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Alex Folkes

Research Fellow

Alex Folkes is an international election observer and analyst. He has worked for a range of election observation bodies including OSCE/ODIHR, the EU, IRI and the Carter Center across the former Soviet states and South Asia. In addition he has worked on projects concerned with the influence of online campaigning and social media in elections. Previously, Alex worked for the Electoral Reform Society where he led projects on electoral fraud and has led capacity building projects with political parties in developing democracies.

Array ( [0] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 6307 [post_author] => 77 [post_date] => 2021-12-15 00:00:58 [post_date_gmt] => 2021-12-14 23:00:58 [post_content] => President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy took place virtually at the end of last week. Attended by a large number of nations whose leaders made a slew of welcome policy commitments aimed at showing their democratic and human rights credentials; however, both the purpose and outcome of the event remain unclear. The principle divide is between those who see this as a Summit for Democracy as the name implies or those, such as the UK, who see it as a meeting of many of the world’s largest democracies and semi-democracies who want to use the might of these countries to counter the threats posed by Russia and China. A large number of events on the fringes of the main summit also concentrated on the idea of bringing states together in opposition to autocratic menace. Ted Piccone has analysed the 112 strong guest list in great detail and found that some of the countries excluded are ranked higher by the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index than some who were round the table.[1] That was probably always going to be the case. As Piccone points out, other metrics are available, direction of travel is also key and there are geopolitical considerations to be accounted for (which is probably why Pakistan makes the cut alongside India). But his key point is this: If the aim was a summit to strengthen democracy and the rule of law around the globe then inviting those with a worse ranking is not a problem. We hope they will learn from the experience and make improvements in future. But if the summit is being set up as the lead in to a club of democracies to counterbalance the authoritarian states then it very much matters that those around the table are the ones who can genuinely point to their rule of law and human rights as being in the top tiers. President Biden has strong credentials in this field. He has championed democratic values for many years and this event was a key plank in his election manifesto. That it had to be downgraded due to the pandemic is understandable, but it is laudable that it still went ahead. The world has seen many summits based on economics, military and environmental matters, but this is the first time in many years that the focus has been (or should have been) on human rights. Much of the event took place behind closed doors, but the opening statements by world leaders were released publicly.[2] These leaders took a variety of approaches. Some simply lauded their own achievements whilst others made commitments to improve in various areas. Notable were the approaches of Poland, which concentrated on the problems in Belarus, and of the Czech Republic who were the only country to specifically mention the need for election observation and democratic assistance. But it is the behind the scenes deals which matter most. Was this an event that aimed to shore up democratic principles in countries which are backsliding and encourage moves in the right direction among others? Or was it an event where a new bloc could be formed of the big democratic powers to stand in opposition to authoritarian states, particularly as Russia builds forces on the border with Ukraine? President Biden, in his opening address, suggested it should be the former and he mentioned a number of changes he wanted to see in his own country. The idea that no nation is a perfect democracy was important to establish from the outset and Biden’s references to the challenges his country faces were cautionary. In the latter camp firmly stands UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His idea is for a D10, a small group of the biggest nations based on the G7 but expanded to include South Korea, Australia and (most controversially) India. His idea is to use this group, selected for their size and economic might, to stand against Russia and, particularly, China. Others have proposed similar mechanisms with the same goals, but are slightly more inclusive. The Alliance of Democracies group sees a congregation of 30 or so states.[3] But again, their focus would be on countering Russia and China rather than promoting freedom of the media, more democratic elections, and equal rights for women and national minorities or unbiased courts. The Summit is being followed by a so-called ‘year of action’ before another event (hopefully in person) at the end of 2022. Key to deciding which camp has won will be the list of actions that are envisaged. Thomas Pepinsky, writing for the Brookings Institution, said:[4] “The Summit for Democracy will be most effective if it remains focused on strengthening and defending democracy rather than constructing a dichotomy between the world’s democracies and their authoritarian counterparts. It would also be a mistake to focus on corruption, economic performance, and material prosperity as areas in which democracies can outperform authoritarian regimes.” The same organisation has updated its ten commitments for enhancing democracy, and these address some of the key issues both in established democracies such as the US, and in countries where democratic values are newer.