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 The challenge for all leaders is to ensure that emergency measures put in place for times of crisis are rescinded as soon as they can be and normal democracy and personal freedoms are once again allowed to flourish.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.

 

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 – 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.

 

New parties set to take Russian stage

Over-shadowed by President Putin’s speech about changes to the constitution, there are moves afoot which give a clue as to how the future Duma might look and how the elections next year might be managed to the advantage of the current President. These include a few new parties intended to shake up the parliament and many more tasked with grabbing a small sector of the electorate, including one led by a key figure behind the World of Tanks computer game.

Russia has long been seen as a managed democracy. There is a lead government party – United Russia (ER) – which currently has a majority in the Duma, and a number of opposition parties which operate within the system, notably the LDPR party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the liberal-ish Yabloko party led by Grigoriy Yavlinski. Non-systemic opposition parties and movements are typically excluded and figures such as Alexey Navalny have routinely been arrested and had their offices raided by police and tax authorities.

But there have also been a range of other parties and political figures which rise and fall with each election. Back in 2003, the Duma elections were the first under the new President Putin and there was a genuine contest in prospect. Shadow parties designed to take votes from both left (KPRF) and right (LDPR) appeared on the ballot paper and gained a few seats and United Russia won through.

Even with electoral victory all but assured in subsequent contests, the process has still been closely managed by the Kremlin. As Putin said at the end of 2017 when asked about a potential fourth term:

“I haven’t yet decided whether I will run or who I will run against”

Matters now have changed slightly as the future of United Russia is uncertain. It has borne the brunt of public unpopularity on decisions ranging from local refuse collections to pension reform. Such was the level of hatred that the majority of Kremlin loyalists running in last year’s municipal and regional elections did so as independents. So could United Russia be abandoned completely as a Kremlin vehicle or might it be revived? There is no doubt that the state machine is still strong enough that if a decision was taken to press on with ER it would be likely to be victorious.

But the indication is that the Kremlin is considering a different direction, at least in part. Up to 10 new parties are being formed in advance of the 2021 Duma elections, and these include a mixture of serious parties which may be permitted to enter the Duma, and niche parties aiming to grab support of sectoral groups that might otherwise go to the serious opposition.

The project is starting now because of the signature hurdle that needs to be cleared for parties wishing to stand for the Duma elections. In order to register candidates, parties need 200,000 signatures from across the country. That’s a significant barrier and has been used in the past to deny non-systemic opposition candidates. But it can be side-stepped if the party has at least one member elected to a regional council, and there is a set of regional elections this autumn. So the new Kremlin-approved parties are, allegedly, receiving help from regional officials to set up and then to win one or two seats in the autumn contests. Such a plan might result in some almost comical outcomes in local elections as unknown candidates from parties which have done no campaigning and don’t have any infrastructure are nevertheless elected with a significant majority in a single seat.

These niche parties, referred to in Russia as TV Show parties, are much more varied and extensive than in previous elections. One regularly cited is proposed to be called ‘For Direct Democracy’ and would be led by Vyacheslav Makarov, a product manager for the World of Tanks computer game. Another would be led by prominent novelist Zakhar Prilepin. Given (unofficial) state assistance, such ventures would be relatively cheap and would maintain the idea of a healthy contest with lots of names on the ballot, even as non-systemic figures are excluded. 

The TV Show parties will not be in any danger of winning seats in the Duma in 2021, but there are moves to create two or three new parties which will be allowed to, echoing the old shadow parties strategy and broadening the ideological basis of the parliament as a strategy to weaken all parties at a time when President Putin is moving to his new role. But the idea of new parties entering the Duma is not universally popular. Figures in United Russia, including its leader and (until recently Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev, have argued for their party to be able to maintain its dominance.

Putin makes his move

President Vladimir Putin has begun to make changes to the structure of the Russian government. Some sort of move had been expected as he is currently term limited and must leave office at the end of his term in 2024.

