Reading List – 12th February 2021

Unfinished Business in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

The pre-eminent western expert on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Thomas De Waal, has written a long read analysing the challenges facing the various parties in the dispute over Nagorno Karabakh. He makes it clear that the peace accord signed in haste in November leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Elections Ahead

András Tóth-Czifra looks at the Russian Duma elections due to be held in September. Alexey Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ scheme is dividing the parties and also sets challenges for the Kremlin. Whilst the leaderships of the various systemic opposition parties have denounced Navalny, many of their supporters see smart voting as a means to benefit in the forthcoming polls. 

Overturning Trump’s Facebook ban would set a dangerous precedent

Steve Feldstein looks at the challenge in front of Facebook’s Oversight Board as they decide whether the former President should be allowed back onto the platform. Feldstein is clear that he thinks the ban should continue as he weighs up the various international standards on free speech and incitement. Whilst he only looks at this from the point of view of Trump’s Facebook ban, the decision mirrors that which (at least in theory) should be in the minds of US senators hearing the impeachment trial. 

End of Myanmar’s Rocky Road to Democracy?

Sana Jaffrey gives a brief but pretty comprehensive run through of the recent history of Myanmar and the likely effects of the military coup there. 

America Is Back. Europe, Are You There?

Daniel Baer, in Foreign Policy Magazine, suggests that Europe has acted precipitously to seek to gain an advantage before President Joe Biden’s feet are properly under the Resolute Desk. And whilst America needs to recognise its own failings, the EU has damaged its standing with what he calls ‘childish actions’. 

Rising EU-Russia tensions are good news for Ukraine

On much the same subject, Oleksiy Goncharenko suggests that the failure of the EU mission’s recent talks with Russia led by Josep Borrell could be good for Ukraine. 

Why the Belarusian Revolution Has Stalled

Finally (sorry for the long list today) Ryhor Astapenia of Chatham House examines three reasons why he believes the Belarusian revolution has apprently come to a halt. He suggests that Lukashenka has kept the rulling classes largely behind him, that the opposition has failed to break out of its ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ base, and that international actors are concerned about what might replace the current president if he is forced out.

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.

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.

WhatsApp introduces virtual social distancing in attempt to limit fake Covid-19 news

The social media platform WhatsApp has taken steps to try to limit the spread of disinformation about the coronavirus Covid-19. The move will also impact other forms of ‘viral’ messages, including those connected to elections.

The change means that a user can only send a ‘frequently forwarded message’ to one of their contact groups or coversations at a time. The previous limit differed depending on the country in which you were based, with a ceiling of five in India but much higher in most other territories. In this context, a frequently forwarded message is one that has been shared more than five times already.

There have already been suggestions that this policy should be taken up by other platforms including Facebook – which could limit the use of the Share button.

This change, if not revoked once the Covid-19 crisis is over, will also have a massive impact on elections. In countries where WhatsApp is the one of the main social media platforms – such as Brazil or India – the spread of fake political news has been particularly difficult to contain as WhatsApp groups are closed and there is no form of register of popular posts, nor is there an opportunity for fact checking. Limiting the sharing of news via the platform will significantly diminish the ability to share both truthful and false information.

However, the move has been criticised by mainstream media outlets. Jamie Angus, Director of the BBC World Service group, tweeted that the idea was counterproductive and called for trusted news sources to be allowed direct access to promote content about the virus directly onto the platform.

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 09.47.59

And whilst media like the BBC do have their own platforms of course, reaching out to other audiences via social media is seen by many as being significant during a time of national lockdown. 

Angus’ comments, however, reflect a UK situation where broadcasters like the BBC are widely trusted by the public. The platforms, operating on a global basis, might be wary about handing over any sort of editorial control to state run media in authoritarian countries or to making the decision as to what constitutes a trusted media source in deeply polarized markets such as the USA or Ukraine.

Zelensky hits reset on decentralisation

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has withdrawn his proposed decentralisation law after it was criticised by the European Parliament and a number of western embassies for not doing enough to give power to people.

This proposed legislation is important as it will help to establish a new constitutional framework, including for the breakaway regions of the east of the country. However the original draft made no specific reference to the Donbass. Current peace proposals for the region, based around the Normandy talks have seen both Russia and Ukraine commit to the so-called Steinmeier formula which would see greater autonomy for the regions in the east – albeit that each side sees the required outcome in different terms. Until the Kyiv government outlines its proposals for special status it seems unlikely that the next step – local elections – can take place.

Reading List – 26th October 2019

Tatiana Stanovaya argues that, for Putin, the risk of impeachment is that it creates too much chaos in the White House, risks undermining the gains that Russia has made with the US under Donald Trump and might result in the release of embarrassing details of conversations the two have had.

 

Duncan Allan and Leo Litra suggest that Ukrainian President Zelensky’s attempt to move forward with a solution to the Donbas conflict has angered many people at home. Having apparently hit a brick wall, Zelensky may choose instead to freeze matters for the time being.

