ANNAN FOUNDATION: Democracy must not become the silent victim of the coronavirus pandemic

ANNAN FOUNDATION: Democracy must not become the silent victim of the coronavirus pandemic

While governments everywhere struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic and do all they can to protect public health, democracy is at risk in many places around the world.

Hardwon rights are being swept aside by emergency measures, elections postponed indefinitely, or held under problematic conditions, and essential freedoms eroded.

Since the beginning of March, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has noted that more than 50 countries and territories have postponed elections because of the crisis.

Though ostensibly legitimate in the midst of a pandemic, some countries have put off their elections using health emergency laws, instead of through appropriate political channels as stipulated by their constitutions and international standards, and without agreeing to a consensual process for fixing a new date.

In the same period, nineteen countries and territories have gone ahead with their elections in difficult circumstances, some of which could undermine their democratic integrity, if not their legality.

Indeed, an election with few poll workers, closed polling stations, very low turn-out, and little or no independent observation could potentially be as compromised as one delayed indefinitely.

Countries due to hold elections in the coming months do face a tremendous challenge. They must take draconian measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but also enable citizens to meaningfully participate in the electoral process.

Campaign rallies, voter registration, face-to-face debate and election-day gatherings are all complicated by the situation.

The citizens and leaders of such countries face many challenging questions: Can the election – and the processes that precede it – still be held without endangering lives?

Will extra precautions at polling stations be sufficient, or should more profound, and sometimes controversial, changes be made to the way we vote?

These are complex issues involving our fundamental rights, the integrity of democracy, and the legitimacy of our governments. The answers will depend on the legal, political and public health context of individual states, and will probably involve difficult trade-offs.

International norms and obligations provide a vital compass, however.

For this reason, we advocate that electoral processes during the COVID-19 pandemic should reflect and respect the following key principles:

● A firm grounding in the law. The adoption of emergency measures, including changes to elections, should conform to constitutional provisions and electoral laws. Where the national legal framework does not anticipate such a situation, necessary changes should be formally adopted, consistent with international obligations.
● Broad political support. Even where the law is clear, a consultative approach building agreement across the political landscape is crucial. Without this, measures may be perceived as a strategy for political gain by incumbents, which can subvert the public trust that is essential to address the health crisis.
● Clear and transparent communication to the public. Citizens will need to understand what measures are being considered, by whom, and on what grounds. The media and civil society have a crucial role to play in preventing democratic erosion by monitoring policy, fostering or enabling debate, and shining a light on critical issues.
● Proportionality. Any measures taken – from adjustments at the polling station to more profound changes in how voters are registered, ballots are cast, or votes are tabulated – should be reasonable and proportionate to the risk posed by the coronavirus.
● Based on the best available technical information. Choosing suitable, proportionate measures requires not only legal certainty and political buy-in but also subject matter expertise. The relevant experts, including electoral experts, should be consulted as early as possible.
● Time-bound. The horizon for any emergency measures should be clearly set out. This is particularly relevant in the case of a postponement of elections, which should not be open-ended. Where it is not possible to set a new date, there should be clarity and agreement on how to determine when risks have been overcome.
● Mindful of particularly affected groups. Some citizens will require special consideration at this time to ensure free, fair, and safe elections. These include those who are in hospitals or isolation due to the virus; health care workers; law enforcement and military personnel assisting in the crisis; and traditionally marginalized groups, such as women, persons with disabilities, the elderly, refugees and migrants, minority groups, and others who might otherwise be disenfranchised.

Virtually every country in the world will be affected by the pandemic. It is critical, therefore, that we face this common challenge together.

In protecting the health and safety of our citizens, we must also be sure that protection measures safeguard the integrity of elections and the legitimacy of democratic political systems.

We urge all leaders and governments to implement decisions in a manner that reflects these principles and respects fundamental rights.

That way, we will emerge from this crisis stronger, protecting precious democratic freedom, as well as national health.

The Kofi Annan Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organization that works to promote better global governance and strengthen the capacities of people and countries to achieve a fairer, more peaceful world. It was founded in 2007 by Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations