Free and Fair Elections: 10 Years of Freedom Barometer
The role of elections as an institution whose aim is to protect, strengthen, and foster democracy has been increasingly and continuously undermined for years in many of the countries Freedom Barometer analysed.
TODAY, THE ATTRIBUTES OF FREEDOM AND FAIRNESS OF THE ELECTORAL PROCESS COULD BE ATTACHED ONLY TO THE MOST DEVELOPED WESTERN AND NORTH EUROPEAN DEMOCRACIES.
However, other challenges regarding elections in these countries appear just as troublesome, such as the rise of right-wing populists, of fake news, of scaremongering propaganda, or of the sharp divisions in society along political lines (some of these aspects are analysed further below).
On the other hand, we could barely talk about any kind of freedom and fairness of elections in countries like Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, or Turkey. Over there, methods are becoming more repressive year after year; the imprisonment and harassment of political activists, the banning of political parties or candidates from running in elections, and vote buying or other fraudulent activities on election-day. In Turkey, even the Istanbul City election results were annulled in 2019 by the Supreme Election Council, and the elections were repeated after the defeat of the ruling AK Party, led by the autocratic leader Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Despite that, the graph below, in this context, shows little to no change when comparing 2010 and 2019 generally in FB45: times were very turbulent in Eastern European non-EU and Central Asian countries, resulting in big changes of data, thus in freedom as well.
The ups and downs on the CIS scale were shaped by negative events such as the war in Ukraine, the murder of an opposition politician in Russia, the total seizures of power in both Tajikistan and Azerbaijan that forced critically-inclined people to flee the country, and positive democratic developments in Georgia and Armenia, such as the democratic shifts of power and improvements in the fairness of the electoral process in comparison to the situation at the beginning of the decade.
Having in mind that the group of WB 5+ countries encompasses Turkey, Serbia, and North Macedonia, i.e., countries which had from 2014 onwards “gotten a bad name” in almost all the freedom and democracy indices, it was no wonder that the scale in this region deteriorated the most. A consequence of the failed coup attempt in Turkey was a serious decline of political freedom in that country. The subsequent hostile political climate resulted in the imprisonment of many political activists and a referendum which changed the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential democracy through a procedure marred by frauds and irregularities. Democratic changes as of the beginning of the 21st century in Serbia hadn’t grown deep roots, thus making space for more conservative and nationalistic tendencies to occupy the political landscape. As a result, the abuse of legal – along with the use of extralegal – tools to prevent fairness of elections or even the free enjoyment of the right to vote became regular practices. As for North Macedonia, from the moment of its rejection by the EU due to the name dispute with Greece, it faced very hard and turbulent times of a rather politically repressive nature. The social tensions and violence that had lasted for a few years ended in 2017 with a change of government. Alas, North Macedonia is still waiting to restore the level of democracy it enjoyed at the beginning of the decade.
The fairness of the electoral process is slowly decreasing in Central and East European countries. Populism and propaganda pave the way towards an environment of repression towards political opponents, civic activists and critical journalists, to the abuse of power and the blurring of separation between campaigning and governance by public officials, and to partisan media coverage in favour of the ruling elite. The chart with the individual countries above clearly suggests who has hereby taken the lead – Hungary and Poland, countries where freedom deteriorated the most. In both cases, the ruling parties managed to secure a single-party majority in parliament and have been using that power to affirm their control over all three branches of power.
Speaking about the changes and challenges to electoral processes all over Europe, “division” was a catch phrase often used to describe the outcomes of most political events. The political division of society is often based on hate and fear. Such politics came from both the ruling parties and from the opposition. It had previously been reserved for the semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes, but recently it has not avoided even the “The Cradle of Democracy”, the UK, and some other advanced democracies.
Global dissatisfaction in politicians – by the people – is huge. To some extent it is justified, but in some cases, it is demonisation, the spreading of fake news for the mere sake of causing fear, or other populism, which is to blame. Such an environment of mistrust was fertile soil for nationalists who were allegedly “protecting national interests”, for authoritarians who were able to create an ostensible sense of justice and freedom while in reality undermining those values, or even for those opposition forces whose messages were soaked in a fear of government, albeit not in value-based politics. It created space for populism and limited rationality at their corner of this game. These political parties and movements created divisions: between establishment and anti-establishment, of first and second-class societies, of “Us” versus “Them”, almost of life and death. Such a division is best framed in a quote by the Turkish president Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan: “We are the people. And who are you?”.
Furthermore, other changes also shaped electoral processes over the decade. There was an ongoing shift from political parties towards political movements, caused by the dissatisfaction with politics as described before. While demanding a fast response to ongoing social challenges, citizens have turned their support to theme-adjusted movements and organisations prone to provide quick-fix reactions rather than to the slowly reacting, traditional structures of the existing political parties. Capturing democratic institutions led to a recognition that rallies are one of the most important tools for political change. Throughout the ten-year observation period, almost all the countries covered have conducted rallies or other public protests, which have led to certain democratic improvements or at least have shaken the entrenched ruling elites. Also, politicians did not restrain themselves from manipulating public opinion and controlling media to benefit their position at the elections. There is more about these trends in the Press Freedom section.