and the original proposal would have prevented him from seeking another term in office after 2024. However an amendment tabled in the Duma proposed to wipe the slate clean and allow Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev, the only other living President) to serve a further two terms.

 

The UK’s Law Commissions have produced a report on changes to the rules governing elections and campaigning. Among the suggestions they make is for all political adverts to carry the equivalent of the imprint that paper campaigning materials must carry. This sets out who is responsible for the publication.

The commissions also suggest changing the rules on postponement of elections to give returning officers more powers in the event of floods and other natural disasters. They also want to see electoral paperwork made mroe simple.

 

North Macedonia delays election. What about others?

Parliamentary elections in North Macedonia have been postponed as a result of the Covid-19 virus. The polls were set for April 12th. The election observation mission from OSCE/ODIHR had already been withdrawn from the country.

The election was called by former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in response to the decision by the EU not to formally open accession talks with his country. French President Macron was believed to be behind the decision to halt the process.

Parties in North Macedonia must now hammer out a deal to decide when and how the elections can be re-scheduled.

With around 70 elections scheduled to take place this year, there will be many debates as to what is right for each particular circumstance. As the US primaries show, even if the main election is not due until much later in the year, problems now can still have a major impact

A paper by International IDEA discusses the challenges faced by those trying to hold elections at this time. They cite the need to balance public (and poll worker) safety with the curtailment of democracy if elections are suspended. But even if elections are pushed through, there is a high risk that many people will not risk going to vote and these may be disproportionately from certain groups. Using new technologies (or even old tech such as postal voting) is certainly on the table, but is very expensive to implement, requires high levels of voter education and opens a much greater risk of fraud.

The UK has taken the decision to delay local and mayoral elections by a whole year. Other countries will seek to delay for a much shorter period – perhaps hoping that circumstances will allow them to proceed in the autumn. Two other options might be to bring ruling parties and opposition together in a government of national unity for the period of the outbreak or to hold elections now, but recognise that these might not be fully representative and hold a fresh election in a year’s time.

Reading List – 15th March 2020

If you have never heard of the Open Skies Treaty (or fully understood what it means), the possibility that the USA might withdraw is a good excuse to read this short article which explains the treaty and sets out why it would be a mistake for President Trump to undermine it.

 

 

Elections will (coronavirus permitting) shortly take place in North Macedonia and Serbia and are also scheduled for Montenegro in the autumn. Just a month before the first of these, Facebook has extended its political adverts policy to the region.

 

Rather than indicating a definite course of action, amendments to the proposed new Russian Constitution suggest that President Putin is keeping his options open – and keeping oligarchs and the siloviki on their toes.

 

Abysmally low turnout, a six month counting process, rival candidates refusing to accept the result and each declaring themselves the winner. This is the reality of the Afghan presidential election where the US has intervened in each previous contest to declare a winner.

 

Elections to watch – 2020

It’s no surprise that the USA will host the biggest, most expensive and most important elections of the year on November 3rd. Donald Trump’s efforts to gain a second term will be played out across news bulletins around the world, whilst his various Democratic opponents will aim to get airtime when faced with the most media-dominant President in history.

It is often said that a second term president becomes a lame duck almost immediately, but that won’t be the case for Trump who has shown that he is willing to make quick, and often un-signalled, decisions on major issues. Apart from tax reform, Trump has relied less on legislation than almost any President before him. But he has been willing to withdraw from international agreements and upset the established liberal world order like never before.

Down-ballot, the chances of radical shifts in the House or Senate are slim, but we will see how the impeachment efforts will play out on those races.

However the US elections are far from being the only pivotal polls in 2020. Two contests – in Georgia and Belarus – will help us to understand the limits of Russian influence in countries in their immediate orbit and a third – Serbia – is a traditional Russian ally.

There are also re-runs of elections held originally in 2019 which, for different reasons, failed to produce a result. Israel will hold its third election in a year whilst Bolivia will attempt a clean election following the departure of Evo Morales.

There are also key contests in Egypt and Myanmar – countries dominated by the military – and elections in South Korea, North Macedonia and Iran which will be closely watched by foreign governments as they could signal the impact of international decisions on domestic attitudes. 

Iran, Parliament (March)

Iran continues to play its role as the grit in the oyster of Middle East politics with a network of official and semi-official proxies around the region. The country has always had its reformers and its hardliners and the spring election will be another test of strength between those factions.

Elections in Iran are largely conducted on a professional and democratic basis but with all but 5% of candidates (who represent religious minorities) subject to approval by the Islamic authorities.

The last elections in 2016 saw reformists emerge as the largest faction but without an overall majority. Iran has a reputation for huge numbers of candidates as 6,200 candidates ran for the 290 seats in 2016.

As well as its funding for militant groups and factions, Iran has also built up significant cyber capabilities and has allegedly used them extensively to interfere with the functions of other states for the past two years. Its nuclear programme is of concern to the west and the USA has pulled out of the JCPOA leading some to wonder whether military strikes are imminent. Iran’s position on the Staits of Hormuz also gives it unique powers to affect the world’s oil supplies.

