The coronavirus disease (COVID19) posed unprecedented challenges to our society in all aspects of life. It caused enormous changes in our everyday routines, but it also presented grave challenges to the governments of all countries and raised several questions related to the faults of legislative solutions. Within a few days, the world as we knew it changed completely, and even the most common activities became sources of danger, and therefore required rapid and efficient regulations. Many fundamental rights had to be re-evaluated and limited in favour of society’s interest that undoubtedly had significant impacts on elections as well. “The fear of becoming infected with the virus may cause selective participation, where a non-negligible fraction of voters, particularly those with higher health risks (such as elderly and vulnerable voters), abstain from voting. Selective participation may lead to reduced legitimacy of elected representatives and open the door to controversies and may eventually trigger social and political polarization and conflicts.” However, when it comes to democracies, a regularly held election is indispensable to sustain the legitimacy of the elected body. This situation caused a dilemma in numerous countries, whether they should hold or postpone elections, what preventive actions are required and what is the most secure way to conduct elections. Primary elections as such were rather rare during the pandemic, the only one held in central Europe and the Visegrad region is the one being detailed in this article was the Hungarian example from 2021. The article is outlining the arising problems, difficulties and challenges regarding the pandemic along with evaluating the utilized solutions and applying them to the primaries in Hungary.
2. What are primary elections?
The primary elections, held in the fall of 2021, from many aspects was an election of firsts. It was not only the first nation-wide election during the pandemic, but it was also the first national open primary election in the history of Hungary. Primary elections (often abbreviated as Primaries) are a process by which voters can indicate their preference for their party's candidate, or a candidate in general, in an upcoming general election, local election, or by-election. Depending on the country and administrative divisions within the country, voters might consist of the general public in what is called an open primary, or solely the members of a political party in what is called a closed primary. The one held in Hungary, was an open primary for the supporters of the opposition parties, however anyone could have signed up to cast a vote.
In Hungary, six opposition parties announced that they will join forces for the 2022 parliamentary elections to end the era of the prevailing party’s regime of twelve years. „The united opposition - centre-left’s Democratic Coalition (DK), the far-right-turned-conservative Jobbik, the liberal Momentum Movement, socialist MSZP and the green LMP and Párbeszéd - proceeded with holding an open primary election in which Hungarian voters could choose the joint candidate for prime minister and for each of the 106 single-member constituencies (the remaining 93 seats in the National Assembly of Hungary obtain their seats by a system of proportional representation)”. The opposition’s aim was that all opposition supporters stand behind only one candidate in each constituency, thus cumulating their votes and this way potentially earning the majority of spots in the newly elected Parliament.
3. Fundamental requirements
Due to the outburst of the pandemic, elections in many countries had to be re-evaluated and altered so it would be suitable for the current situation. It was beyond-doubt that elections carry a significant risk, when it comes to infecting other citizens, and so all countries found themselves in a position, where they had to provide answers and create systems that not only make it possible to hold elections, but also in a way that the least possible number of people are being exposed to the disease. It became a number one priority even the countries that decided on holding the elections to take numerous safety measures to ensure the health of their voters. Thankfully, looking back from the distance of two years, many elections were held that provide us with plenty of data that we can use to determine the key factors and elements that bear special significance when talking about organizing elections in midst of a pandemic.
3.1. Periodic elections, alteration in dates
This obligation is generally understood to mean that elections must take place at reasonable and equal intervals. Any postponement of the election must be necessary because of the unique exigencies of the situation. The obligation to hold periodic elections has been interpreted to mean that the interval between elections should not be unduly long, such that the authority of the government is no longer representative of the will of the electors. The main dilemma was caused by the fact that the tenet of periodic elections, that has provided the basis for our democracies for the past two hundred years inescapably collided with the new order that was caused by the pandemic. At least 80 countries decided to postpone national and subnational elections due to COVID19, but according to statistics, over 160 decided to hold national and subnational elections despite concerns related to the pandemic.
3.2. Conflict of campaign period and right to life and public health
First and foremost it is common that elections are being preceded by campaign periods in which parties and candidates have an opportunity to acquire supporters and propagate their political programs all over the country. Both the freedom of assembly and freedom of movement are closely linked to the campaign periods, but due to the pandemic, in many cases had to be restricted by extra-ordinary measures. In some countries, the mere holding of campaign events, the number of participants and the length of such assemblies was limited. The ban on distributing campaign materials from one person to another, especially the prohibition on door-to-door canvassing was also not unprecedented. Mandatory social distancing and mask wearing were typical forms of such regulations.