[5] The two ideas, of an alliance of democracies and a summit for better democracy around the world are not mutually exclusive, of course. But if improvements in human rights really are going to be made then it is important that the two approaches are not confused. Image by The White House under (CC). [1] Ted Piccone, The awkward guests: Parsing the Summit for Democracy invitation list, Brookings, December 2021,[2] It has been reported that the address by the Leader of Taiwan was not made public due to potential conflict with the USA’s ‘One China’ policy.[3] Ash Jain, Matthew Kroenig, and Jonas Parello-Plesner, An Alliance of Democracies: From concept to reality in an era of strategic competition, Atlantic Council, December 2021,[4] Thomas Pepinsky, Biden’s Summit for Democracy should focus on rights, not economics and geopolitics, Brookings, November 2021,[5] Susan Corke, Norman Eisen, Jonathan Katz, Andrew Kenealy, James Lamond, Alina Polyakova, and Torrey Taussig, Democracy Playbook 2021: 10 Commitments for Advancing Democracy, Brookings, December 2021, [post_title] => A summit for democracy or building a bloc to counter China and Russia? [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => a-summit-for-democracy-or-building-a-bloc-to-counter-china-and-russia [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-12-14 18:29:32 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-12-14 17:29:32 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 6036 [post_author] => 77 [post_date] => 2021-08-20 12:22:38 [post_date_gmt] => 2021-08-20 11:22:38 [post_content] =>
President Joe Biden made a big deal about democracy during his election campaign - and it is an issue he has demonstrated a great deal of passion for over much of his career. The manifesto promise he made to hold a ‘Summit for Democracy’ during his first year in office was well received by those of us in the democracy and human rights sector who have seen many summits held to discuss economic, military and environmental issues, but never one that focussed solely on the tenets of the liberal international order. To be fair to the President, coronavirus has not made it easy to stick to his pledge. For the summit to work, it really needs to be a big affair with many countries, NGOs and academics around the same table. But even given these constraints, the announcement a week ago from the State Department is a little underwhelming.[1] The statement looks like a bit of a placeholder with an online get-together in December and a follow-up a year later to review progress. Those in government, NGOs and business will be taking part, but it could almost be read as though these people will only be drawn from the US. I assume that is not what is meant, but there seems to be no answer to the biggest question - will this be a meeting of the self-selecting biggest and the best democracies as exemplified by Boris Johnson’s call for a ‘D-10’ based largely on economic might? Or will it be a meeting of all who consider themselves or want to be democracies - an open table which might exclude only the likes of China, North Korea, Belarus and, perhaps now, Russia? The former risks an outcome which preaches from a very shaky moral high ground. The latter might help to carve some of the slower moving states away from their authoritarian neighbours and set them on a new course. Such a summit might also help to reinvigorate the position of the international election observation movement following the decision by both Belarus and now Russia to effectively put their polls beyond expert eyes. The last time democracy was a key foreign policy aim was during the international re-set of the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union and the abandonment of authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe. But while some countries have indeed moved forward, in many other states moves towards elections were democracy in name only and corruption and human rights abuses remain rife. Even this modest progress is backsliding now and so there is a lot of pressure on President Biden’s summit to deliver. The failure of the 1990s changes to stick (and of the colour revolutions and Arab Spring to deliver in most countries) was largely because the focus of the Western powers was more on opening up new markets for their own companies and securing energy supply and, latterly, on seeking regional partners to act as a bulwark against Islamist terrorism regardless of their human rights records. Democracy for the sake of democracy would be a huge step forward. If there is a clue to President Biden’s intent then it comes in the form of the statement that the US recognises the need to improve its own practices. There is reference in the launch statement to the struggle to create ‘a more perfect union’. So one would hope that if the US acknowledges its shortcomings then no other country will be allowed to claim that it has everything right. A ‘them and us’ club would not advance the causes of democracy nor any other aspect of human rights. The statement contains an invitation for NGOs and others to consider how to protect democracies against authoritarianism and corruption and safeguard human rights, but the details are scarce as yet - although more are promised. But it will take a lot of sherpas to turn this statement into real progress by the proposed date of December. Image by Gage Skidmore under (CC). [1] See: The Summit for Democracy,