The changes are described as being a shift in power from the Presidency to Parliament and the current government, headed by Dmitry Medvedev, has resigned. President Putin will take over the powers of the Prime Minister in the interim.

It is being proposed that the changes will be put to a national referendum – a suggestion which is not strictly necessary according to the current rules but which would entrench the new system.

With Putin set to relinquish the Presidency in 2024, the most common parlour game in Russia in recent times has to predict the mechanism by which he would seek to hang on to power. A constitutional change – either to allow him to run for a third consecutive term or to change the power structure – was the favourite option. Other proposals talked about were a new federation with a former Soviet state such as Belarus or for Putin to follow the lead of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and take a behind the scenes role while maintaining real power. Proposals for closer ties with Belarus were recently discussed but put on the back burner.

Whether Medvedev’s resignation is a clue that he is unhappy with the changes or that Putin was unhappy with him is unclear. Political analysts in Russia have made both suggestions. Mr Medvedev will become deputy head of the National Security Council, a body chaired by the President.

If the constitutional changes are approved by the public then it is likely that Putin will choose to take on a Parliamentary role, either as Speaker of the Duma or as Prime Minister – although the latter will be appointed by the Duma, a subordination that the current president may feel is not appropriate for his image. In either case, attention will now turn to parliamentary elections due next year. United Russia, the dominant political forced for more than 17 years, has effectively been abandoned by President Putin and has taken the blame as his popularity has waned. The most recent regional and local elections has seen a focus on loyalist candidates running as independents. Whether this strategy can work for a national vote remains to be seen. The alternative is the promotion of an alternative party or group of loyalist parties that will support Mr Putin in whatever role he chooses.

In his speech to lawmakers today, President Putin also proposed to tighten the rules for future presidential candidates to limit them to two terms in total (he has served four having swapped jobs with Medvedev between 2008 and 2012) and tightening residency requirements.

However the full proposed changes to the constitution have yet to be detailed and no date for a referendum has been given. It is possible that when further proposals are revealed another option for Russia’s leading man will become apparent.

 

UPDATE: Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center has tweeted the following thoughts:

Putin made it clear in his state of the nation address today that this is the official start of the transition of power, in preparation for him stepping down when his current terms ends in 2024. He suggests amending the constitution via a referendum to approve those changes. That way, it will be harder for the opposition and foreign powers to argue with the move to change the constitution.

The rule against 2 consecutive presidential terms will be changed to just 2 presidential terms. There can be no second Putin. Putin’s four terms were needed to help the country recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. From now on, the maximum reign will be 12 years. This means that if Medvedev returns to the presidency, he can only serve one term, having already kept the seat warm for Putin from 2008-2012.

The powers that Putin has amassed will not be passed on intact either. Instead, they will be shared out. Parliament will confirm the prime minister and other ministers, and the president cannot reject parliament’s choices—though he or she can dismiss them. The president will be weaker, and it’s beyond doubt now (despite earlier speculation that he would somehow stay on) that that president will no longer be Putin.

The State Council, on the other hand, will have increased powers, with Putin calling for “the status and role of the State Council to be enshrined in the constitution.” This could well be where Putin goes in 2024.

Putin also said the role of regional governors should be strengthened. Firstly, they are members of the state council. Secondly, a successor to Putin may have to be selected from among them.

Future presidents will have to have lived in Russia for 25 years without a break and have never had a foreign passport or residency permit. If this includes temporary permits such as for students, this would exclude Alexei Navalny (who has studied at Yale) from running.

The Russian constitution will be above any international legal obligations, so farewell to the European Court of Human Rights and Council of Europe. There’ll be no more help from abroad. Overall, people will likely vote for these changes with great enthusiasm.

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.

