Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, all four countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) of the so-called Visegrád Group (also known as Visegrád Four or simply V4) have held their elections. In the following, I shall shortly introduce the postponed Polish presidential elections and the Czech and Hungarian parliamentary elections in the spirit of neutrality of public authorities in the election campaign. Moreover, the Slovakian parliamentary elections held shortly before the rising of the global pandemic will be also mentioned.
1. John Rawls
To understand the concept of a neutral state, we should recall John Rawls’ work in which he maintained that the state, on behalf of its citizens, cannot decide what constitutes a “good life”. It is also reflected in different constitutional provisions or in the jurisprudence of the constitutional courts and the European Court of Human Rights which found that neutrality is an essential component of democracy. Looking through the constitutions of the V4 countries, we shall find general declarations on state neutrality: Article 1 (1) of the Slovakian Constitution states that the Slovak Republic “is not bound to any ideology or religion,” while Article 25 (2) of the Polish Constitution declares that “public authorities in the Republic of Poland shall be impartial in matters of personal convictions, whether religious or philosophical or in relation to outlooks on life.” Moreover, Article 2 (1) of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which is the part of the constitutional order of the Czech Republic, says that “democratic values constitute the foundation of the state, so that it may not be bound either to an exclusive ideology or to a particular religious faith.” Maybe the only exception is the Fundamental Law of Hungary, which, contrary to the other constitutions, does not refer to state neutrality. However, the caselaw of the Hungarian Constitutional Court stated the necessity of state neutrality in relation to several fields of the law, such as questions on religion and conscientious convictions, the freedom of economic competition or in the context of ideology and worldview. To summarise: this criterion can be also viewed as an underlying principle of constitutional interpretation.
2. David Schultz
But how does state neutrality succeed in the election environment? Let’s take the explanation of David Schultz: as children, we all participated in different types of games, where we all had the presumption that the rules of them do not tend to give an advantage to any player and they provide equal opportunities to all of us. According to Schultz, we must similarly construct the status of the state within the election campaign. Article 31 of the Slovakian Constitution states that “legal regulation of all political rights and freedoms and the interpretation and use thereof shall enable and protect free competition of political forces in a democratic society.” A similar provision can be found in Article 22 of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. Neither the Polish nor the Hungarian Constitution contains provisions for free political competition. Yet, it does not mean that it cannot be inferred from other articles. According to the opinion of the Curia’s (Supreme Court of Hungary) jurisprudence analysis group, Article VIII (3), states that “political parties shall participate in the formation and expression of the will of the people” and “they may not exercise public power directly,” as well as Article XV, the general clause of equal opportunities, could be relied upon. Furthermore, Article 2 mentions that elections must guarantee the free expression of the will of the voters. Under HCC Decision 1/2013. (I. 7.) the state must provide the free expression of opinion and the freedom of choice in the context of the elections. This statement resembles the jurisprudence of the German Federal Constitutional Court which holds that any state interference violates the integrity of the free expression of the voters’ will. In my opinion, both approaches (free political competition and free expression of the voters’ will) point in the same direction: public authorities must stay neutral in the election campaign, not only in their communication within the campaign period but also when they establish the electoral legal framework and apply it. The decision (PL. ÚS 30/98) of the Czech Constitutional Court also highlighted that the political parties’ “free competition is a direct expression of the pluralistic nature of a democratic society, and it is precisely protection of pluralism in political life which has primary significance for the very existence of a democratic society.”
3. International standards
Besides constitutional provisions and the jurisprudence of constitutional courts, international recommendations also emphasise the significance of state neutrality. The Joint Guidelines by the Venice Commission and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE) say that “one of the most important and recurrent challenges observed in Europe and beyond is the misuse of administrative resources, also called public resources, during electoral processes. This practice is an established and widespread phenomenon in many European countries, including countries with a long-standing tradition of democratic elections.” The Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters includes that “equality of opportunity must be guaranteed for parties and candidates alike. This entails a neutral attitude by state authorities, in particular with regard to the election campaign, the coverage by the media, in particular by the publicly owned media, and the public funding of parties and campaigns.”
