Covid is no reason to obstruct democracy

When people went to vote in the Dominican Republic in July, it was clear they weren’t taking part in a normal election. They stood in distanced lines outside polling stations, and when it was their turn to vote, they wore masks and sanitised their hands before and after. The officials all wore masks and gloves too, and surfaces and materials in polling stations were regularly wiped down. In short, it was harder to hold the elections and special precautions needed to be taken at every step – but the elections were possible, and they resulted in a rare defeat for the ruling party. The public voiced its appetite for change – something they would have been denied if the elections had been postponed.

A new government also resulted from Malawi’s presidential election, held in June following the court annulment of the fraudulent 2019 election. South Korea was the frontrunner, holding the first national election under the pandemic; despite fears that people would stay at home, turnout increased, and a record number of women were elected.

On the International Day of Democracy, it’s time to say that elections can be held under the pandemic. Elections are, of course, not the only component of democracy, which must also include the ability to express dissent, take part in opposition and hold those in power accountable; but elections are a vital cornerstone of democracy, and countries that do not hold regular free and fair elections cannot be considered democratic.

What these examples show is that elections can still be held under Covid-19, and they can still enable a true expression of the public will and the peaceful transition of power. The pandemic certainly makes elections harder, but it does not make them impossible, and there is an emerging body of good practice about how to hold elections during these unusual times, encompassing safety measures, alternatives to in-person voting and new arenas for political campaigning.

Governments have a duty to hold elections that are due wherever possible, and ruling parties should not use the pandemic and emergency measures as pretexts to cling onto power.

Governments also have a duty to ensure that people don’t expose themselves unduly to risk while exercising their democratic freedoms. This means that alongside protective measures, they may have to offer new ways of voting for people who cannot physically attend polling stations, including vulnerable population groups at heightened risk of infection. Governments must ensure that no one is excluded from having a say and election results are a true expression of people’s opinions.

This means that governments may need to embrace online, postal and proxy voting more than they have been prepared to in the past – and work harder to ensure that these means are reliable and invulnerable to attack. Further, when physical campaigning methods, such as election rallies and door-to-door calls, are not possible, there should be fair access to media coverage and online space should be opened up so that a range of candidates and parties can put their messages across and connect with voters.

Elections falling short

Unfortunately, while some elections under the pandemic have been free and fair, there have also been several cases where the reality falls short. Bolivia’s ruling party, which came to power as a caretaker government following the ousting of Evo Morales in 2019, seems determined to keep putting off the date of the elections until a time that makes it likely that it will win. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections have been pushed back a whole year; they would have offered a focus to organise dissent over China’s increasingly harsh rule. In the USA, the Trump administration’s attacks on the postal service, at a time when postal voting offers a key means to vote safely, seem the latest tactic in a long campaign of voter suppression that seeks to make it harder for minorities to have their say; these attacks aim to help keep Trump in power or give him space to dispute the election results.

Some of the votes that have gone ahead have fallen short of the high standards that can be achieved, as incumbent governments took advantage of the unusual conditions in which elections were held. Singapore’s July elections, which to no one’s great surprise reconfirmed the ruling party’s long hold on power, saw the ruling party make the most of its close connections with state media, which opposition voices struggled to access; the opposition was painted as a threat to the government’s pandemic response. Similar issues were seen in Sri Lanka.

In several countries, opposition parties, unable to hold rallies or access state media, pivoted to social media campaigning. While there was some effective use of social media, there was also the challenge of rising disinformation, and the increased restrictions many governments placed on online expression during the pandemic.

Civil society’s usual roles around elections have also been curtailed during this time. It became much harder, often impossible, to organise voter education classes, or to act as election observers, physically present at polling and counting stations. But civil society has still done what it could to help ensure that elections could be free and fair.

Malawi’s election was only held following a court action brought by civil society, which delayed the imposition of lockdown measures until after it had taken place; the suspicion was that the ruling party was hastily seeking to introduce a lockdown that would have delayed the election rather than face losing power. In Croatia, civil society brought a legal complaint to win the right for people receiving hospital treatment for Covid-19 infection to vote by proxy. And in the Dominican Republic, when the incumbent government started a campaign that seemed explicitly designed to scare people into staying at home rather than going out to vote, civil society launched a counter campaign encouraging people to protect themselves and get out and vote safely. Public outcry caused the government’s campaign to be quickly dropped.

Under the pandemic, governments have had to make hard decisions and strike complex balances between the sometimes conflicting goals of controlling the spread of infection, protecting livelihoods and respecting human rights, democratic freedoms and the space for civil society. These difficult decisions are more likely to strike the right balances if they are made in a spirit of openness, informed dialogue and willingness to be held accountable: if they can be subjected to democratic oversight and debate, and if civil society’s role, not just in providing services to communities in need but in defending rights, urging alternatives and supporting free and fair elections, is recognised. Covid-19 is no excuse to delay, downplay, or divert democracy; it is needed now as much as it has ever been.