Reading List – 16th October 2019

Ready to Vote: Elections, Technology & Political Campaigning in the United Kingdom

The Oxford Technology and Elections Commission has produced a report and recommendations about the way that the internet has transformed campaigning in the UK, the dangers it raises and what should be done to counter them. Interestingly, the Guardian report of this paper is written by their Defence Correspondent.

 

World Leaders on Twitter: principles & approach

The social media company has set out how it plans to deal with tweets by world leaders which contain false or malicious claims. In July the company said they would base their decision on ‘newsworthiness’, a policy also adopted by Facebook. Now the company says that it will be more likely to simply delete a tweet by a world leader if it promotes terrorism, violence or self-harm; involves illegal goods or services; is intended to interfere with elections (such as by posting misinformation about voting); or includes the private information of another person – especially if that person is not a public figure.

Twitter said that it would be more likely to allow a violating tweet to remain published if it violates rules against hate speech, hateful conduct, abuse or harassment; or if it contains graphic or gruesome media.

For my take on Facebook’s free speech dilemma, read my post here.

 

Putin tells Russian media to change rhetoric on Ukraine

In a sign that the Kremlin’s attitude to Ukraine might be changing following Kyiv’s apparent acceptance of the Steinmeier formula, the Unian news agency reports that Russian media have been told to give Ukraine a break.

 

Mozambique election is ‘test for democracy’ in wake of peace deal

The Guardian reports on the polls in the South East African state.

 

Reading List – 4th October 2019

A few articles I have seen which provide food for thought. Today’s list focuses on Russian politics:

Sam Greene examines the possibility that Putin might dump the tarnished brand of United Russia for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR.

  • Or maybe the All Russian Popular Front?

Others, however, think that the All-Russian Popular Front (ONF) might be elevated to become the umbrella body for pro-Kremlin candidates in place of United Russia. Vedemosti reports that the body has a new, dynamic, leader (this article is in Russian and reports that Mikhail Kuznetsov, currently Vice-Governor of the Moscow Region, will take the position).

A survey by Denis Volkov and Andrey Kolesnikov finds that the main concern of the Russian establishment for the period from 2018 to 2024 is not the modernization of the country, but the smooth and safe transit of power for political, managerial and business elites. (At the time of posting only available in Russian, but Carnegie Moscow are usually pretty good at loading English versions quickly).

Doppelgängers

Whether it be jumping on a bandwagon or seeking to mislead the electorate, Ukraine has taken the lead in doppelgänger candidates causing confusion. But this year’s elections were not the first use of such underhand tactics and India, Russia, the UK and USA have all seen variations of this phenomenon.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

At the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) party of new president Volodymyr Zelensky won an overall majority with 254 out of 424 seats contested. It was the first time in the history of the country since independence that a single party had got a majority in parliament, but this was hardly the most unexpected outcome. Zelensky had won more than 73% of the vote in the second round of the presidential poll four months earlier and, whilst a lot of that vote might have been against his opponent rather than for him, there was no doubt that Zelensky and his party were massively popular. So it came as no surprise when a lot of people sought to jump on the bandwagon to gain an advantage.

Servant of the People was a political party formed by Zelensky and named after his TV show. In that production he plays a history teacher who unwittingly becomes president after a rant about corruption is illicitly videoed by his students and goes viral. The naif as president concept became hugely popular and Zelensky rode it into office with a campaign based on TV and online campaigns. In his inauguration speech he called for early parliamentary elections (as well as fundamental changes to remove immunity for elected politicians and changes to the voting system). Despite a court challenge, these snap elections happened and Servant of the People was in prime position.

Servant of the People was not the only new party. The Voice (Holos) party also appeared on the ballot paper. This was the creation of popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He had talked about standing in the presidential election but chose not to in a move widely seen to be co-ordinated with Zelensky. In the event of a hung parliament it was expected that The Voice Party would be likely to align with Servant of the People. As with Servant of the People, The Voice fielded a slate comprised entirely of political newcomers. No sitting or former MP was running as a candidate for either party.

