One year ago, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. The pandemic has reached further than many of us expected and changed countless aspects of global society, including electoral processes and how democratic systems have had to adapt to overcome these new challenges.
On March 25, 2021, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) Regional Europe Office (REO) organized a webinar to reflect on the greatest challenges and lessons learned from the pandemic’s impact on democratic resilience in Europe over the past year. The webinar gathered 112 participants (60 percent women) from 30 countries, 77 percent of whom attended previous webinars and 85 percent were satisfied. The webinar was moderated by IFES REO Director Magnus Öhman and simultaneously interpreted into seven languages (Albanian, Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian, South Slavic language and Ukrainian).
IFES President and CEO Anthony Banbury discussed the pandemic’s impact on elections around the world and the steps IFES is taking to address these new and exacerbated obstacles to electoral integrity. While countries continue to face challenges, including delayed elections, Banbury emphasized that a record number of 14 elections were held in Europe and Eurasia in 2020 despite the pandemic, and IFES assisted in many of them. Banbury noted the significant role played by political actors in the elections thus far, including some who have used the pandemic to consolidate their power.
Yves Doutriaux, state councilor and former French ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, explored last year’s French municipal elections and the current electoral climate. French municipal elections are based on a two-round system, and the first round was conducted the night before the national lockdown started on March 16, 2020. The Council of State, which is the legal advisory body of the French government, recommended a postponement of the second round, finding no legal or constitutional provision barring such a postponement. Therefore, a new law was adopted to postpone the second round until June. France also has regional elections that were originally slated for March 2021 but that have been postponed until June 2021 in hopes that COVID-19 cases decline. Doutriaux noted sentiments of fear that have been sparked by voters speculating that, under executive manipulation, the regional elections will continue to be delayed until after the presidential election in 2022.
Next, Ivana Belec, member of the State Electoral Commission (SEC) of Croatia, focused primarily on youth civic participation. Croatia held parliamentary elections in July 2020, and the participation of young voters was essential to protecting the country’s democratic and societal values. Belec explained how most voters are kept informed through multiple channels, including the SEC’s regular activities, website and the media. The SEC initiated a project titled “My Vote Counts Too” to mobilize young and first-time voters in 2018. For this initiative, SEC members visited more than 20 high schools throughout Croatia and engaged more than 1,000 high school graduates on political systems, the Constitution and their civil rights and duties. During the pandemic, the program has been conducted online and continues to have a notable impact. Belec illustrated how before a lecture, around 50 percent of students claimed that they planned to vote, while by the end of the lecture, more than 80 percent confirmed their intent to vote.
Program Director Albert Krasniqi of Democracy Plus in Kosovo explained the legal basis for the postponement of elections and the impact of the pandemic on Kosovo’s election campaigns, voter participation and election results, as well as lessons learned. Since the start of the pandemic, Kosovo has held two elections – one for mayor of Podujeva, held only in one municipality, and the other for general elections throughout the country. Because of the virus, political parties disputed the legal basis for the postponement, and one party even accused the president of constitutional violations. The mayoral elections were eventually held in November and provided an opportunity for election management bodies to practice for the parliamentary elections in February 2021. A new measure, called the Law on Combating the Spread of the Pandemic, was adopted in August 2020 and bans gatherings beyond a certain number of people. Krasniqi argued that this law was not enforced appropriately, and that the election campaign led to an increase in cases. The pandemic also led to delays in mail-in voting, electoral irregularities and fewer election observers than usual.
The webinar concluded with a Q&A portion for the audience to ask questions, including what the panelists’ main takeaways from the elections were. Banbury shared a sentiment that the pandemic simply revealed or exacerbated preexisting institutional or procedural issues faced by election management bodies, such as gaps in leadership, budgets, crisis communication strategies and lack of interinstitutional coordination. Despite concerns and challenges, the panelists were proud of the resiliency demonstrated by their countries’ institutions in persevering in the face of a crisis. While the pandemic brought into focus long-standing obstacles to electoral integrity, it also highlighted the ability of democratic institutions to withstand and adapt to enduring and emergent challenges.
Published on April 13, 2021.