Well, the question arises: did the elections of the V4 countries meet the standards during the COVID-19 pandemic? According to the final reports by OSCE, different levels of state interference were part of the campaign. From among the examined four countries, Poland was the first who held its postponed presidential elections on the 28th of June (first round) and the 12th of July (second round), 2020. The coronavirus affected the campaign’s themes on domestic economic issues, as consequences of the pandemic, such as unemployment, taxation, retirement and social benefits. The regulation of in-person campaign activities was variable, Poland firstly applied several limitations on the maximum number of participants and later total prohibition on such campaign activities. That is the period when the campaign continued in the online space. Amendments to the electoral legal framework, in response to the pandemic, raised some serious concerns. According to the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the elections were hybrid since both the candidates registered for the cancelled elections and the new candidates ran for presidency. The “old” candidates were “authorised to allocate three times more funds for the entire election campaign, as compared to the latecomer candidates” which could “jeopardize the equality of elections, understood as the lawmakers’ obligation to create equal opportunities for all candidates participating in the elections.” From another aspect of state neutrality, the ODIHR also recommended an adequate definition and regulation on campaigning by public officials, as well as an explicit prohibition on the abuse of state resources, since a high number of public officials took part in the campaign by promoting their respective candidates.
5. Czech Republic
The Czech parliamentary elections took place between the 8th and 9th of October, 2021. Contrary to Poland, the pandemic was not a significant topic of the campaign, the economic situation, social welfare, and the fight against corruption and illegal immigration were the most common ones. Despite the lack of specific measures on public outreach, candidates organised mostly meetings with limited number of participants, where social distancing was not observed, and attendees rarely wore face masks. The online campaign, especially on social networks like Facebook, Youtube and Instagram using in most cases paid advertisements, was outstanding. For instance, Prime Minister Babiš shared a post on Twitter in which he accused the Pirate Party that they tend to take people’s houses and give them to illegal immigrants. The leader of the Pirate Party, Ivan Bartoš reflected on his Twitter post via social media. It seemed to be tendentious that members of the Government used their official position to reach out to even more voters. One recommendation from the ODIHR emphasises the necessity of preventing “the misuse of office and state resources” by regulating “the campaign activity of candidates holding public positions.” State neutrality was challenged by the duration of the election campaign since the law does not specify this timeframe. It is the president’s duty to announce the dates of the elections not later than 90 days beforehand. However, there is a gap in the law because it does not regulate how early this announcement can be done. This could violate the opportunities of smaller parties, while well-established parties and those who hold public office could benefit from it.
And last but not least, Hungary held its parliamentary elections on the 3rd of April, 2022. The campaign was overshadowed by the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic was not at the centre of campaign communication, except at the Our Homeland Movement which focused on pandemic-related restrictions. On the other hand, campaigning methods were affected due to the fact that hosting mass events (over five hundred people outdoors) was not permitted in the first few weeks of the election campaign period. From a state neutrality-related perspective, while the Government shared several campaign messages of the ruling parties on its Facebook page to strengthen their position in the campaign, the opposition leaders interfered with the campaign by using their public positions to promote their candidates. Similar to the previous recommendations, the ODIHR suggested a clear prohibition of the misuse of administrative resources. Several cases were brought before the Supreme Court of Hungary regarding the possible violation of the principle of equal opportunity. At least two of them shall be mentioned: the first one was the Government’s newsletter on its opinion on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the opposition’s believed viewpoint on the war; and the second one was an attendance on a ceremonious handover of digital tools in a secondary school.
State interference comes from the nature of politics since parties and candidates tend to apply many questionable tools, even their positions, to keep public power. In relation to the Slovakian parliamentary elections, which took place shortly before the official declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020, similar concerns were raised on the ground of taking advantage of their positions to gain votes. For example, an extraordinary parliamentary session was initiated by the ruling party of Slovakia right before the elections to pass favourable social projects such as abolishing highway fees or voting on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. States’ obligation would be the establishment and maintenance of democratic public opinion, which is one safeguard of an informed choice.
And lastly, the first question should be raised once again in the light of the latest post-Covid developments: do we need a neutral state in the election campaign? Yes, we do, even in the post-Covid period.
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.