[post_title] => President Biden’s Summit for Democracy launch underwhelms [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => president-bidens-summit-for-democracy-launch-underwhelms [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-08-20 12:22:38 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-08-20 11:22:38 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 6033 [post_author] => 77 [post_date] => 2021-08-16 11:01:09 [post_date_gmt] => 2021-08-16 10:01:09 [post_content] => The decision of OSCE’s election observation wing (known by the acronym ODIHR) to withdraw from observation of the forthcoming Russian Duma elections has been made to protect the credibility of the organisation and of neutral election observation in general.[1] But it will have been far from easy. Over the past 18 months there have been some very difficult choices made as elections have been postponed and countries have been imposing significant barriers to travel, both international and internal. Many missions have been cut back or cancelled altogether, but always for reasons of the pandemic rather than a dispute with the host country. I have been involved in a couple of virtual missions trying to assess the campaign, media and election administrative preparations via Zoom. These have worked pretty well, but they are not a complete substitute for feet on the ground. Whilst the pandemic is still a significant factor, observer groups have largely developed methodologies to cope, ensuring they can still do a reasonable job whilst protecting their own staff and the nationals of the countries they are observing. The ostensible issue in Russia is over the number of observers who would be allowed into the country. ODIHR wanted 80 long term observers (LTOs), a core team of 13 or so and 420 short term observers in addition to a parliamentary delegation. Russia countered by saying they would allow 50 observers from ODIHR and no more than ten parliamentarians because of COVID-19. The decision as to how many observers to put into a mission is a combination of three factors. First and foremost the number they think is needed to do the job. The mission wants to cover the whole country and be able to have some sort of reach into every corner. But this is tempered by geography - in the case of Russia the territory is so huge that you could have 300 long term observers and still not reach everywhere. So they will try to strike a balance. In the Russian Presidential election of 2018, I was a long term observer based with my work partner in St Petersburg - one of 40 teams across the country. As well as the city itself, we were deputed to cover the surrounding oblast as well as three other territories stretching all the way up to Murmansk on the northern Arctic coast. There was no feasible way that we could meet everyone we would like to have across this vast area and so we had to make reasonable decisions as to our priorities. The mission knew this from the start and planned accordingly. Compare that with a tiny country such as Montenegro where a small pool of eight to ten teams can see almost everything. Second is budget. Although seconding states pay the costs of the LTOs themselves, the mission is picking up the costs of drivers and assistants and all the other associated costs from their central budget. Third is the number of secondees they think they will get. If they ask for 100 and only get 50 then that is embarrassing and also likely to leave the mission over-dominated by one or two countries and this threatens the methodology which asks for a wide spread of nations represented. However, OSCE’s withdrawal (barring an unlikely last minute change of heart from the Russian authorities) does not mean that there will not be international observers present. There are a number of other groups who have been invited but they do not have much of a history of providing credible assessments. Organisations such as the CIS and Shanghai Co-operation Organisation have traditionally sent a few parliamentarians from friendly states who can be relied upon to declare the election perfect in every way within minutes of the polls closing. These ‘reports’ will be trumpeted across state-controlled news to show to Russian nationals that the world thinks their elections are the real deal. There will likely be some western observers too. Russia, and some other states, have a history of inviting the supportive and the gullible to all-expenses paid trips. The European Parliament recently issued sanctions against a number of its members from both the far left and right who had participated in fake election observation missions of this kind in countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Venezuela. But it is not only fellow travellers who do this. Well-meaning academics and journalists will sometimes be invited and provided with local staff who will ensure they meet top government people and see a few Potemkin polling stations before a microphone is thrust in their face for them to proclaim they have seen nothing wrong. Sadly, in many countries you can no longer rely on domestic observers to plug the gap. Russia has banned independent groups from monitoring and now requires all domestic observation to be done by local civic councils. The reports are written by the heads of these state controlled organisations. Democracy in Russia is under threat to a greater degree than it has been for many years. It has never been perfect and the history of Soviet-era manipulations still linger. But there are positive