 

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A polling station in Kherson district set up for the 2019 Parliamentary elections

 

Ukraine has a mixed voting system for Parliamentary polls (although this is the subject of one of the changes proposed by the President). Around half of all MPs are elected from party lists. The remainder are elected from single mandate districts using first past the post. It was in these districts that closer contests and electoral malpractice were expected as they pitched incumbents against representatives of the new parties.

Servant of the People and The Voice were so popular that many people sought to imply their candidacies were part of these movements even when they were not. This was impossible to achieve on the national vote where lists were submitted by registered parties only. However in the single mandate districts OSCE/ODIHR found 79 candidates in 55 districts who used the name Servant of the People to run against the candidate officially nominated by that party. (In addition, other candidates campaigned with colours, logos and slogans similar to Servant of the People.) The way these candidates got the name Servant of the People onto the ballot paper was usually by claiming to be employed by an organisation of that name, of which there are currently 44 according to Ukraine’s registry of legal entities. In addition, the name Holos was used by five independent candidates in single mandate districts and in one case each the names of Opposition Platform for Life, Opposition Bloc and European Solidarity were used.

Servant of the People complained to the Central Electoral Commission who decided that the reference to employment places which coincided with the name of the party would be removed from ballot papers in some cases. However it is not clear how many cases this applied to and whether or not ballot papers were re-printed.

One candidate who was particularly put out by the decision by Servant of the People to run entirely new candidates was a sitting MP from the Bloc Petro Poroshenko (which re-named itself European Solidarity for the elections) faction who, when Volodymyr Zelensky announced his intention to run for President, left his faction and became a cheerleader for the man who would become the new President. But he was declined the opportunity to run as an official Servant of the People candidate. This did not stop him trying to imply he represented the President’s party however. His campaign literature made frequent references to the party and president and even featured (genuine) photographs of him standing alongside Zelensky. Voters, however, were not to be fooled and he lost his seat to the official Servant of the People candidate.

It is impossible to say whether these cases were all bandwagon jumpers seeking to cash in on the popularity of Servant of the People or whether some were in fact attempts at spoiler candidates initiated by electoral opponents. The suspicion is that they were mostly the former, but Ukraine has a history of another form of doppelgänger, the ‘clone candidate’.

Clone Candidates

The most well known of these clone candidates is Yuriy Tymoshenko. Mr Tymoshenko stood in the presidential contest in March as a self-nominated (independent) candidate. He revelled in the attention he received because he happened to share a name with the long-established candidate (and former Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko. The similarity was not confined to their family name and first name. Both of their fathers had the name Volodymyr and so, in the Ukrainian fashion, they had similar patronymics – Volodymyrovitch for Yuriy and Volodymyrivna for Yulia. When asked about this apparent coincidence, Yuriy Tymoshenko claimed that he had announced his candidacy long before his near namesake and claimed to be a serious runner. No one believed this statement and his limited campaign material appeared in the same colours and style as his more popular namesake and used the name Y.V. Tymoshenko (Ю́ В Тимоше́нко in cyrillic script). Yuriy Tymoshenko was a spoiler, or technical, candidate aiming to draw some votes away from Yulia Tymoshenko. This was helped by the ballot papers listing candidates in alphabetical order, something unchanged despite a court challenge from Yulia Tymoshenko. In the event, Yuriy Tymoshenko won some 0.62% of the vote. This was not enough to make a difference to the outcome of the contest – Yulia Tymoshenko came third with 13.4% and was 2.55% behind the second placed candidate – but was almost certainly far more than he would have gained on his own merits. Of the 39 candidates on the ballot paper, 26 who did little or no campaigning (like Yuriy Tymoshenko) won between 0.01% and 0.17% of the vote.

