On 30 and 31 March 2023. a prestigious international conference was held in a hybrid format, online and in-person at the Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies, as the main conference of an international research project investigating the Covid-19-related adaptations of the electoral frameworks of the four Visegrád countries (IVF 22120065), funded by the International Visegrád Fund). The conference was also supported by a project of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences „Resilience of the legal system in post-COVID societies: risks and opportunities”.
The purpose of the conference was to analyse the impact of the global pandemic on the Visegrád countries’ electoral systems and mechanisms, and to discuss the different experiences of these countries on this matter from infra-regional and inter-regional comparative perspective. The organisers aimed to foster an interdisciplinary legal discourse amongst the representatives of various interested actors; this was the leading consideration when the invited speakers were selected from different renowned universities, from national electoral commissions, from national electoral offices and finally from research institutes.
Nine speakers were invited to this special conference with a strong regional focus, however, more guests were involved in the discourse. Fruzsina Gárdos-Orosz the director of the Institute for Legal Studies was responsible for opening the conference; while Nóra Chronowski (senior research fellow, Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies) presented the draft of her regional policy brief from the resilience of post-Covid electoral frameworks. This material was based on the four national reports prepared during the Summer of 2022, after having discussed these issues and their national contexts at the four policy roundtables took place in June 2022. on English language in a hybrid format in each four countries. The presentation of Ms. Chronowski was followed by a vibrant discussion providing feedback on her draft, which was a valuable contribution to the finalization of the regional policy brief.
In the second panel, Kristina Ivanauskaite-Pettinari (electoral expert from Lithuania), Dorde Gardasevich (University of Zagreb), and Irena Hadziabdic (former president of the Central Electoral Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina) gave online presentations from the relevant experience of their respective countries, which were also discussed by the participating experts in detail. This panel aimed to open up the comparative perspective of the analysis, and integrated the relevant developments of countries from the neighbourhood of the Visegrád region to the discussion.
The last section for Thursday 30. March focused on the draft of a comparative study co-authored by three legal scholars, aiming to integrate the recent electoral developments of the Visegrád region into the already on-going invigorate international academic discourse from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and also of the other consecutive crises on electoral regulation and management. Monika Florczak-Wator is the professor of constitutional law from the Jagiellonian University Cracow, Boldizsár Szentgáli-Tóth, the coordinator of the whole project serves as senior research fellow of the Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies, while Iván Halász has the same affiliation as Szentgáli-Tóth, however, he was born in Slovakia, and he has also a guest researcher status in the Czech Republic. The comparative study is the main deliverable of the project, it is intended to be published in a prestigious international academic journal with at least Q2 classification, therefore, special weight was given to this part of the conference. The participants expressed several recommendations for the consideration of the co-authors, who would finalize the manuscript on the ground of these comments.
The first part of the conference concluded on Thursday evening with a dinner where the speakers had the opportunity to feed not only their minds but also their bodies, moreover, this social event served as the main platform for project participants and other stakeholders to strenghten their mutual cooperation and to elaborate a network of electoral experts within the Visegrád region.
The work was continued on Friday Morning, when a roundtable discussion was organised to sistematize the main findings of the research project which should be disseminated either for policy-makers, researchers and for the broader public. Dániel Döbrentey, the project leader of the Civil Liberties Union attended this roundtable and helped a lot to structure the ideas conveyed, and as a practising electoral lawyer, also contributed to the final conclusions with his own remarks. Then, the closing panel was determined by the presentation of János Mécs, the project leader of the Association of European Election Officers and Civil Liberties Union. Mécs’ presentation dealt with the role of constitutional review in the adaptation of the electoral frameworks to the special needs of the post-Covid period in the Visegrád region and elsewhere. Then, a lunch was served for the participants as the concluding activity of the event.
The variety of the topics shows that the panelists raised a number of paramount issues concerning the latest electoral mechanisms in the Visegrád countries and its link with the public health concerns, and this was followed by the comments of the audience, which included also the questions of the colleagues joining online.
