Electoral Limbo

A roundtable on the elections delayed or canceled around the world because of Covid-19, and their implications for already-frayed democratic institutions.

Madeleine Schwartz
June 18, 2020
voting machine
A new state-issued voting machine in Georgia, where many voting machines broke down during primary elections last week. Photo: Brynn Anderson via AP

In the past few weeks, the White House has floated the prospect of delaying the presidential election in November because of the coronavirus pandemic. Donald Trump has also leveled unfounded accusations of fraud at states expanding vote-by-mail practices as a public health measure. Meanwhile, in the Georgia primaries held last week, polling machines across the state failed to work, and voters were forced to wait in hours-long lines and cast provisional ballots. Taken together, these factors have raised concerns about how Covid-19 will impact the actual and perceived legitimacy of the US presidential election—and whether the results will be accepted. 

The present uncertainty over elections, while deeply troubling, is not unique to the United States. Since March, elections have been canceled or postponed around the globe; a report compiled by the International Federation of Electoral Systems cited dozens of such cases, often at the regional or municipal level but in some instances at the national level as well. I have been following this news closely as a journalist: In February, I started a pop-up web magazine called The Ballot, which aims to cover every election occurring outside the US in 2020. As so many of these elections have subsequently been canceled, our dispatches have taken on a new kind of significance as records of rapidly fraying political institutions. 

To get a clearer sense of the international situation—and to reflect on our own upcoming elections in light of what’s been happening abroad—I recently spoke with three journalists who’ve been reporting on the electoral uncertainty in different parts of the world: Mariana Palau, a freelance multimedia journalist who reports across Latin America and has been writing recently about Bolivia; Robbie Corey-Boulet, the Ethiopia correspondent at Agence France-Presse and the author of Love Falls On Us: A Story of American Ideas and African LGBT Lives; and Michał Kokot, a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza, based in Warsaw. 

This conversation took place over video chat in four time zones on May 21st, just before mass protests broke out around the world. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Madeleine Schwartz: To start out, could you each briefly describe the current status of elections in the country where you’re based?

Mariana Palau: Bolivia actually had an election last year, but that went all wrong. [Editor’s Note: Protests erupted last fall over controversial allegations of electoral fraud directed at Evo Morales, the country’s then-president. The military removed members of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), Morales’s party, from office, and Morales fled the country.] The interim government [led by Jeanine Áñez, a religious conservative] called new elections for May 3rd, but because of coronavirus they had to be canceled. For a very long time, we didn’t know when the elections were going to be held. The government said that it needed to wait to see when the disease would peak. [On April 30th], the legislature passed a law that would supposedly force the government to hold elections within 90 days. That has become quite contentious. People don’t really know if it’s going to be safe to go out and vote. But Bolivia needs elections right now, because it is in a state of limbo. 

Robbie Corey-Boulet: Ethiopia was supposed to have general elections this year. These would have been the first since Abiy Ahmed, the current prime minister, took office back in 2018. These elections are widely seen as a pivotal moment in the political transition that began with the protests that helped bring him into power. Abiy was appointed to his current position; he wasn’t elected. If he were to win the elections, it could give him a mandate for the ambitious political and economic reforms he’s already pursuing, but hasn’t necessarily had popular support for. [Editor’s Note: Abiy, who created a new coalition party called the Prosperity Party, has promised to hold security forces accountable and to make power structures more democratic.]

The election date was up in the air even before coronavirus. After it became clear that the pandemic would affect the region, the government imposed a state of emergency and acknowledged that it wouldn’t be able to hold the elections on time. Now it’s looking like there’s no way for them to be held before lawmakers’ mandates expire in early October. 

Michał Kokot: Our elections [in Warsaw] were scheduled for the end of May. It didn’t happen; the planning was so rushed that they had to cancel. But they were “canceled” in a special way: They “took place,” but there were no candidates. [Editor’s Note: The government did not officially cancel the elections before the election date; instead, they closed the polling places and did not run any candidates.] On May 21st, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki [of the right-wing Law and Justice or PiS party] said that elections would take place [on June 28th]. President Andrzej Duda [also of PiS] knows he’s about to lose some of his support, and if they delay elections into late summer or early autumn, it could mean that he would not be able to win the first round. 

MS: Mariana, you have written that interim President Añez’s administration was supposed to be a caretaker government, but that now it looks like Añez is using this moment to solidify her power. After saying that she would serve in this role only until the next elections, she has now declared her intention to run for president. She has also sent armed forces to conduct widespread arrests during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

MP: The Añez government was given two mandates: to pacify the country after huge protests last year, and to hold elections. Añez promised she was never going to run for president; she was just there to fulfill these mandates. But in January she decided to run for president, which immediately got Bolivians talking about what her real ambitions were. She’s had a very—some would say—dictatorial approach. So for example, [during the quarantine] the government completely militarized Santa Cruz, the biggest city in Bolivia. Añez also passed a decree that allows the government to prosecute people deemed to be speaking against it. Some contend that [this decree] is actually being used to oppress the opposition, or some leaders of the MAS. 

