As part of the observation team for the local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina last November and the much delayed local elections in Mostar in December, one thing became abundantly clear – local elections can be held safely and securely during our Covid ravaged times and Covid is no reason to delay, suspend or postpone local democracy and accountability.
Held 10 days after England’s second national local down began, the Bosnian local elections took place against the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a state of natural disaster being called in Bosnia Herzegovina in March 2020 the Central Election Commission (CEC), which oversees all elections, announced on 7th May that local elections would be held on 4th October 2020, but because of budgetary, not COVID reasons, these were delayed until 15th November.
The CEC placed the safety of the voters, candidates, polling station and counting staff at the centre of a detailed set of regulations for conducting the poll during the pandemic and it outlined the requirements with which all those involved in the poll had to comply. That 10 page document, with 14 Articles, included example schematics of polling station layout and a table of the material that had to be included at all polling stations for safety purposes. It made a number of sanitary measures legal requirements to be put in place, such as:
- the use of masks and gloves
- ventilation of all polling stations
- installation and use of footwear disinfectant trays
- ensuring a physical distance of 5 foot between people
- limiting entry to the polling station by voters to the number of free voting booths
- regular disinfecting of all surfaces and materials over the course of polling day
- One way systems from entry to the polling station to the exit
The first local elections to be held in the City of Mostar for 12 years took place on 20th December, after a European Court ruling forced an end to the deadlock over electoral law (not Covid) which had prevented elections taking place. Those elections also adhered to the CEC regulations.
There was however, a definite Covid effect with turnout falling to 51% in the November local elections and 55% for the December elections in Mostar. I don’t know about you, but I dream of 50% turnouts in English local elections in normal circumstances, let alone during the pandemic.
Across Europe alone in 2020, local elections took place, for example, in France (first and second rounds), Serbia, and Armenia, Ukraine (first and second rounds), with regional elections taking place in Austria, Italy, Switzerland (as well as five referendums), Germany, Spain, Czech Republic and also parliamentary and presidential elections. All these took place during the pandemic, with sensible precautions in place.
But, here we are, almost a year after local elections should have taken place in England, with siren voices calling for further delay because the government hasn’t formally allowed them to go ahead. Worse still, those candidates daring to campaign, just in case elections go ahead, find the whole of Covidstremist social media hell descends upon their heads for trying to keep local democracy ticking over. Postponement and delays to elections damage democracy and we cannot allow local democracy and accountability - a vital component of local democracy - to become yet another COVID victim.
Local government has not received sufficient recognition or publicity for its sterling efforts in keeping vital public services going during the pandemic. But, local democracy is a vital public service, not something to be disregarded when the going gets tougher. Returning officers should prepare for elections as though they were going to take place, until told otherwise by the government – which shouldn’t interfere anyway. It is far better to prepare for elections that don’t take place, than not prepare for those that will and have to delay yet again because we’re not ready.
As we have seen elsewhere local elections can and have taken place in COVID times and devising and enforcing rigid safety regulations for voters, candidates and election staff is the way to ensure local democracy can be sustained. That’s all aside from serious exploration of extended use of postal voting and use of on-line voting. At the end of it all, when voting isn’t compulsory those who don’t wish to vote because of COVID– or because there is something good on telly – don’t have to vote. But, local democracy delayed is local democracy denied.
Colin Copus is emeritus professor at De Montfort University Leicester and visiting professor at Ghent University Belgium