aspects of the process and, until recently, international observers were able to conduct their work freely and in accordance with established methodology. The change came at the time of the national vote which took place last year to approve constitutional changes which included allowing President Putin to stand again beyond 2024. This was not officially a referendum and did not have international observation. But COVID-19 was used as an excuse to introduce changes which allowed for widespread cheating. Voting took place over a period of a week and voters were able to cast their ballot from the precincts of the polling station rather than in the polling room itself. A form of internet voting was also trialled in a few regions. Add these together and it became almost impossible for opposition party poll watchers or observers to effectively monitor malfeasance. The authorities declared that these provisions (albeit with a few tweaks) would continue in the upcoming Duma elections. In reality, ODIHR was left with little choice but to withdraw. Whilst the official line is that there is never any negotiation on the make-up of an observation mission, in reality there might be some tweaks made at the behest of the host country. These might be for legitimate COVID-related reasons or there might be force majeure type diktats of domestic policy. Ukraine, for example, has banned almost all Russian citizens from its territory and this meant that the ODIHR missions to the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2019 were conducted without Russian team members. ODIHR protested but without hope of changing the policy. But there are limits. And insisting that a total of 60 observers - both long and short term - was all that would be allowed was clearly too far short of what would be needed for a credible mission that adhered to accepted standard methodology. And agreeing to host country limits would be a slippery slope that would be seized on by other states. This sort of limitation demand has happened before in Russia - in the early 2000s they sought to limit the overall size of the mission, including national staff, but have returned to accepted practice in recent years. But although it is the right decision it is still disappointing. Observer missions, even where they produce highly critical reports, are able to provide a benchmark for the future and to show the state and its citizens that the outside world is watching, giving some degree of succour to opposition and serve as a warning to authorities. This outcome presents a step change in the relationship between Russia and an important international institution. Even when the Salisbury poisonings happened midway through the 2018 Presidential Election and relations soured between Russia and many Western European nations, the observation mission was able to continue with UK citizens among its members. But by sticking to their guns, ODIHR has, on behalf of all observer groups, drawn a line in the sand. The decision now is to how to get out of this mess. The honour of international election observation might have been maintained, but Russia cannot be allowed to get away with what is a blatant disregard of the requirements of their membership of OSCE. Whilst they might not be expelled from that group, their membership of the Council of Europe (one of the bodies likely to have sent observers as part of the parliamentary delegations) should be reviewed. And it will do nothing to bring forward a lessening of the current sanctions regime. It has been suggested that other countries might refuse to recognise the winners of the elections. In practical terms the impact would be small. Duma members might be denied places on inter-parliamentary conferences and events, but there are only a limited number of contacts with Russian Duma members anyway. Such a decision would therefore have more effect as a warning for other countries than for the practical impact on Russia. As for other countries, how can the liberal democracies of the world stop them from taking similar steps for their elections? Belarus may have secured their pariah status for the foreseeable future, but countries like Uzbekistan, who have elections this autumn, need encouragement to continue the slow progress they have been making towards more democratic values. They may have a long way to go, but incentives and support are needed. That means two things. The first is an invitation to be round the table when President Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ eventually happens. A manifesto commitment from the President, this forum has the potential to carve nascent democracies and those wishing to improve away from non-democracies such as China who will not be invited. It may be that Russia has now sealed its exclusion from the summit too - albeit they were never really likely to attend. The question is whether the Kremlin seeks to persuade others to boycott. Second, the West needs to stop allowing security and economic considerations to trump everything else. A country which ignores its democratic commitments cannot continue to be lauded simply because it allows Western companies to exploit natural resources or provides occasional support in the fight against terrorism. I am not naive enough to think these factors do not matter, but they should be considered alongside membership of an international rules based order. Image by Manfred Werner (Tsui) under (CC). [1] OSCE, No OSCE observers for Russian parliamentary elections following major limitation, August 2021, [post_title] => Election observation credibility protected, but what action