MS: Robbie, what might be the implications of the canceled election in Ethiopia?

RCB: Abiy is being celebrated internationally as a great reformer. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for political reforms that he has instigated domestically. And there are expectations that he may accomplish a genuine democratic transition in Ethiopia. But there are many people within Ethiopia who don’t believe that Abiy, who is the product of the same ruling coalition that has been in power since the early 1990s, can make that happen. They see the faith in him as a reformer as misplaced and his credentials as overstated. The delay in the elections caused by the coronavirus basically extends the time we’ll spend waiting for an answer on how committed he is to democracy versus his own ambitions. 

MS: Michał, there has been so much reporting out of Poland about the decline of democratic institutions—from the way that the judiciary has been undermined to attacks on the Electoral Commission. 

MK: The judiciary is at great risk because the government wants to undermine it. The election originally planned for May 10th was meant to be organized by the State Electoral Commission, the state body that [typically] organizes every election from the local to the presidential level. This time, though, the government did not want it to be involved in the process, and decided [to outsource the logistics of the election] to the postal service; they asked the postal service to organize it in one week. The postal service couldn’t do it, and the election was deferred. Now the electoral commission is back in charge [of organizing the elections].

MS: In the US, we already see Trump saying that absentee ballots are fraudulent even if elections are held during a pandemic. What will you be looking at when the elections in your country actually occur? 

MK: Just one thing, if I may: I know that the society is divided in the United States and there’s Trump and all this populism. But there’s one significant difference between Poland and the US: You have strong institutions, which is not the case here. I can’t imagine, for example, the leader of the ruling party in the US saying that all judges are cheats and crooks, and that we have to demolish them. I can’t imagine that happening on the scale it has in Poland. This has an impact on the elections, because here the Supreme Court rules on whether elections are fair or not, and your Supreme Court is not fighting for independence, as ours is. That is the last remaining independent institution in our country. 

RCB: I haven’t reported on the US, but I am American, and I think there is often too much confidence placed in our institutions and a belief that somehow they are going to save us. It’s interesting to be in a country like Ethiopia, where those institutions don’t have the same kind of track record, and people don’t have the luxury of that kind of thinking. The constitution in this country was ratified in the 1990s, and during the entire period that it has been in force, the same ruling coalition has been in power. These upcoming elections, when they do happen, will be the first competitive elections since 2005. So I don’t think people are necessarily relying on courts or Parliament to ensure that this process goes the way that it’s supposed to go. The entire exercise is a test. Because of that, I think people are engaged in a different way.   

MS: As we think about the political uncertainty of this moment, I wonder: Have you noticed any new forms of protest in the countries you write about? I saw that in Israel people were putting black flags outside their windows, while in Hong Kong, people have held protests within the game Animal Crossing

RCB: In Ethiopia, the thing that’s been most remarkable for me is the absence of protests. This is a country coming off several years of sustained anti-government protests. There have been a number of political questions—mainly about when the elections are going to happen—that in the past might have triggered street protests. That is a very common way for opposition politicians and their supporters to make their voices heard. But they haven’t resorted to that, in part because there is so much uncertainty about the public health ramifications.

MK: There’s a lot of social apathy in Poland, so we don’t have any protests. The last one was about three years ago [in response to] changes in the judiciary [that would have replaced all Supreme Court justices except those chosen by the Minister of Justice]. They were quite successful because the president didn’t sign the bills being protested—at least not all of them. But after that, [they stopped]:  People don’t believe in the opposition [parties positioned against Law and Justice] anymore. We do have a new candidate who was announced on [May 15th], the mayor of Warsaw. He might have some chance to beat Duda. 

MS: Do you see what’s happening during this pandemic as a turning point for democracy, or just another bump in the road?

MP: These elections are so important. If Añez tries to stop them and [adopts] very oppressive measures like prosecuting anyone who speaks against the government’s handling of the crisis, then you start to question whether there is a path for democracy in Bolivia.

MK: I was thinking about a conversation with a friend of mine in March, when the [Polish] government started some of the first attempts at lockdown. She said to me, “You know what, I don’t like this government. But these authoritarian guys really know how to deal with these situations.” Polling found that confidence in the government had risen really quickly. But it lasted only for a few weeks. I think the major question for the region will be what will happen after the pandemic.

RCB: There’s a similar dynamic in sub-Saharan Africa—this idea that what comes next is maybe going to be more consequential than the pandemic itself. Throughout the region, the number of cases and the number of fatalities has been relatively low, and there’s a sense—although I wonder if it’s premature to say this—that African governments and populations have successfully navigated the first phase. That said, if the economic consequences of the pandemic stick, governments here don’t have the resources to soften the blow. I don’t know what that means for democratic trends in the region, but governments that don’t have huge reserves of popular goodwill stored up should be worried.

Madeleine Schwartz created The Ballot and writes for The New York Review of Books, among other publications.