 

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky say that whilst US allies among small nations will be nervous having seen President Trump abandon the Kurds, that does not mean that he will automatically be less likely to support other allies in future.

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 – 14th October 2019

Did Zelensky give in to Moscow? It’s too early to tell

Steven Pifer looks at the Steinmeier formula and whether agreeing to it indicates that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has given way to the Kremlin in trying to resolve the Donbas conflict. 

Part of the requirement of the plan is that the OSCE should supervise local elections in the conflict regions and, only if declared free and fair, would the region get special devolved status. The OSCE has not supervised (ie run) elections for almost two decades. The methodology used now is that the organisation merely observes. And the reports it produces are far more detailed and nuanced than simply declaring whether or not elections are free and fair. So the questions raised are: Is the OSCE expected to take on a supervisory role and how would this come about? Or was this a mistake in language? And if the report is more nuanced than a simple binary declaration, who will make the decision as to whether the threshold for devolution has been passed?

 

Majority of Ukrainians against ‘special status’ for occupied Donbas

Still on the subject of Ukraine and Steinmeier, the Khasrkiv Human Rights Protection Group reports that the majority of Ukrainians oppose the plan for special status for the Donbas conflict areas, especially if there is a quid pro quo that would recognise the Crimea as Russian.

 

Five observations on President Trump’s handling of Ukraine policy

Finally (but still Ukraine related), Steven Pifer makes it two articles in this list with an analysis of that Trump/Zelensky phone call and what it means for the US President’s understanding of the issues facing Ukraine.

 

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.

Ukraine’s President gets what he wants out of Parliamentary polls but wants more

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A polling station in the Kherson region set up for voting in the Parliamentary elections

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky got exactly what he wanted out of last weekend’s parliamentary elections – an overall majority for his Servant of the People party (Sluha Narodu), a good showing for other newcomers Holos (led by rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk) and the ousting of many of the oligarchs who have occupied seats in the Verkhovna Rada seemingly as of right for many years. Now he wants more and is seeking to bring forward local elections to this autumn.

Zelensky won the Presidency in April with 73% of the vote in the run-off against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. In his inauguration speech he immediately called for early elections to the country’s parliament. As a newcomer to the political scene – his experience until then had been as a comedian, TV producer and star of the Servant of the People show in which he played a school teacher who unexpectedly becomes President – he had no official support in the Rada and had no means of getting legislation through or enforcing his choices for many of the key positions running the country.

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A poster showing the party list and manifesto for Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party on display at a polling station in the Kherson region

The challenge for Zelensky going into these elections was exactly how popular was he? Winning 73% of the vote in the run-off would indicate considerable popularity, but he only gained 30% in the first round and it was widely expected that he would need to form a coalition in order to govern. Most commentators assumed that the bulk of the second round votes came from those voting against the incumbent rather than positively for Zelensky. 

The Ukrainian electoral system was also stacked against him. Roughly half the seats are awarded on the basis of a national party list system – where Servant of the People could be assumed to do quite well. But the remainder would be awarded to the winners of first past the post single member constituencies. And many of the incumbents were well entrenched local oligarchs including factory and media owners and other local powerbrokers. In contrast, Servant of the People were putting forward completely new faces, many of whom were not even local to the districts they were seeking to represent. Whilst international election observers had not seen a great scale of electoral malpractice in the presidential poll, it was assumed that in these single mandate constituencies there would be more scope for bribery and other electoral malfeasance. Could Zelensky and his party turn their presidential ‘against the system’ message into a winning strategy for the Rada and overcome such barriers?

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A polling station in the Kherson region on Election Day

Well it turned out that they could do so in spades. The party not only topped the list vote, but won a majority of the single member seats too. Long time incumbents were unceremoniously defeated by political naifs and, even though OSCE/ODIHR and others reported instances of bribery, it appears that voters were savvy enough to take the cash or foodstuffs on offer and then vote for Servant of the People candidates anyway. Servant of the People won 16 out of 17 seats in Dnipropetrovsk, 8 out of 9 in Kyiv Oblast, 12 out of 14 in Kharkiv, and all 13 in Kyiv city. (1)

In the list vote, Servant of the People won in every region except three. In the far eastern regions bordering the rebel controlled areas of the Donbas, the Russia supporting Opposition Platform – For Life topped the poll and in Lviv region in the West it was Holos (Voice) that came top. But Servant of the People performed strongly in these too and came first in the remaining 22 regions.

Across the country, the list results were:

  • Servant of the People 43.2% 124 seats
  • Opposition Platform – For Life 13.1% 37 seats
  • Batkivshchyna (the party of Yulia Tymoshenko) 8.2% 24 seats
  • European Solidarity (the party of former President Poroshenko) 8.1% 23 seats
  • Holos 5.8% 17 seats

No other party won more than 5% and therefore did not exceed the threshold to win representation, although six other parties (2) gained more than 2% and so will receive some state funding for their activities.