should be taken against Russia? [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => election-observation-credibility-protected-but-what-action-should-be-taken-against-russia [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-08-16 11:01:09 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-08-16 10:01:09 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 5450 [post_author] => 77 [post_date] => 2021-01-25 15:05:09 [post_date_gmt] => 2021-01-25 14:05:09 [post_content] => Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia after his poisoning and subsequent jailing has elevated him in the eyes of the Western powers and he has become the number one topic for Russia watchers. This past weekend we have seen demonstrations that are huge by Russian standards across the country. But there is a significant risk that his treatment, albeit egregious, will detract attention from many other issues of concern and may therefore play into the hands of the Kremlin’s rulers. That forces of the Russian state poisoned Alexey Navalny is not in dispute by anyone except the Russians themselves. The Kafka-esque way in which he has been treated since he returned - jailed on charges of breaching his parole because he left the country to be treated for the poisoning whilst in a coma - is a clear attempt by the Kremlin to keep him out of the limelight. The siloviki - the Russian state security chiefs - have always believed that if you deny an opponent the oxygen of publicity then that is enough. Their first choice would have been for Navalny to stay overseas where he could be ignored by state media. The label of ‘puppet of the West’ that has been given to him by those in charge could then have had more staying power with their primary domestic audience. And like Boris Berezovsky and Andrey Borodin before him, Navalny could speak to the western media all he wanted whilst having little traction in his home country. Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya may have bucked the trend somewhat in continuing to have influence, but she has a different status having contested and likely won the Presidential election there. Even in her case, her influence is waning. Navalny has been excluded from any ballot since the 2013 Moscow mayoralty poll and so does not have the same credibility to act as a ‘leader in exile’. The decision to return to Russia fits with Navalny’s personality. Like Tikhanovskaya, he isn’t a pro-Western politician, although he clearly has more sympathy for western mores than the current President. Many European leaders have been reluctant to get too close to him because of his past statements, which aligned strongly with Russian nationalism. Western allies in Georgia and Ukraine will be the first to say that my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend. More recently, however, he has transformed himself into an anti-corruption activist and shed many of the views which accord less well with western sensibilities. Having returned to Russia, the Kremlin is seeking to marginalise Navalny. His initial 30-day detention will certainly be upgraded to a full prison sentence and he will be shuffled off to some remote penal colony. Navalny and his supporters have campaigning opportunities even without their figurehead - the release of the video of Putin’s palace was cleverly timed. The protests will have come as a shock to authorities because they were spread so widely across the country. The question is whether they can be repeated on a regular basis. No one except Navalny himself appears to have the charisma to lead the movement, and it is clear the authorities will continue to arrest alternative leaders and harass the foot soldiers into silence. Many may find themselves forced into internal exile.[1] Navalny does not need to be on a ballot paper to have influence. In the 2018 presidential election, he was banned from standing and so his teams attempted to run a boycott campaign, but this was met by police raids on their headquarters and frequent arrests. As is common in post-Soviet Russian elections, shadow candidates were put forward to draw the attention and commitment of the those inclined to campaign against the existing regime. TV personality Ksenia Sobchak was chosen as a candidate. Despite her being the daughter of Putin’s St Petersburg mentor, she succeeded in drawing away many young activists who might otherwise have been part of the Navalny campaign. She mentioned a number of liberal causes in her messaging that guaranteed she would be considered real by those who backed her, but also that she would gather few votes in conservative Russia. And the police played their part by harassing her supporters just enough to persuade them that they were really fighting the system. Such tactics might be a bit more difficult to carry off in the Duma elections scheduled for later this year. Navalny has modified his campaigning so that he is no longer advocating a boycott, but instead he runs a so-called ‘smart voting campaign’ for whichever candidate is most likely to defeat the Kremlin’s United Russia party. They have had successes in regional polls in 2019 and 2020 thanks to the historically unpopular state of United Russia, commanding the support of fewer than one in three voters according to independent polls. Smart voting has clearly worried the Kremlin enough that it has created sufficient new parties, which back the President so that they can pick and choose which to endorse at the last minute. This cat and mouse strategy would confuse the voters if we believed that what the voters thought or voted for actually made much of a difference. In the absence of their leader, the smart voting campaign will continue, but may be a bit less successful. Meanwhile, as Alexander Baunov of Carnegie Moscow Center notes, Navalny has been elevated to the rank of the number one political prisoner in the world.