European elections have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic due to the fear of the spread of the virus by European citizens and the enforced confinement by European governments. This has raised concern and this could impact voter turnout if elections are held regardless of the ongoing sanitary crisis. Democratic elections allow citizens to dictate who will hold office for a specific period of time and who will represent them and their important public policy issues. Two notable elections in Europe that have continued regardless of health concerns are those in France and Poland, both of which have resulted in controversial election policies.
In France, on 15 March 2020, the first round of municipal elections held in Paris reported a low turnout of 42.30%, in comparison to the last municipal election in 2014, which reported a 56.26%. France announced Phase Three of the pandemic on 14 March and many Parisians were afraid to go to their local polling stations in fear of contamination. Due to the government enforced confinement ordered on 17 March, the original date of the second round of elections was postponed to 28 June.
This affects democracy because voters are discouraged from exercising their right to vote and in this particular case, only those who voted in the first round are able to vote in the second. Therefore, compared to the last election, 12% of voters are unable to voice their choice of candidate and fight for their main concerns in Paris. Despite having already held the first round of elections, the French government has implemented new orders for the second round such as obligatory masks and limitations on the number of people allowed inside polling stations.
Perhaps the most controversial European election is that of the Polish presidency. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been conflicts with how to proceed with the presidential elections that were due to take place on 10 May 2020. Current Polish president, Andrzej Duda of the United Right party was in a highly controversial and critiqued position for his stance on organising a postal ballot election. The reason for the controversy is because an election solely by postal ballot is forbidden in the Polish constitution, meaning that this decision would call for a rewrite, something Poles did not support and Polish law deemed unconstitutional. As a result, the Polish parliament passed a law that would allow for postal ballot election if there was another national emergency.
Many accused President Duda and his party of corruption because they did not want to postpone the elections and abide by the Polish constitution due to favorable polling data. The United Right party went as far as to propose extending the Presidential term by two years. The National Electoral Commission announced that the elections would be postponed, later scheduling the first round for 28 June and the second round for 12 July if no candidate received more than 50% of the vote. Since the announcement, Duda has dropped in the polls due to his remarks on the LGBTQ+ community and his continued support of government funded benefit programs that are unpopular with Poles who believe this money should be reinvested in the Polish economy and the growth of Polish companies.
This received both national and international attention because of the disregard for the rights of Polish citizens and the protection of the Polish constitution and law. If the party had held elections as originally planned with a mix of in-person and postal ballots, it would have caused voter suppression seeing as the preparations for such a task required much more time than the Polish government had to properly prepare for the election. In order to organise a postal election, the private data of citizens would have been put at risk and in the hands of the Poczta Polska, the Polish Post, which violates the European GDPR and Polish law. The Polish presidential elections are an example of a European election that was severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. It put democracy, the rights of citizens, and their privacy at risk through an attempt to change constitutional law.
The Council of Europe reported that 16 out of 20 elections scheduled since 16 March have been cancelled, postponed or held via postal ballot. These countries include Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Armenia, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Macedonia and the United Kingdom. As many European governments end the lockdown due to the decreasing numbers of infected individuals and deaths, most of the proposed dates in June will be honoured. The governments have implemented procedures to keep European citizens safe and to contain the virus as countries prepare to deconfine.
Despite the uncertainty and controversy with how European Union members navigated and managed elections in a Covid-19 world, the majority of citizens and politicians fought for the preferred solution that would protect the rights of voters. The Council of Europe reported that 5 out of 20 scheduled elections during the confinement proceeded regardless, leading to lower levels of voter turnout, such as in the municipal elections in France. However by postponing elections to a post- lockdown date governments can be sure that they are not committing voter suppression or undermining democracy. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced governments to reevaluate their medical and now electoral preparation in unforeseen circumstances such as an international health emergency. Honouring democracy and the democratic right to vote without putting your health at risk is an important task that the state must comply with and arrange to ensure it is following EU election standards.
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Limon, A. R. (2020) Postal votes, postponement and pandemics: Democracy in the era of Covid-19, IDRN, 25 June. Available at: https://idrn.eu/democracy-and-civil-society/postal-votes-postponement-and-pandemics-democracy-in-the-era-of-covid-19 [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].