In the single mandate constituencies, 

  • Servant of the People won 130 seats
  • Opposition Platform – For Life won 6 seats
  • European Solidarity won 2 seats
  • Batkivshchyna won 2 seats
  • Holos won 3 seats
  • Opposition Bloc won 6 seats
  • Svoboda won 1 seat
  • Self Reliance won 1 seat
  • and there were 48 independents and others elected

And so overall Servant of the People hold 253 of the 424 Rada seats (some 26 seats were not contested this time as they fall within Crimea and the Donbas areas which are not in government control).

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Defaced political posters in the Kherson region the day before Parliamentary elections

The scale of the transformation of the Rada cannot be over-stated. More than 300 of the MPs elected last week are new faces and not a single member on the government benches has served before. In one example, in the south-eastern Zaporizhzhya region, 29-year-old Serhiy Shtepa, a wedding photographer, defeated 80-year-old millionaire Vyacheslav Boguslayev, the owner of engine maker Motor Sich PJSC.

The elections were assessed positively overall by international observers including OSCE/ODIHR. They were competitive and respected fundamental freedoms with the voting and tabulation processes being assessed as transparent and smooth. Inevitably, it was not an error-free process and the country still has some improvements that could be made, but this was a general thumbs-up for these polls. The international community has also welcomed the results as being a positive mandate for continued reform.

 

At no time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has one party controlled a majority of the seats in the Rada. Such control now will allow Zelensky considerable leeway to mould the country in his image. But most commentators are still wondering what that image will look like. The President has made statements about wanting to end the war in the East, but Russia and the rebels are refusing meaningful engagement. A deal for a prisoner swap involving the sailors held by Russia since the Kerch Strait incident fell apart at the last minute as they had their incarceration period extended and the Ukraine court postponed a hearing to decide the fate of a Russian blogger. More recently, Ukraine has seized a Russian ship that it claims was involved in the blockade of the Kerch Strait. It appears that Zelensky is happy to ratchet up tensions with his biggest neighbour in order not to appear weak, although this might also make a deal more likely.

Domestically, Zelensky has made it clear that he wants to see the de-oligarchisation of the state. But his relationship with his patron (and oligarch) Ihor Kolomoisky is still unclear. Is this just a change of oligarchs with influence or is this a genuine clear out? Figures close to Kolomoisky such as Andriy Bogdan, who now serves as the president’s chief of staff, are heavily involved in policy-making and running the presidential administration. Ties to the former owner of PrivatBank may cast a shadow over Sluha Narodu’s fight against corruption, an issue many Ukrainians believe should be the top priority of the next parliament.

The mixed electoral system would seem to be on its way out. Zelensky has said that he wants to move to a single national list system – albeit an open list where voters can promote their favourite candidates rather than having to accept the order set by parties. It has also been suggested that there would be no threshold – leading to a plethora of small factions. Just before these polls the Rada passed a version of this system which the President said he was not happy with. It is set to come into force for the next parliamentary polls, but may well be changed again before that time.

And in order to complete his hold on power, Zelensky is turning his attention to local government. He has the power to dismiss figures such as the mayor of Kyiv, the former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko, but he also wants to see local elections brought forward. These are due to be held in October next year, but the President has said he wants to hold them this autumn instead. He faces some opposition in the form of the country’s constitution which mandates that local polls must be held on a fixed five year timetable. Changing the constitution would require two votes of the Rada in separate sessions, indicating that next spring is the earliest that polls could happen. But with a compliant parliament and a definite will, it seems likely that Zelensky will get his way even if it means backdating a constitutional change or holding local elections both this autumn and next.

Zelensky has been explicit in his backing for a western facing, pro European and pro NATO stance, but it is clear that the country will not become a member of NATO for many years yet. The alliance is unwilling to take on a new member which is de facto at war with a neighbouring state. Previous Ukrainian governments have also traded on their conflict with Russia, believing they can get away with a lot so long as they are battling the West’s main opponent. How long this situation can be taken for granted (if it ever could) is also in doubt. 

Zelensky will also be trying to change a system where a majority of voters may not actually support his ideology. According to a strategist for Holos:

“Most of Sluha Narodu’s voters did not support the president’s party because of its pro-market agenda, but because they expect the new ruling party to cut utility prices, raise salaries and improve social conditions in general.”

Despite his resounding success, it is clear that Zelensky will have to live up to the expectations of his backers if he is to have any hope of a second term. The Ukrainian people have shown how tired they are of the oligarch system. It will be a very difficult task to unpick it, but that must be the aim if Zelensky is not to prove a flash in the pan.

 

Notes:

(1) There was an issue with clone candidates who claimed to be part of Servant of the People but were not official candidates. OSCE/ODIHR believes that such candidates distorted the result in as many as nine constituencies. I will be writing about this as part of the wider ‘imposter’ phenomenon in elections at another time.

(2) The six other parties to gain more than 2% in the list vote and therefore be eligible for state funding are:

  • Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko
  • Strength and Honour
  • Opposition Bloc
  • Ukrainian Strategy of Groysman
  • Party of Shariy
  • Svoboda