Webinar: Recent Elections in Albania, Bulgaria and Cyprus During the Pandemic
More than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, countries in Europe have returned to holding elections in line with original schedules, including parliamentary elections in Bulgaria and Albania in April 2021 and in Cyprus on May 30. The 11th webinar in the Democratic Resilience in Europe During a Pandemic series organized by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) Regional Europe Office focused on these three elections.
Panelists addressed the lessons learned in these past and upcoming elections through the lens of democratic resilience and the pandemic’s impact on holding elections that respect the will of all voters. The webinar took place on May 27, gathering 91 participants from 27 countries, and featured simultaneous interpretation into Albanian, Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian, South Slavic language and Ukrainian. The discussion was facilitated by IFES Senior Political Finance Adviser and Regional Europe Office Director Magnus Öhman.
IFES Regional Director for Europe and Eurasia Beata Martin-Rozumiłowicz identified disinformation as one of the biggest threats to democracy in the region and emphasized how it has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. She explained that IFES is working to combat this threat through the Social Media, Disinformation and Electoral Integrity Working Group (SMEID), which brings together election management bodies throughout Europe and Eurasia to address information integrity challenges to the electoral process. With IFES’ support, the SMEID Working Group identified the need for a Crisis Communication and Countering Disinformation Playbook. Martin-Rozumiłowicz also shared her perspective on the potential lasting impacts of the pandemic on elections, namely the highlighted need for greater accessibility and media literacy through effective civic education.
Dr. Teodor Slavev from the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives explained how the outcome of the April elections failed to deliver a stable government. Bulgaria now faces new snap elections in July. Vote buying and corporate-controlled votes are common, and confidence in government institutions is low. In the April elections, abuse of state resources for political gain, such as relaxing COVID-19 measures two weeks ahead of the election, was a major threat. Overall, Slavev argued that the government did its best to balance public health and political rights when running the elections. In the upcoming July elections, machine voting will become compulsory for all voters, rather than voluntary as in the past.
Dr. Nayia Kamenou, lecturer at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cyprus, discussed what to expect from the upcoming elections in Cyprus from the perspective of sexual politics and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Cypriots. Kamenou explained that during times of crisis, marginalized groups are often further disempowered, and the pandemic has negatively impacted LGBTQ communities across the globe. In countries such as South Korea, Uganda and Ukraine, LGBTQ individuals have been targeted by religious groups, news outlets and public authorities. Kamenou speculated that the legacies of colonialism in Cyprus have led to narrow conceptualizations of gendered and sexual politics. Sexual politics in Cyprus is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it was not until 1998 that the Cypriot Parliament decriminalized same-sex conduct. Since then, new advocacy organizations have arisen and most political candidates have realized that, if they want a seat in Parliament, they cannot ignore LGBTQ voters.
Unfortunately, Albania State Electoral Commissioner Ilijran Celibashi, who was scheduled to discuss the April parliamentary elections, was unable to join the event.
This webinar demonstrated how far elections have come since the pandemic began. Challenges to electoral integrity such as disinformation, abuse of state resources and disenfranchisement of marginalized groups are still prevalent, but panelists seemed generally hopeful and optimistic about the future of democracy in the region and in their respective countries. Examining the elections in Bulgaria, Albania and Cyprus reinforced the notion that democracy is withstanding and adapting to persistent and emergent challenges.
Published on June 8, 2021.