I’m an election observer and the lack of scrutiny created by coronavirus scares me. It will only help autocrats

From Poland to Belarus and even the US, the pandemic will create issues for elections around the world this year

Alex Folkes
Sunday 28 June 2020 16:42
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Poland's President Andrzej Duda ahead of his country's election
Poland's President Andrzej Duda ahead of his country's election

As elections get under way again around the world, there is a real risk that many will go without proper international scrutiny. That is only good news for autocrats.

Even countries like the US could have their "worst" elections in living memory in terms of potential issues and the UK should be using the merger of the the Foreign Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID) to become a world leader in election observing.

When Covid-19 first struck, a number of countries tried to press on with scheduled elections, even as others postponed theirs. Among the countries which wanted to carry on was France where the first round of municipal polls took place but the turnout was so low (particularly among older people) that the second round was postponed.

Those areas which looked to push ahead mostly instituted special measures. These included expanding the ability to vote early or to vote by post. But last minute changes like this are not easy to pull off. In the US, a number of states have failed to fulfil the vast number of additional postal vote requests and the mail system often cannot cope with returning the completed ballots in time for them to be counted. In Poland, an attempt to move the presidential election to an all-postal ballot was halted with just four days to go.

Those that looked to go ahead were in the minority, however. Most elections have been postponed and are now re-scheduled for the autumn or, in the case of the UK, a whole year later than their original date. But many contests didn’t have a new date indicated when they were called off and authorities are seeking to run them now, as the impact of Covid-19 is starting to ease for a number of nations.

Serbia voted in a parliamentary election on 21 June where the provisional results show the ruling party is likely to have overwhelming dominance in the new parliament. The Polish election is taking place today and Belarus, a country which denies that the coronavirus is a serious problem, will hold a vote – and likely re-elect President Alexander Lukashenko – on 8 August.

What is common to all these elections is that the international observer community will either be missing or will have a dramatically downsized presence, mostly due to travel restrictions and concern for the health of individual observers.

In Serbia, for example, the original plan by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and its office for democratisation and human rights was to have around 400 observers on the ground for election day and roughly 40 people in-country to watch the campaign period. In the event, they were only able to deploy a team of ten. Similar reductions are expected for Poland and the organisation is still waiting for the formal invitation to observe the elections in Belarus, meaning that nothing can start yet.

In the maelstrom of Covid-19, elections and democratic processes may not seem like the most important things. But a problematic election now will have significant implications for decades to come. With a super-majority in parliament, some observers have suggested that the government of Aleksandr Vucic in Serbia will start down the path set out by Viktor Orban in Hungary and the Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland - an erosion of democratic norms and restrictions on the freedom of the media.

A bigger international election observation mission on its own cannot, of course, prevent this from happening. But if observers are able to see and document the failings of a contest then nations can do more to hold those governments to account. Serbia has said it wants to have closer association with the EU and maybe, eventually, to join. One of the key tenets of the Aquis Communitaire - the common understanding of the EU - is a strong democracy and rule of law. Without the evidence provided by a thorough election observation, where is the evidence to show that Serbia is ready?

Election missions can by their very presence, give confidence to opposition figures to stand, encourage voters to turn out and cast their ballot and they can discourage potential corruption. Missions cannot work miracles, of course. That is why it is so disappointing to see the EU announce already that it is unlikely to have any sort of presence for Uganda’s poll in the autumn. With the whole continent of Africa experiencing Covid-19 later than the rest of the world, there is a legitimate concern about the safety of mission members, of course. But giving up entirely (and announcing the fact now) is counter-productive.

When it comes to the US election, there is a genuine risk that Covid-19 will have a significant effect. For example, in the primary held in Kentucky this week, the number of physical polling places was vastly reduced with many polling volunteers, most of whom are over 70, pulling out. At the extreme, there was one polling place for more than 600,000 registered voters.

There is still time for the USA to get things right for November, but just as we highlight the deficiencies of the processes in emerging democracies, so we should be highlighting any failings which happen in America.

As the survey of democracy around the world shows that the globe is slipping backwards from its high water mark, we should make sure that the terrible effects of Covid-19 do not halt our commitment to promoting free and fair elections in every country and election observation missions are a key part of this.

The government in the UK has taken the decision to merge the FCO and DfID. Whether that is the right decision or not is open to debate, but it brings the opportunity for the UK to lead the world in its commitment to democratic ideals and election observation is one of the most effective ways of doing this.

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