Coronavirus postpones elections across emerging Europe. Except in Poland

Emerging Europe was set for an eventful political season this spring. A number of elections were scheduled for April and May, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced authorities across the region to postpone most of them. We looked at three electoral contests – in North Macedonia, Serbia and Poland, on which the current health (and future economic) crisis could have a profound political impact.

EU support for North Macedonia could be crucial

Over the past few months, North Macedonia has been preparing for a landmark parliamentary election that was supposed to confirm the country’s EU and NATO aspirations. In a stunning blow to North Macedonia’s European future last October, Denmark, the Netherlands and France decided to block the EU from starting membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Calling the French-led decision a “historic mistake”, Mr Zaev, who was the chief architect of a name change deal with Greece that ended a 30-year dispute and cleared the way for Athens to support Skopje’s bid for EU and NATO membership, called for snap elections and then later resigned from his position, with the country now being led by the caretaker government of former interior minister Oliver Spasovski.

“Given the coronavirus outbreak and a wide shutdown in the country, the postponing of the elections scheduled for April 12th was largely unavoidable. The decision for postponing, or to be more precise, cancelling the preparations for the elections, was a joint one of all political actors,” Simonida Kacarska, the director of the Skopje-based European Policy Institute tells Emerging Europe, adding that the postponement carries significance for both the ruling party and the opposition, since the current technocrat government includes opposition figures in key ministries.

As for the government’s crisis management, Ms Kacarska explains that the current situation will significantly impact the decisions made by the electorate, once the elections are finally held. “Even though the opposition participates in the government, the management of the crisis and its consequences will mostly be weighed as performance of the main ruling party,” she highlights.

According to her, the caretaker government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, in which public health and security-related tasks are distributed among officials from both the ruling party and the opposition, has so far not been over-politicised. However, the economic response and the consequences of the crisis will be used in upcoming elections. “It can be expected that the economic downturn, which is inevitable, will be used by the opposition as an argument against the ruling party. The performance of the health system is likely to determine the arguments of the ruling party at the elections, depending on when they will be held,” Ms Kacarska believes.

Although it disappointed the Western Balkans in 2019, the EU has since moved to revive the enlargement process: the European Commission unveiled a plan that – amongst much else – aimed to convince enlargement-sceptic member states such as France or the Netherlands by giving more say to national EU governments in the process and putting an even greater emphasis on rule of law and corruption issues.

In an even more encouraging move, after two years of political hurdle, all EU countries this week agreed to endorse the start of negotiations for North Macedonia’s and Albania’s membership.

“An EU decision to start accession negotiations will be used by the ruling party to justify the legitimacy of its decisions regarding the name dispute,” Ms Kacarska continues. However, she points out that due to the sensitivity of the election period over the coronavirus outbreak, it is highly likely that the next campaign will focus on “bread and butter topics.” She estimates that the use of EU-related topics during the next electoral campaign will depend on the overall performance of the EU in relation to the coronavirus crisis, as well as support offered to North Macedonia and the region in this respect.

“At the moment, the EU seems to be underperforming in this respect, but there is yet time to see if the tide will turn over this spring or summer,” she says.

Coronavirus could be a gamechanger in Serbia

Until March 16, Serbia was preparing for a parliamentary election that has now been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. It had already been the subject of political dispute, since a large proportion of opposition parties – united under the banner of the Alliance for Serbia and the Movement of Free Citizens – had decided to boycott the elections and had called on other parties to do, claiming that Serbian President Aleksander Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) maintain too firm a grip over the country’s media and the election process.

“A lack of general consensus on issues like access to the media, the role of the media regulator, the transparency of voter records, and campaign financing has divided the public and political parties, while Serbia’s EU accession process became a collateral cost of this division,” says Srdjan Majstorovic, the chairman of the governing board of the European Policy Centre (CEP), a Serbia-based think tank, adding that the European bloc tried to mediate between the opposing sides, but with limited success.