 

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Ballot paper for the 2019 Ukraine Presidential election showing both Yuriy Tymoshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko

 

It is impossible to be certain whether Yuriy Tymoshenko’s candidacy was his own idea or whether he was inspired or funded by other electoral opponents of Yulia Tymoshenko. In limited interviews he claimed to be standing entirely on his own initiative. However in the paperwork required for candidacy he declared an annual income of the equivalent of $10,000 against a deposit required for candidacy of $92,000.

Clone candidates existed in Ukraine before Yuriy Tymoshenko. In 2016 UKROP candidate Oksana Valentynivna Tomchuk was opposed in the 27th constituency in the city of Dnipro by near namesakes Oksana Ivanivna Tomchuk (who also claimed to be a member of UKROP in her biography), Oksana Valeriivna Tomchuk and Oksana Hrygorivn Tomchuk.

The concept continued into the parliamentary elections. OSCE/ODIHR found 152 candidates with 69 similar or identical names standing in 42 single mandate districts. Police opened 46 investigations and the observation mission estimated that nine of the contests could have been affected by the phenomenon in that a clone candidate gained more votes than a similarly named candidate lost by.

In constituency number 25 Andriy Valeriyovych Bohdan was standing and his biography mentioned a connection to Servant of the People. Coincidentally, President Zelensky’s chief of staff is called Andriy Bohdan. Except he wasn’t running for Parliament anywhere and his patronymic is Yosypovych, not Valeriyovych. The official Servant of the People candidate, Maksym Buzhansky won the seat.

In constituency 92 in Uzhyn there were four candidates called Guzdenko with the first name of either Viktor or Vitaliy. Two had the same patronymic of Ivanovych. There are also three Oleksandr Ferenets.

In constituency 33 in Kryviy Rih, there were two Olha Volodymyrivna Babenkos. One was standing on behalf of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party and the other was self-nominated. In the same constituency there was also a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnik and a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnyk.

In constituency 38 in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk region, there was Vladislav Borodin from Servant of the People and Volodymyr Borodin, a self-nominated candidate, as well as two Vadym Nesterenkos.

Finally, in constituency 133 in Odesa, there were four people named Baranskiy — Viktor, Vitaliy, Vitaliy, and Ihor. The first two were candidates from the ideologically similar but politically separate Opposition Platform and Opposition Bloc, respectively. There were also Gontaruk and Goncharuk (both self-nominated), and two Artem Dmytruks, including one representing the Servant of the People party.

 

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Voter information posters on display at a polling station in Kherson district during the 2019 Ukraine parliamentary elections

 

Doppelgängers are not limited to Ukraine. In the UK there was a problem with candidates standing with party names designed to mimic other parties. One persistent candidate was Richard Huggett who stood in the 1994 European Parliamentary elections in the Devon and East Plymouth single member seat under the label of ‘Literal Democrat’. Mr Huggett eventually polled 10,203 votes, far more than the 700 vote majority of the Conservative candidate over the genuine Liberal Democrat. In the 1997 general election, Mr Huggett sought to stand under the name ‘Gerald Maclone’ in the Winchester constituency against sitting MP Gerald Malone. He was prevented from doing so but then stood with the label ‘Liberal Democrat – Top Choice for Parliament’. In an ensuing by-election in the seat he stood again under the ‘Literal Democrat’ label. Throughout, Huggett claimed that he was not acting on behalf of anyone other than himself and his antics, and similar undertaken by others, were only prevented by the 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act which stops candidates standing under labels which may confuse voters.

 

The Indian elections of 2014 present probably the largest single gathering of clone candidates. In one seat in Bilaspur district in the central state of Chhattisgarh no fewer than five of the 35 candidates were named Lakhan Sahu. In another, ten candidates shared the same name. The use of clone candidates might have less of an impact in a country where there are low levels of literacy and where many voters rely on party symbols to locate their chosen candidate. However there can even be similarity between symbols of candidates with the same name. In the seat of Maval in Maharashtra there were two candidates called Shrirang Barne and three named Laxman Jagtap with suspicions that each ‘real’ candidate had recruited at least one clone of their main opponent to confuse matters. The genuine Barne had the electoral symbol of a bow and arrow whilst his namesake was represented by an arrow only. The three Jagtaps were represented by a teacup, a cap and a helmet.