Every country will be watching these elections with interest to see if the results may affect any of these interests. But it seems safe to predict that there will be no outcome that would comprehensively reverse any aspect of Iran’s current course.

Israel, Parliament (March)

The third election in Israel in a year will again be between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz with the former having won his Likud leadership primary at the end of 2019. This poll comes after a second indecisive election and the failure to form a government under Israel’s list election system which splits Parliamentary representation between ten different parties. 

It is impossible to foresee a majority party emerging and this contest will see voters tasked with giving either Likud or Gantz’s Blue and White the upper hand. But there is no provision for what might happen if the parties are again evenly split. Netanyahu has refused to give up the post of Prime Minister in any coalition in which his party features and Gantz refuses to serve under the longest serving Prime Minister the country has ever had.

Bolivia, President, Chamber of Deputies and Senate (March or April)

President Evo Morales stepped aside at the end of 2019 after his election win was found to be corruptly obtained. He won’t be a candidate in the re-run, but that won’t prevent the poll being highly controversial and tightly fought. In the aftermath of the failed poll, Morales sought asylum in Mexico as the army took a grip on the country and many of his former supporters were arrested. Since then there has been a general de-escalation in tensions and detainees have been released. Interim president Jeanine Añez will remain in charge until the vote in March or April.

North Macedonia, Parliament (April)

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called these early elections after the failure of EU members (largely at France’s behest) to agree the start of accession talks for his country and Albania. The country is also due to become a full member of NATO in the spring. In the last couple of years North Macedonia has formally changed its name to satisfy a long-standing complaint from Greece as well as undertaken large-scale structural reforms to bring it more into line with EU norms. The reward for these unpopular measures was to be the start of the long journey towards EU accession.

The election will pit Zaev’s SDSM against the anti-agreement VMRO-DPMNE of Hristijan Mickoski. The SDSM candidate won the presidential election in May 2019 but the parliamentary poll will be closely fought.

A win for Zaev’s party might give him and his supporters among existing members of the EU a boost before the next summit in June where France may be persuaded to change her stance. New EU President Croatia hs promised to keep the issue high up the institution’s agenda. A win for the opposition would surely end any prospect of further integration measures for the foreseeable period.

South Korea, Parliament (April)

There are significant domestic issues at play in this year’s legislative elections but these will play second fiddle in the minds of other countries to relations between South Korea and its neighbour to the north. At times President Moon Jae-In has been central to peace talks but has recently been sidelined by both President Trump and Kim Jong-Un. And whilst left-wing and pro North Korean parties are banned in the South, there are significant differences between the parties which will be a major factor in voters’ minds.

Proposed changes to the voting system would mean the small PR element changing from a parallel to a compensatory system, favouring smaller parties.

Polls suggest that the Democratic Party is well ahead of its main conservative opponents the Liberty Korea Party but effort to game the new voting system could leave the outcome in the balance.

Serbia, Parliament (April)

North Macedonia and Albania may have been seen as being at the front of the queue for EU accession, but Serbia has also been in the frame for membership for a number of years. And for the largest state in the former Yugoslavia, this would represent a significant departure from historic ties to Russia which seeks to maintain at least one friendly presence in the Balkans.

The major hindrance to western integration is the continued failure to establish common ground with Kosovo. Talks of a land-swap to settle a border dispute between the two were effectively quashed by Angela Merkel who saw this as a dangerous precedent for other countries. 

The current government is led by the pro-Western Ana Brnabić but previous elections have been criticised for the misuse of state resources and the lack of media independence and there is a proposed boycott by a number of opposition parties and groups. With decisions on Kosovo and western-oriented reforms likely to hit the popularity of the SNS government, it is possible that the coming election might be more competitive than assumed.

Belarus, President (August)

Few people will predict anything other than comfortable re-election for President Lukashanka but this election will be more notable for the tone than the outcome. Belarus has sought to maintain a balance between historic and economic ties to Russia whilst trying to avoid being perceived as a puppet of the Kremlin.

One of the potential routes for Vladimir Putin to remain in power after his second (and officially final) term in office comes to an end in 2024 is said to be a formal union with Belarus. This seems unlikely, but tax, currency and other financial ties remain under discussion. At the same time, the West, while being careful not to undermine Lukashenka by getting too close, will keep pressing for reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty.

Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the removal of the only two opposition law-makers from Parliament in what was seen as a retrograde step. Will this contest shed any light on likely succession-planning?

Georgia, Parliament (October)

Electoral reform is not the usual issue to cause mass protests but such is the case in Georgia where a pledge to implement a more proportional system appears to have been abandoned. The state remains heavily dependent on Russia despite the continuing ‘frozen’ conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia which the Kremlin recognises as breakaway states but Georgia (and most of the world) does not.

The ruling Georgian Dream party has seen almost half of its support drain away according to the most recent opinion polls, but the main opposition groups have also lost ground. Such fragmentation, as well as possible boycotts, make the elections unpredictable.

