The COVID-19 pandemic added several unknown variables to the equation of the presidential elections in the Republic of Moldova. The repercussions of this global pandemic affected the electoral process, forcing th authorities of several countries to take additional measures to adapt the voting conditions to the new realities dictated by the pandemic. In the case of the Republic of Moldova, key institutions and policy makers had more than six months to come up with a clear vision on how to manage the risks and repercussions of COVID-19 the November elections. However, nowadays, a number of issues related to the voting process in the diaspora remain unresolved and are able to affect the proper conduct of the voting process abroad.
The epic story of the two days voting and the lamentations of the political class
On May 28, 2020, MP Vasile Năstase submitted a legislative initiative to amend several provisions of the electoral legislation. One of the proposals aimed at amending the Article 8 of the Electoral Code, by extending the duration of parliamentary and presidential elections from one day (Sunday) to two consecutive days (Saturday and Sunday). Given the increased number of COVID-19 infections throughout the country, the approval of this change would have optimized the functioning of polling stations according to the epidemiological rules in force and reduced the crowds at the polls, especially in the diaspora.
Although the draft law submitted by Nastase did not obtain a positive assessment from the Government, it was at least curious to notice the polarized positions of the key institutions on the proposal to amend Article 8 of the Electoral Code. On the one hand, CEC and MFAEI opinions were positive, emphasizing the need to adjust procedures for securing the vote and ensure the confidentiality of information from voter lists. On the other hand, the opinion of the Government highlighted the necessary expenses for the organization of the elections during two days, which could increase by over 79 million lei, money not planned in the budget for the presidential elections. The Government also stressed that the operation of amendments to the electoral legislation less than a year before the elections would not be in line with international standards and, respectively, the amendments in question could not be approved.
The ambivalence of the positions of the CEC and MFAEI, on the one hand, and of the Government, on the other hand, brought to the fore government’s lamentations and lack of political will to facilitate the voting process in the COVID-19 context, including in the diaspora. It would have been enough for political decision-makers to follow Romania’s example in order to observe the positive changes brought by the increase in the number of days for the elections in the diaspora. With the introduction of three-day ballots in the 2019 presidential election, the turnout in the diaspora increased more than four times, from 161,000 in the first round of the 2014 presidential election to 670,000 votes cast in the same round of elections presidential elections in 2019.
Obviously, the electoral calculations of the ruling parties did not encourage the support of this initiative. However, the explanations regarding the lack of budgetary coverage and the non-conformity of these changes with the electoral practices promoted by the Venice Commission are less relevant. The delicate situation created by this pandemic requires prompt and proactive interventions by the Government, including by supplementing budgetary resources for the organization of elections and endorsing the changes supported by CEC.
Do we have a plan B?
The number and location of polling stations open abroad and located outside diplomatic missions are decided on the basis of the aggregation of three principles: (1) the number of voters who participated in the previous elections, held in the national constituency, (2) prior registration of the Moldovan citizens residing abroad, (3) the information obtained by the MFAEI from the competent authorities of the countries of residence of the Moldovan citizens about their number and location. The only criterion on which changes can occur nowadays is the prior registration. To date, 32,583 registrations have been recorded in the pre-registration system, a number that could increase to an estimated 35,000 on 15 September, when this procedure will end.
In recent months, MFAEI has sent several requests to the states where polling stations are expected to be open for the presidential elections. Due to the uncertainties caused by the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, an important number of the Western European states announced that they will respond to the MFAEI request by mid-September. In this regard, there is a risk that some countries will not allow the opening of polling stations outside of diplomatic missions or will accept the opening of fewer polling stations than the aggregated result of the above principles. The case of Italy, where the state of emergency has been extended until 15th of October, could serve as an example in this sense.
In this case, CEC, the institution responsible for setting up the polling stations, should have a plan B in mind, which would take into account this imminent risk. Unfortunately, to this date, CEC has not communicated what actions could be taken to manage these risks. The electoral authorities should have aimed at: (1) extending the duration of elections in the diaspora to two days and developing a legislative initiative in this regard; (2) opening of two polling stations within diplomatic missions, where possible; (3) piloting alternative voting methods; (4) effective and transparent communication of current impediments and voting risks among citizen groups residing in the diaspora. Unfortunately, the lack of these actions could cause the decrease of diaspora participation in the elections and the contestation of voting process by them.
Alternative voting methods – if not now, when?
Discussions about the introduction of alternative voting methods for Moldovan citizens are already expired, although they have appeared in the public space only in the last 7-8 years. Although debates have been initiated and feasibility studies have been written on the introduction of online voting, there is currently no increased interest among policy makers in advancing this project. Better early than too late. In the context of global digitization, national authorities and policy makers in the Republic of Moldova should return to this initiative.
Another alternative method would have been the introduction of mail voting, the usefulness of which during the pandemic cannot be questioned. Even if the electoral authorities knew from the beginning of March the risks brought by the pandemic on the electoral process, we note with regret that CEC did not even initiate the consultation process on introducing or at least piloting the vote by mail. This happened despite the fact that the necessary institutional and financial efforts would have provided a viable solution for voting for tens of thousands of citizens living hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from polling stations (e.g. Canada orUSA). Moreover, postal voting would have reduced from the queues that will inevitably form at some polling stations in Western Europe, given that access to the polling stations will be allowed to a smaller number of voters, in order to comply with epidemiological rules. A slow voting process in the diaspora and the inability of some voters to exercise their electoral preferences due to the limited number of polls, analyzed above, are just two of the problems that could have been solved by introducing voting by mail.
The arguments presented by CEC, that the experience of other states (e.g. Romania) demonstrate that voting by mail did not offer a high yield, are not actual. Crisis situations require tailor-made solutions, which the electoral authorities of the Republic of Moldova could not bring to the attention of public opinion. Moreover, the number of over 24,000 Romanian citizens who voted by mail in the last presidential elections (in the conditions of a 3-day election!), would have been more than enough for the particular case of the Republic Moldova, where we can expect an estimated 60 to 70,000 voters at the polls in the first round of presidential elections in the diaspora.
Instead of conclusions
In the next three weeks, the electoral authorities will have to announce the number and location of polling stations opened abroad, as well as to present reasoned opinions on the use of the three criteria for their opening. Let’s hope that we will not find ourselves in the situation where we will be informed that some countries have not allowed the opening of polling stations outside the diplomatic missions. If this happens, the responsibility for the lack of materialization of a plan B or the absence of alternative methods of voting must be assumed by the Central Electoral Commission, the Government and the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova.
Even in the conditions of a more optimistic scenario, we cannot ignore the (in) actions of the electoral authorities and political decision-makers during the last six months. Given the available data on the situation of COVID-19 worldwide and following the unfortunate situation from the last presidential elections in the diaspora, it was their competence and duty to come up with several initiatives to solve the problems presented in this analysis. Until proven otherwise, the organization of the 2020 presidential election in the diaspora could be a failed test.
Mihai Mogildea is the Team Leader of Europeanization program at the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE). He holds a Master of Arts in European Political and Administrative Studies from the College of Europe (Bruges).
This commentary was published in the project “We and Europe – Analysis of Moldovan-European relations through innovative media and analytical products”, implemented by the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE), in partnership with IPN and Radio Chisinau, with the support of the Foundation Konrad Adenauer. The opinions presented in this commentary do not necessarily correspond to the position of the financiers.
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