3.3. Decreased participation rates
The constitutional significance of holding elections, is that in democracies, the citizens can express their opinions on certain matters through the channels of indirect democracy and elect the candidates that they would like to see them lead and govern. This obviously means that it is indispensable, that the higher participation rate of citizens with suffrage should increase the legitimacy of the elected decision-makers. This derives from the crucial requirement of representativity as the elected members of the newly-formed legislative power are bound to represent the political community as a whole, not only small fractions of it. This leads to the fact that once less people exercise their right to vote, the outcome of the election is getting more distorted. Moreover, it can provide opportunity for political schemes and in most cases result the strengthening of radical parties. Statistics show that in over 66% of the countries that held elections during the pandemic, the willingness of the citizens to take part in the elections have considerably reduced compared to the elections held in the previous years. This applies especially to the municipal election of France, and national legislative elections of Portugal, Iceland etc. The average decline of the participation rate was at 10.01% but the most severe decrease recorded was close to 40% in the elections of Venezuela: in the 2020. parliamentary elections only 30% of the constituents casted their votes. By this we can easily conclude that governments have a duty to find measures to increase the participation rates of their countries.
3.4. Alternative voting methods with regards to COVID
Given that voting in person carries the highest public health risk when it comes to elections most countries had to come up with alternative methods thus people infected or at high risk can still participate in the elections. One of the great challenges of the period was to provide opportunity for the COVID infected citizens and the individuals in quarantine. The solutions were quite extensive. In the Czech Republic during the elections of 2020, they made it possible for them to cast a vote from cars or mobile ballot boxes at their homes or at the hospitals that they were being treated in. In Poland at the presidential elections of 2020, they allowed postal voting for all Polish citizens. Moreover there were some severely affected constituencies (Marklowice and Baranów) in which it was only possible to cast a vote by mail. During the summer elections it was also possible to opt for the system of proxy voting, whereby a member of a decision-making body may delegate his or her voting power to a representative, to enable a vote in absence. Some countries decided on enabling remote electronic voting systems as well, so people could cast their votes from their homes, for example South-Korea, Australia and Canada.
3.5. Hygiene measures in the constituencies
It was presumably the most evident measure to make it as safe as possible to cast votes in person for those citizens who are not able to, or simply decide on not exploiting the alternative methods. It was common in countries to introduce rigorous standards and regulations regarding the precautionary measures. Wearing masks and providing hand sanitizers at all polling stations were the basic necessities, although at most places the regulations did not stop there. Voters were asked to keep distance from each other, and if possible cast their votes by using their own pens. Polling stations were required to be properly ventilated, people working at the stations were obligated to wear gloves, which had to be sanitized and replaced regularly. Some countries not only provided hand sanitizers, but also supplied their voters with soaps and paper towels. Commonly trafficked surfaces had to be disinfected regularly. The limitation of the number of voters at each constituency was also a widely used method for decreasing the chances of infection.
4. Hungary’s solution to the pandemic and the primaries
It has to be stated, that the primaries of Hungary, took place in the early fall of 2021, which from an epidemiological standpoint, was an ideal choice, as the third wave of the pandemic had already passed and there were a few months before the omicron variant started to spread. This caused that the majority of the epidemiological regulations were already lifted, thus the organizers did not have to take them into account.
As already mentioned above, the primary elections of Hungary in the Autumn of 2021 were the first time the organizers had to actively and widely regulate elections to meet the epidemiological restrictions as it was the first countrywide election. The country only held an interim election for a parliamentary seat, and some interim municipal elections, which raised remarkably less difficulties due to the lower number of citizens. Unlike in other countries and regions such as France or Catalonia where a considerable amount of decrease was observable in participation, the Hungarian primaries brought forward an unexpectedly high voter participation, which will be discussed with more details below.
4.1. Alteration in dates
Hungary’s opposition parties did not postpone the primaries, the first round was originally planned to be held from 18-26 of September. However, the organizers did have to extend the voting period with two days as a result of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on the first day. The second round was intended to be held between 4-10 of October, but due to the delay of the first round, they also slightly pushed the dates of the following round, and so the final dates was 10-16 of October. As it is clear, events of the pandemic did not alternate the dates of the elections, the variation was completely unconnected to the public health situation.