The conference was organized and moderated by Boldizsár Szentgáli-Tóth, the senior research fellow of the Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies. Apart from the abovementioned speakers, other distinguished members of the research project were also invited. Jan Grinc and Marek Antos represented the Charles University from the Czech Republic, while Grzegorz Kuca joined to Monika Florczak-Wator from the Jagiellonian University of Cracow. Moreover, Emese Szilágyi, the junior research fellow of the Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies, electoral observer of the OSCE ODIHR showed up also at the conference.
Turning to the main substantial outcomes of the exchange of views one should take into account, that during a public health emergency, the development of the virus situation is unpredictable, therefore the organisers of any election cannot be expected to predict the specific public health conditions of voting many months in advance and to determine the applicable rules accordingly. At the same time, it is at least as important that, despite these features, the elections that form the basis of democracy should be conducted in an environment that is predictable, transparent and clear for the candidates, nominating organizations and the electorate as much as possible. To this end, the conference participants shared the opinion, that the main experience of the recent elections in the Visegrád region from an emergency perspective was the necessity of implementing a mandate for electoral authorities to outline some regulatory packages at least half year before the election. The law should provide, in case of certain public health data which regulatory package would be applicable, and which might be the reference date, when the current public health situation should be taken into account shortly before the day of the elections. This solution may secure either accountability and transparency of electoral processes despite changing epidemiological surrounding.
In addition to this, a moratorium period was also recommended for amending the electoral procedural rules shortly before the elections. It was widely experienced, that due to the uncertainties of the public health situation, even some weeks before the elections, the procedural rules applicable on the election day were amended. This constitutes a significant risk from a legal security perspective, therefore, the currently existing ban on amending the substance of the electoral framework shortly before the elections should be extended also on the procedural framework. Only very narrowly tailored exceptions should be provided by the law explicitly from the scope of this restriction, and these exceptions should be outlined with a sufficient level of precision.
The electoral experts also agreed, that owing to the similar challenges raised by the public health emergency, numerous solutions have been elaborated which have been applied globally to comply with special public health requirements during the whole electoral process: some of them have been implemented in most of the Visegrád countries also. At the same time, certain margin of movement always left within the hands of national decision-makers despite the inherently similar challenges. Some of these elements, which are directly linked to the mitigation of the pandemic, has disappeared when the virus threat has not been so intense as it was during the most serious vawes. However, some tendencies are deemed to remain in our life even after the pandemic’s termination; at least three of these directions should be highlighted.
Firstly, the inclusion of modern technologies in the electoral process will be extended; postal and electronic voting will be integrated more cohesively into the procedural legal framework of elections. Apart from this, the role of electronic platforms will increase further during the collection of signatories, during the campaign period, and after the results’ announcement, when politicians and their supporters reflect on the outcome respectively. Before the pandemic, such elements were mostly supplementary except some countries, but the extraordinary circumstances highlighted their significance and demonstrated the advantages of these methods.
Secondly, Future electoral frameworks will be probably more flexible and diverse than the current ones, which are usually grounded on the dominance of traditional voting based on physical presence. The crisis showed the importance of alternative paths and the necessity to adapt the procedural rules to the electoral demands more efficiently and to the unexpected external challenges. The future elections are supposed to be more expensive, for instance, financial issues have already been raised during the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the neigbourhood of the Visegrád region.
Thirdly, electoral systems’ response capacity to emergencies should be regulated with more carefulness either at the constitutional and legislative level. It was uncertain whether elections should be held during emergencies, and in case of postponement, how the period should be bridged between the original schedules of elections and the date of the postponed ones. Even if several, but not all constitutions explicitly stipulate the way of delaying elections, the due reasons of such a step, and the bridging of the interim period, it quickly turned out that most of these provisions lack a sufficient level of precision.
As for conclusion, this conference should be an important point of reference in the future not only in the assessment of the public health impact on the development of electoral frameworks, but also when the long-term consequences of the consecutive crises experienced recently should be identified. The global pandemic terminated, however, the armed conflict in the neighbourhood of the Visegrád region and the electricity crisis raise further unprecedented challenges for the Visegrád region and especially for the bodies responsible for electoral regulation and management in these countries. The conference participants expressed their views how electoral policies should be reconsidered, and how the electoral systems should be adapted to the latest challenges with paramount importance. The participating researchers are strongly engaged to continue this dialogue, and also to extent this network with the inclusion of further stakeholders within and outside from the Visegrád region.
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.