He explains that the majority of the Serbian opposition, which was boycotting the elections, decided to abstain from EU moderated dialogue, with their position being that the EU “was turning a blind eye on failing democratic institutions and procedures in Serbia in exchange for the engagement of its leadership in the normalisation of relations with Kosovo.”

According to Mr Majstorovic, the pandemic is “a gamechanger that will influence political debate in Serbia”, projecting that the economic and social consequences, as well as the government’s response to the crisis, will dominate political discourse and the that the public’s perception of solidarity with the EU and other actors – especially China – during the crisis will determine the future political debate.

“China’s quick reaction and provision of medical equipment, as well as the general perception that it has led a successful fight against the pandemic (that was heavily propagated by Serbian officials), will contest the EU model of cooperation and solidarity,” he adds, noting that “the EU unfortunately has shown its limitations in proactive strategic communication with Serbian citizens, as well as other Western Balkans countries.”

“The EU decision to impose restrictions on trade of medical equipment with third countries should have exempted Western Balkans countries, all of which have signed Stabilization and Association Agreements with the EU and all of which are practically integrated into the EU market,” Mr Majstorovic argues. This – unfortunately – did not happen.

“This regrettable display of a lack of geopolitical conciseness in a time of crisis provided a perfect setting for Serbian officials to praise their ‘iron brotherhood’ with China and to declare that ‘European solidarity does not exist’ towards Serbia,” he says, noting that a subsequent EU decision to provide a 7.5 million-euro donation to Serbia from the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was acknowledged with far less enthusiasm.

According to him, the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis and its effects on the future of the EU will have an important effect on the future of Serbia’s democracy and the motivation of its leadership to even continue EU-accession driven changes. “The EU will have a difficult task in any attempt to address its own future role in the world. Whatever the outcome, the Western Balkans should be an integral part of that vision. Mutual and unequivocal recognition of common interest in Serbia’s – and other Western Balkans countries’ – integration in the EU is essential,” Mr Majstorovic believes, stressing that the European bloc “will have to finally prove its own credibility and include Serbia and other Western Balkans countries in a whole range of EU sectoral policies where both sides share a common interest to enhance cooperation – public health, security, migration, energy, environment and connectivity.”

A safe bet in Poland?

“I am convinced that at the moment there are no prerequisites to introduce a state of emergency (…) whereby the elections could be cancelled,” Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) told the press on March 21, pointing to the Polish government’s decision to move forward with the country’s presidential election on May 10, that many regard as a controversial decision in light of countries around the globe postponing their electoral contests.

“Like always in crisis situations people tend to avoid risks which plays into the hands of the incumbent leadership,” Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) tells me, explaining that holding the upcoming presidential election seems to be “a safe bet” for Andrzej Duda, the incumbent Polish president who – as a PiS candidate – is standing for reelection.

Mr Buras says that the Polish president relies on support from the country’s ruling party which has taken swift measures to counteract the coronavirus outbreak and its economic fallout.

“While it is still too early to assess the efficiency of these measures, especially the poor state of the under-financed health service, this might prove to be a ticking bomb if the number of infections rises rapidly. But for the time being it is Duda who benefits politically from them,” he believes.

According to Mr Buras, this is best demonstrated by the fact that up until a week ago it was certain that the election would be decided over two rounds of voting. However, recent poll results suggest that Mr Duda could secure his reelection in the first found. “However, with the peak infection still not reached and general uncertainty as to how the corona crisis will unfold, a rapid shift of preferences or even collapse of support for the ruling party and Duda cannot be ruled out either. But if this happens, the decision to postpone the elections can always be taken – by announcing the state of emergency,” he adds.

Mr Buras says that the coronavirus issue – as in many other countries – is at the centre of the political debate.

“While the opposition candidates cannot run their campaigns anymore, Mr Duda uses his role as president to promote his public image as an efficient crisis manager (in spite of his very limited formal competences in this area). Not surprisingly, the opposition demands the presidential election is postponed,” he continues. He also notes that while the opposition generally approves of the restrictions imposed by the government to contain the spread of the virus, it remains critical of certain aspects.