COVID-19 puts democracy at risk, say Jonathan, 27 world leaders

Former President Goodluck Jonathan and other world leaders have raised the alarm that democracy has been put at risk in many countries since the upsurge of coronavirus pandemic.

The leaders under the auspices of Kofi Annan Foundation, in an open letter, regretted that some countries hide under the pandemic to postpone elections indefinitely without recourse to appropriate channels.

Among leaders who signed the letter were former President of Mexico, Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his Estonia counterpart, Joe Clark; former Prime Minister of Canada, Ruth Dreifuss, as well as Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State who also doubles as Chair of the National Democratic Institute (NDI); President of the Kofi Annan Foundation (KAF), Alan Doss, and Graça Machel, former First Lady of Mozambique and South Africa.

The world leaders questioned the sweeping executive powers some governments used to impose emergency measures and postponed elections.

They noted that since March this year, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) said more than 50 countries and territories have postponed elections because of the crisis.

According to them, 19 other countries had gone ahead to conduct elections in unclear times.

“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,” they said.

They expressed the fear that 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.

The leaders noted that countries due to hold elections in the coming months equally face the same challenge.

“They must take draconian measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but also enable citizens to meaningfully participate in the electoral process,” they advised.

The leaders suggested that citizens and leaders of countries where elections would hold should try to find out whether the processes should proceed 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?” they asked.

The answers to these questions, according to them, would depend on the legal, political and public health context of individual states.

They recommended that electoral processes during the COVID-19 pandemic should reflect and 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,” the leaders added.

In addition, the world leaders added, where the law is clear, a consultative approach building agreement across the political landscape is important.

“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,” they warned.

They added that citizens should be communicated with measures being considered, and urged the media and civil society “to play active role in preventing democratic erosion by monitoring policy, fostering or enabling debate, and shining a light on critical issues.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

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