 

Shadow Parties

In Russia the concept of ‘shadow parties’ developed in 2003 and have been in existence ever since. The State Duma (Parliamentary) elections of that year were held at a time when Vladimir Putin was in his first term and the parliamentary elections were the first big test of his leadership. He was the head of the United Russia party but he faced genuine callanges from both the right and left, from the Communist Party and from the Liberal Democrats (now re-branded as LDPR but still led by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky). And so Rodina was created, allegedly at the instigation of the Kremlin, to leach votes away from these two threats. They used the same symbolism and imagery as the Communists and many of the nationalist policies of the Liberal Democrats, and eventually gained 37 seats in the legislature.

It is worth repeating how shaky Putin’s grasp on power could have been in those days if he had not overseen the triumphant return of an overwhelming United Russia bloc. Russia demands a strong leader and strong leaders control parliament. In the event, United Russia won 37.6% of the votes in the national list element of the elections and just 24% in the cosntituencies, but this was enough for 223 seats overall due to the splitting of the vote. The Communists won 52 seats and the Liberal Democrats 36 seats. Had Rodina not stood, it is highly likely that the Duma result would have been far more balanced and United Russia may not have held an overal majority.

That was more than 15 years ago. But the practice of shadow parties continues. Even in the 2018 presidential election – one which Putin was certain from the outset to win and where turnout was seen as the big concern – there was a field of eight allowed. As well as the real Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Communists of Russia (KR) were on the ballot – a party with much of the same imagery, the same idolatry of historic figures (maybe a little more Stalin than Lenin) and the same policy proposals. Every vote for KR was a vote that might otherwise go to KPRF. And this time Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR had to contend with Sergey Baburin, an eccentrically coiffured former MP with the wonderful ability to conjure nomination signatures from every district and region despite never actually having any activists in place to gather them.

At the same time, Putin’s campaign material looked strikingly similar to a lot of other posters on display on billboards around the country. But far from being mirrored by another candidate or party, the incumbent president had the same colour scheme and design as the official central election commission and so every one of their millions of posters could be taken at first glance to be one for the sitting president.

 

Spoiler candidates

In the USA it might not have been shadow parties that were used, but many elections have been swung by the existence of third party candidates with similar policies to one of the main players who have been given a mysterious boost by supporters of the other.

In ‘Gaming the Vote’, William Poundstone relates the story that John Dendahl, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, quietly offered “more than $100,000” to the Green Party if they would run candidates in NM’s first and second Congressional Districts. The Greens were relatively strong in New Mexico and had already been spoilers in local races. The difference was that the Republicans were now willing to pay cash for services that had previously been free.

Poundstone also cites the June 2006 special election for the Congressman from California’s 15th district, where Republican Brian Bilbray was a ‘foaming-at-the-mouth anti-immigration hawk who supported building a fence clear from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico’. William Griffith, a running as an independent using $2000 of his own money, claimed to be even more anti-immigrant than Bilbray. Then something odd happened. Phone calls started urging voters to vote for Griffith. Radio ads too. Griffith didn’t know who was behind them. Both later turned out to have been funded by Democratic candidate Francine Busby.

 

Legal changes in the UK have shown that it is legislatively possible to prevent parties with similar names or candidates standing under labels designed to confuse. However courts and electoral commissions across the world have proved reluctant to interfere in cases where candidates with similar names choose to stand against each other, regardless of their motivation or provenance. Party names and symbols can help to lessen the confusion, as can active campaigning by the ‘real’ candidate. But even in obvious cases, it is still possible for enough voters to be confused that they cast their vote for the spoof candidate and, in tight contests, this can be enough to make the difference.