Reading List – 15th May 2020

Apologies for not having done one of these for a while…

 

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie’s Moscow Center argues that Russia could be squeezed out of a new bipolar world where everything comes down to the USA and China. And while this may be a relief to some in sanctions-affected Russia, he argues that the risk is that Russia loses relevance.

 

In Time Magazine, David Miller argues that just because Netanyahu can annex parts of the West Bank doesn’t mean he will.

 

Nana Kalandadze of International IDEA looks at the aborted attempt to hold an all-postal ballot in Poland last weekend.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Reading List – 2nd March 2020

The Guardian reports on developments in the East African country where power has been dominated by the clan system and where minorities and women have been excluded.

 

The possible impact of the coronavirus on the US election has been raised in a number of quarters. In an op-ed on Wired, Jon Stone suggests that the option of an all-mail ballot in November is not that easy to achieve as US elections are managed by states and counties rather than federally.

However, the very fact that people are thinking about the possible impact and how it can be mitigated this far out from the November polls is encouraging.

 

A court in the USA has ruled that privately owned social media companies such as Facebook and twitter are not covered by the First Amendment – the right to freedom of speech. In a case brought by conservative groups, the court said that the companies have the right to censor material they do not like. I would guess that this one will go to the Supreme Court.

 

Most Americans don’t have confidence in the ability of tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to defeat attempts to interfere in elections, according the Pew Research. But the vast majority also think that it is the duty of these companies to do so.

 

 

This is fairly techy in the detail, but this article exposes the security flaws in the sorts of electronic voting machines which are common in the US. There are also a couple of videos where experts explain how they might go about hacking individual machines or the election server.

 

Reading List – 21st February 2020

Three staff of the American NGO NDI have been expelled from Togo. The three were accredited as election observers by the Togolese electoral commission and had been working with a non-partisan local group to help them plan domestic observation of the forthcoming presidential election.

 

As Iran heads to the polls today, CNN’s Luke McGee previews the election in which hardline candidates are set to dominate as many moderates were barred from running. However the bigger factor might be turnout.

 

 

Special polling stations will be set up so that Israelis who are quarantined will still be able to vote in the March 2nd general election.

 

 

Axios reports that President Trump has cut back on his spending on Facebook despite the platform abstaining from making policy changes that would hurt him. As social media platforms signalled they might change policies on political advertising, Trump lobbied Facebook hard not to restrict his ability to mictro-target. While his spending on Facebook adverts is still significant, it is now a much smaller proportion of his advertising budget having fallen from a monthly high of 72% to just 14% and most ads are aimed at increasing his private voter information lists.

 

Reading List – 19th February 2020

A deep fake video has been circulating in India ahead of regional elections. It purports to show BJP politician Manoj Tiwari criticising the regional government in a video targeted at a particular section of the population who speak the Haryanvi dialect of Hindi. We know it is a fake because the company that produced it has told us how they did it (and because the politician concerned doesn’t actually speak the language involved).

“In a country like India where digital literacy is nascent, even low-tech versions of video manipulation have led to violence. In 2018, more than 30 deaths were linked to rumours circulated on WhatsApp in India.”

Various solutions have been proposed, including banning deep fakes from being circulated within 60 days of an election. Such a plan is likely to fall foul of free speech advocates and comedians in many countries. But would a proposal such as that banning the distribution of manipulated political images be any better?

 

Another Vice article which contrasts the public words of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with his company’s private lobbying efforts to prevent any meaningful regulation.

A senior US politician recently told me that he believes that significant electoral interference will continue to take place in America and around the world until regulation is introduced.

I’ve written recently that Facebook has failed to come up with a sensible vision for how regulation of political content on social media can work. This leaves it open to countries (or blocs like the EU) to regulate and, without an alternative vision, platforms will be in a weaker position to affect such changes.

 

Alix Boucher gives an overview of the coming contest and the concerns that election observers have over its fairness.

 

Chatham House’s Ryhor Astapenia argues that although Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka has succeeded in keeping his country somewhat distant from Russia, he has resisted reforms that would truly separate the economy from Russia’s and failed to implement significant reforms.

 

Reading List – 7th February 2020

1. Dictators in Trouble

Thomas Carothers writes that it is not just democracies that are losing popularity among their citizins. There are numerous examples of autocratic regimes where citizens have demanded change.

 

2. A More Democratic Country

Joe Mitchell has written a fine piece about how the UK needs to examine and re-invigorate its democracy. He suggests that it would be a good idea if the Government’s “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” included at least a part which was handed over to some form of citizens’ convention to examine what we want from democracy and how the government could go about delivering and securing it.

Canada, in its general election last year, had plans in place in case various forms of interference in the process were attempted. Why does the UK not have a similar plan?

And how do we measure the health of democracy in this country (or anywhere). It isn’t as simple as turnout. But what else could be included in such a metric?

 

3. Democracies under pressure

Continuing the theme, the American NGO IRI has produced a series of essays on the issue of democracies under pressure. I’d particularly recommend the essays on digital giants (one of my own recurring themes) and on trusts and mistrust in democratic societies.

 

4. If denuclearization is a fantasy, what can North Korean negotiations achieve?

Eli Levite and Toby Dalton explain that even if President Trump’s hopes of a big deal with North Korea are no longer feasible, there might be a point to continued dialogue. This would require realistic goals and a change in approach, however.