We cannot put democracy in quarantine


Picture of Petra De Sutter
Petra De Sutter

Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Civil Service, Public Enterprises, Telecommunication and the Postal Services, and Trustee of Friends of Europe

The European Union needs a fresh breeze. We have known that to be the case for a few years already. The launch of a citizen-driven Conference on the Future of Europe on May 9, Europe Day, would have been the perfect kick-off to finally give us the oxygen we have been longing for, the beginnings of an in-depth reflection that could give new hope to future generations. But the Conference was cancelled. COVID-19 has redirected our paths to ad hoc crisis management, instead of visionary long-term thinking. Hope became fear: what world will we live in tomorrow?

The real question is what kind of a world do we want to return to? On May 9, 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman made a short but powerful statement. History would remember it as the Schuman declaration. 70 years later, the time has come for a joint solemn declaration from the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament. Only such an influential message will reach the hearts of citizens and voters in these difficult times.

This is the perfect moment to be creative and reconsider procedures that we have always taken for granted. We should give second thoughts to the idea that going to the polls is the only way of ensuring representation in a democracy. New ways of (remote) voting might motivate more people to participate and have their say. This should be as easy as possible, with the ability to register as a voter until the day of the elections, to lift all potential thresholds. Expanding suffrage to citizens below the age of 16 would further strengthen our democracy.

There may be a high fall-out or a high amount of blank votes if we do not adapt the procedures

Any new voting procedure must first be studied thoroughly. But the basic principle is that we have to motivate as many voters as possible to vote, without leaving anyone behind. Opening poll stations online and offline could convince young and old people that usually do not go physically to the polling stations. It could also convince those who must stay home and those who prefer to stay home to vote remotely. Indeed, choosing between either physical or remote voting will always leave some voters behind.

New voting systems must have privacy and procedural guarantees. A new pan-EU online democratic structure must be more robust, more efficient and safer than what has existed until now. Only necessary technical improvements can guarantee the authenticity of the votes and the safety of their transmission.

We should not forget that many voters are discouraged or even indifferent in times of crisis. Asking them to go in person to the polls while trying to guarantee social distancing will undoubtedly result in lower turnout. Moreover, blank votes might increase even amongst the people who will go to vote. These could be protest votes or ignorant votes, due to a lack of information about the crisis management by politicians in charge. In this current crisis, disinformation is everywhere and it is hard to find concise and correct information. Indifference helps some people to cope with the crisis. In any case: the coming elections will definitely provide an outlet for voters to make their feelings about their governments’ responses to the COVID-19-crisis heard. However, there may be a high fall-out or a high amount of blank votes if we do not adapt the procedures. Neither of these are healthy for our democracy.

Going ‘back-to-normal’ can also mean that going ‘back-to-a-better-and-more-democratic-normal’

In the meantime, we should keep in mind that democracies are not perfect. Unfortunately, autocratic regimes like in Poland or Hungary are taking advantage of the current crisis to grant more power to their leaders. The ruling Law and Justice party rammed through dramatic changes to Poland’s electoral system just weeks ahead of its May 10 presidential election, introducing a postal ballot that raises many privacy concerns. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has grabbed extraordinary powers, under the pretence of fighting COVID-19. Even if it has been voted by the Hungarian Parliament on 30 March, the law actually sidelines the Hungarian parliament indefinitely. All of this happened with large democratic support.

These ‘coups’ are examples of a quite negative interpretation of Winston Churchill’s famous quote “never waste a good crisis”. Hopefully, there are much better ideas and more positive outcomes in our democratic systems to come, whether in the second round of local elections in France, the general elections in Lithuania on October 11, in Croatia on December 23 or in Romania by the end of this year.

Going ‘back-to-normal’ can also mean that going ‘back-to-a-better-and-more-democratic-normal’ if we manage to repeal all emergency legislation interfering with Union values and find creative ways of voting. We have to seriously think about new voting procedures and perhaps even consider the use of transnational lists. If we really want to cure Europe, we should cure more than COVID-19. Let’s also cure the EU from its wounds and increase pan-EU online participation and democracy.

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