4.2. Restrictions regarding campaign period
As for restrictions limiting the freedom of assembly, by the time of the primaries, Hungary has already lifted the restrictions, so parties were able to organize as many events as they wanted to. However, with the spreading of the pandemic, online campaign became more prevalent than ever. Social media sites became the most useful means through which candidates could disseminatetheir views for the voters. Unfortunately in many cases this can lead to disinformation and political manipulation. To avoid this, Hungarian regulation limits the amount spent on political advertisements in campaign periods. Online advertisements however, are not considered as political advertisements, for which reason during the primaries, unlimited amount of propaganda were able to reach the citizens at all times of the day. The candidating organisations should comply just with the general tax rules and the act on political parties, special legal arrangements were not agreed by the six allied parties to regulate the campaign of primary elections.
4.3. Participation rate
Throughout the two rounds of the primary elections, over 850 000 people participated. In the primary elections, every citizen with suffrage had the chance to cast a vote regardless to his/her political preferences, as well as minors, who have not attained their eighteenth year, but will do this until April 2022. so will be able to vote in the national elections of 2022. As the country has around 8 million citizens with suffrage, this means a participation rate was close to 11%. This was considered a great success for the opposition parties, as they expected a rate of 7-8%. Even international experiences show a participation rate of 9-12% on primaries, so Hungary’s result is considered fairly high. Statistics show that despite the ability to vote online, voting in person was still more favoured between citizens.
In the national elections of 2018, these six parties (or their predecessors) received around 40% of the votes, which meant 2 603 000 electors. These two numbers cannot be compared properly, as the election in 2018 was an official, national election, and the primaries tend to have a smaller participation rate. But supposing that we view the case from the standpoint of the opposition parties, if the number of their supporters in 2018 was around 2 600 000, that would mean that around 32% of opposition supporters participated in the primaries of 2021.
4.4. Alternative voting methods:
For the first time in the Hungarian history, it was an option to cast votes in a remote electronic voting system (online voting system) as well as in person. Although the online system had its challenges in the first days (with the DDoS) the online system was reinstalled and utilized until the end of the primaries. Voters had to provide their personal data, which was followed by a live video identification, where they were asked to show their faces and ID-s. This was followed by the panel, where they could cast their votes. The online server however, introduced plenty of new difficulties. In rush hours, the voters sometimes had to wait for long periods for identification, if they did not reserve a slot previously. The video identification also lacked proper examination, and with most cameras in Hungary, it was nearly impossible for the examiners to determine whether the person casting the vote is the one with the given data. The problem of child voters also arises at this point, for them it was also required to download the parental agreement form signed by the parent and show it to the camera, as well as their parent had to reinforce their permission in the call for their child to be able to vote. However, the presence of the parent in the same room as the voting child questions the secrecy of the ballot and also, because of the problems described above, this could have been easily eluded. Voting at the mobile voting tents raised concerns regarding rights connected to elections. In these mobile tents there was no possible way to cast a vote individually, and so it was inevitable for the habitants to vote with sometimes 3-4 other people around them.
4.5. Hygiene measures in constituencies
Just like in many other countries, Hungary also decided on applying a few regulations during the primaries. In person voters had to wear masks, and hand sanitizers were also available at all polling stations. Distancing, in reality was not significant but as the mobile polling tents were out in the outdoors, it did not cause that much harm. In the first round every voter was assigned to a constituency where they could cast their votes, however in the second one, the whole country formed one constituency, thus enabling everyone to vote all around Hungary. The reason for the changes in the system, is that in the first round, voters had to select the united opposition candidates in each constituency, yet in the second citizens only had to elect the candidate for prime minister. Questions can be raised regarding the public information about the hygiene measures and the procedure of the primaries, there was hardly any exact communication towards the citizens when it came to detailed rulings.
As for the primaries of 2021 in Hungary, we can conclude that the majority of the COVID related regulations were lifted, and due to the low infection rates at the time, the country did not delay the elections with regards to the pandemic. Alternative voting methods were applied, however the effectivity and the execution should have required further refinement. Participation rates surpassed the initial expectations, even though only supporters of the opposition parties were expected to cast a vote. Hygiene measures were overall acceptable in light of the regulations of other countries in the area and given the fact that the mobile polling tents were out in the fresh air. By the end of the article it can be concluded that Hungary has met the average expectations when it came to organizing elections in a pandemic-conform way. Experiences from the primaries can be also useful for the national elections of spring of 2022. The epidemiological circumstances are even more favourable than the ones last autumn, however the regulations for the pandemic were accepted in February, when omicron was still a crucial factor when it came to elections. Most of the hygienic regulations were already lifted in Hungary, however for the elections some, like obligation to wear face masks are still required. So one can assume that especially in the light of the relatively beneficiary public health situation, the national elections will be held in the most pandemic-conform way.
International Visegrad Fund project no. 22120065. (Democracy in the shadow of the pandemic in the V4 countries).
The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.