Written by Paulina Adamik
American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama claimed that from the early 1970s to the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, a pro-democratic direction was introduced by more and more countries (Fukuyama 2019: 19). Fukuyama, referring to Larry Diamond’s book Facing Up to the Democratic Recession, noted that after the financial crisis (in the United States in 2008 and later in Greece) we could observe a democratic recession (ibidem: 21). Indeed, democracy faces many challenges that, besides of financial crises, include: radicalization of nationalist movements, populist contestation, socio-political polarization correlated with the question of the level of trust in the national parliament, and now politicization of the pandemic in national parliamentary debates.
Democracy as a value, common to all Member States of the European Union, is indicated in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. In some of the EU countries measures taken by decision-makers in the ongoing pandemic potentially bring new concerns about weakening democracy. Public fear and economic uncertainty driven by the pandemic, as tools in politicians’ hands can lead to a diversion of attention from protecting democracy (Herszenhorn 2020). Therefore, it is necessary to take steps to prevent this negative scenario.
Presidential election in Poland
Elections, both national and local, are a fundamental process in a democratic state and provide politicians and local authorities with legitimization of power. This process is held not only at national but also at the supranational level. Every five years EU citizens eligible to vote elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
The pandemic declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11th March 2020 affects every sphere of life, including election calendars. Nevertheless, as Fernando Casal Bértoa and Simona Guerra noted, after 11 March the only three countries, namely Kiribati, South Korea, and Vanuatu, held legislative and/or presidential elections. Looking at the European election map during the pandemic, only France held local elections, but on nation-wide scale (Bértoa, Guerra, 2020). The issue of elections during a pandemic is also crucial in the current political discourse in Poland, where presidential elections were originally scheduled for 10 May 2020.
The scenario assuming elections during pandemic leads to controversy both among international experts and some voters. The main point of contention was the passed draft of the law on postal voting in presidential elections. Draft of the law was approved during a session of the Sejm on 6th April 2020. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, in opinion from 27 April 2020, stressed:
Implementation of the Draft Act within the timeframe envisaged for holding the election on 10 May 2020 would require adoption of more detailed procedural guidelines, may place an unreasonable burden on the implementing bodies and jeopardize important principles of democratic elections (OSCE/ODIHR 2020).
Postal voting in the upcoming presidential elections in Poland is seen from an EU perspective in a similar way as in the OSCE. European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová expressed concern whether the elections in Poland would be held as free, fair, constitutional and legal (Słojewska, 2020).Thus, the method of postal voting, allowing for elections to be held during a pandemic, has deepened the discussion on maintaining democratic standards in Poland.
The European Parliament in resolution of 17 April 2020 on EU coordinated action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, stressed that effort to conduct presidential elections despite the pandemic is not in line with European values. Therefore it is necessary to recall the European values indicated in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union: “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.
The social moods and concerns of the Polish public opinion concerning the presidential election in the time of the pandemic, encompasses questions about potential endanger for health, transparency of elections as well as data privacy of voters.
Democracy during a pandemic in Hungary
To remind the context of Hungarian political scene, it should be clarified that in 2018, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition won parliamentary elections for the third time in a row (2010, 2014 and 2018). In the result of elections Fidesz has obtained a constitutional majority of two-thirds in a unicameral parliament. Party consistently using its majority to increasingly strengthen its power at every moment, also during a pandemic.
As Eszter Zalan noted, the law passed by the Hungarian Parliament on 30 March 2020, gave the prime minister new powers. Victor Orbán has received the possibility to rule by decree, without a time frame (Zalan 2020). The adequacy of these powers is a matter of discussion. According to Zalan, Hungary is the first country in the European Union where such a solution was adopted (ibidem). The extraordinary measures adopted in Hungary during the ongoing pandemic provide fears of democratic recession as well as are recognized by the European Parliament as “totally incompatible with European values” (European Parliament resolution of 17 April 2020 on EU coordinated action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences).
Recommendations for the future of Polish and Hungarian democracy in the post-pandemic times
My recommendations for the future of democracy in post-Pandemic times include:
- call to NGO’s to lead and continue open public debates as well as consultations with politicians to empowering a voice of society,
- raising awareness about media literacy and the fight against disinformation to verify politicians’ promises,
- development a sense of co-responsibility among all of the actors participating in public life.
Pandemic has deepened the discussion on democracy recession in Poland and Hungary. Protecting the current state of democracy may not be enough. Hopefully, the above recommendations will have an impact on rethinking by decision-makers their actions, as well as contribute to strengthening democracy.
Paulina Adamik is a recent graduate from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, holds a MA degree in European Studies. She is a member of Polish Association of European Studies (PTSE Kraków). Her academic interests include populism, nationalism, democracy and politics in Central and Eastern Europe.
- Bértoa, F. C., and Guerra, S. (2020). Democratic backsliding, Poland’s election and Covid-19: What needs to be considered?
- European Parliament. (2020). European Parliament resolution of 17 April 2020 on EU coordinated action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences (2020/2616(RSP)).
- Fukuyama, F. (2019). Tożsamość. Współczesna polityka tożsamościowa i walka o uznanie.
- Herszenhorn, D. M. (2020). Democracy in critical care as coronavirus disrupts governments.
- OSCE/ODIHR (2020). Opinion on the Draft Act on Special Rules for Conducting the General Election of the President of the Republic of Poland Ordered in 2020 (Senate Paper No.99).
Retrieved from: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/poland/450856?download=true
- Słojewska A. (2020). Komisarz Jourova: Niepokoję się o wolne i uczciwe wybory w Polsce.
- WHO (2020). WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020
- Zalan E. (2020). Orban granted indefinite ‘authoritarian’ power.
Retrieved from: https://euobserver.com/coronavirus/147933