Egypt, Parliament and Senate (November)

Egypt’s flirtation with more genuine democracy resulted in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, President el-Sisi has received significant support from the rest of the world as a bastion against terrorism and he has been able to limit popular expression in the country and put state organs in charge of much of the poll. The removal of the powers of the General Intelligence Directorate to create and approve candidate lists might have been seen as a progressive step, but their role has been taken by the National Security Agency instead. Prominent opposition figures have been arrested but there are reports that the Coalition of Hope, a moderate opposition group, may be about to contest the elections.

Myanmar, Parliament (November)

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, for many years the symbol of opposition to military rule in Myanmar, has lost much of her lustre around the world as she has sought to defend what is seen as possible genocide against the Rohinga people in the west of the country and failed to overturn military dominance – the armed forces still has reserved seats in the parliament which makes fundamental change unlikely. 

How the people will react when given the chance to vote – and how free the military allows the elections to be – will be at issue in this contest. 

Venezuela, National Assembly (December)

The constitutional crisis in Venezuela – with two presidents claiming legitimacy and being backed by different countries – continues. The parliament remians the main opposition to President Nicolas Maduro whilst the Constituent Assembly, extablished to write a new constitution, are his main backers. Officially the constituent assembly will lose its mandate shortly after the parliamentary elections. However the outcome of the vote is unlikely to satisfy both sides and the battle for legitimacy will almost certainly continue.

Moldova, President (date unknown)

Moldova faces a Presidential election less than a year after the unlikely coalition government of pro-Western technocrats and pro-Russian socialists fell apart. That deal was done in order to oust the the Democratic Party of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc which was widely perceived to be corrupt. However there has been little time to complete reforms and the coming presidential poll will probably see a contest between incumbent Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party and former Prime Minister Pavel Filip who seems likely to receive the Democratic Party nomination.

Reading List – 4th November 2019

Some not very upbeat articles for the first Monday in November

First up, the FT has interviewed the leaders of Noirth Macedonia and Albania in the wake of the EU’s decision not to open accession talks to the countries. France blocked talks with North Macedonia and they, together with Denmark and the Netherlands said no to progress with Albania. Both leaders talk about the EU failing to live up to its side of the bargain having made consistent reforms since 2003. Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia warns that his country may slide backwards as a result.

 

The Guardian reports the results of a poll conducted by Open Societies Foundations across central and Eastern Europe where people say they are not confident about the state of democracy, the conduct of elections or the institutions such as the government and media. However there does seem to be a willingness among so-called ‘Generation Z’ respondents to seek to make their life better.

 

CNN reports that Facebook will apply its policy of not fact-checking adverts paid for by political parties or candidates to the UK general election. There are widespread warnings that this could lead to massive disinformation campaigns likely to mislead voters. The company has confirmed, however, that it will allow its third party fact-checkers to establish the veracity of non-party groups such as Leave.EU.

The Electoral Reform Society has also reiterated its campaign for action to prevent ‘dark ads’ from affecting the election.

 

 

EU expansion decision will endanger reforms in Western Balkans

The EU has failed to agree to move onto the next step of enlargement as France, the Netherlands and Denmark have blocked the current hopes of North Macedonia and Albania joining. There have been warnings that this move will endanger liberal reforms in those countries as well as lessen the chances of a full peace settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

The issue was discussed as part of this week’s EU Council meeting in Brussels. It has been reported that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happier to see progress made in the case of North Macedonia but he, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, see EU structural reforms as a higher priority and so blocked further discussions before the Western Balkans summit in Zagreb next May.

This decision will have a number of knock-on effects. In North Macedonia, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has a staked a lot on achieving agreements with Greece that resulted in changes including that of the name of his country. That, together with expensive constitutional, economic and political reforms, were all geared towards starting the long process of EU membership. Without the hope of membership, Zaev’s credibility with his electorate will take a tumble and the reform process will likely stall.

Albania has a constitutional crisis of its own already and the country was seen to be less ready for EU membership, but the reform process had been started and will almost certainly now end, significantly endangering anti-corruption efforts and action against organised crime.

The EU decision may also affect the Kosovo/Serbia debate. Both countries had expressed a desire to join the EU, albeit on a slower track than Albania and North Macedonia. One of the key requirements for their membership to progress would be a lasting peace deal and border resolution. There will now be less incentive to make this happen.

And whilst the EU and its member states will continue to be important partners for the countries of the Western Balkans, this decision will leave the door open for stronger ties with other major players. Russia is a traditional ally for Serbia and has major interests in the whole region. Likewise, China is investing heavily as part of its Belt and Road Initiative having put funding into Serbian railways and leasing the port of Piraeus in Greece among other projects.

In reality, the timetable towards EU enlargement may be relatively unaffected by this decision. Completing the different chapters of the acquis communautaire is a lengthy process and could have been stalled in a more diplomatic way had member states wished. The negative effects could have been avoided had North Macedonia alone been given the green light with a warning that formal accession would only take place after the organisation’s structural reforms had been completed. This choice, however, raises major concerns over the credibility of any further enlargement.

 

UPDATE (21st October 2019): North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, apparently furious at the decision of the EU, has called snap elections to allow his country “to decide what path it wants to follow”. The election is set to take place on April 12th 2020.