[2] The West’s attention is fixated on a single opposition figure and the heat, relatively, is off a number of other topics. There may be the threat of further sanctions, but it is difficult to imagine who might be in line given the policy of seeking to sanction those most responsible for a particular event. In this case, Russian authorities will point to the due process of the courts and say that Navalny is a criminal who is serving a sentence properly conferred, no matter that the ECHR has ruled the offences for which Navalny has been jailed to be an abuse of process. The Russian state has, and will continue, to deny absolutely that its forces had anything to do with the poisoning. Bellingcat and Navalny himself have proved that to be a fiction, but it is unlikely that the siloviki will be hugely bothered if they are added to a sanctions list. Once the Duma elections are out of the way, it is entirely possible that President Putin will seek a reset with the West, at least a marginal one. Despite the Navalny poisoning, President Biden wishes to go ahead with a full five-year renewal of the New START treaty. This is a quick win for the new leader and one to which Putin will readily agree, having offered such to Trump. There are any number of other options open to Biden and his opposite number will hope he takes them. But the current attention on Navalny may be a major stumbling block. However, if the West gets fixated only on one issue - albeit an egregious one - then longer-term concerns such as Ukraine, the South Caucasus and Georgia may be forgotten. After the New START treaty is extended, it is in the area of arms control that further rapprochement might be most likely. It may be that President Putin was preparing to use Navalny’s imprisonment as a bargaining chip to secure relaxation of some of the sanctions, which are having a real impact on Russia’s struggling economy. In the light of the protests, this may no longer seem to be such a wise move and he will want to see what impact the state media labelling of Navalny as a foreign agent under the control of the CIA has on his opponent’s popularity before putting him forward as a bargaining chip. But it would not be wise for the US to think that securing Navalny’s release is the beginning of the end of Putin. The Kremlin craves attention and for Russia to be treated with the deference they feel they deserve as a superpower. With Russia and the US the only countries holding enough nuclear firepower to destroy the world, any nuclear deal has to focus on those nations first and foremost. Other states, even China, can only sit on the sidelines if they appear at all. Any arms deal therefore necessitates giving Putin the all-star treatment and may allow for some limited agreements in other areas too. That is not to suggest that the West should roll over, as President Trump often seemed to wish, nor give away the shop over Crimea in an attempt to appease. A deal on nuclear weapons or anything else has to be the right one on its own merits. But by recognising the Russian leader as a key figure, it might just lessen some of the attention seeking interference that has been at the forefront of Russian foreign policy in recent years. That means recognising Navalny, his poisoning and imprisonment as a key issue but not the only one in US-Russian relations. Image by Michał Siergiejevicz under (CC). [1] Navalny Allies, Jailed, Fined as Russia Vows Protest Crackdown, The Moscow Times, January 2021,; Marc Bennetts, Putin opponent Ruslan Shaveddinov tells court of life exiled on Arctic base, The Times, July 2020, [2] Alexander Baunov, Putin, Poison, and Self-Inflicted Wounds: Navalny’s Return to Russia, Carnegie Moscow Center, January 2021, [post_title] => Western focus on Navalny risks missing the bigger picture [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => western-focus-on-navalny-risks-missing-the-bigger-picture [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-01-29 17:46:39 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-01-29 16:46:39 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 5268 [post_author] => 77 [post_date] => 2020-12-07 09:30:49 [post_date_gmt] => 2020-12-07 08:30:49 [post_content] => Democracy is not exactly seen as a sexy topic for world discussion. Every year, at least in normal times, there are economic summits and climate change summits and occasionally there will be arms control summits too. But rarely are the building blocks of what makes our society function discussed on the world stage. Incoming US President Joe Biden seeks to address this void by including in his manifesto a commitment to holding a democracy summit within his first year, perhaps within the first few months. And, as Kevin Baron of Defense One notes: “Nobody on earth but the President of the United States has the power or clout to pull it off.”[1] To someone who works in the field of elections around the world, this is a significant proposal, but it comes with the risk of promoting countries whose democracies are troubling and of offending those who we should be looking up to. So what is Biden’s plan and what can it hope to achieve? Biden’s promise recognises that America is in need of democratic renewal herself. As Richard Luce in the FT has pointed out, America has proved in recent months that it might not be the perfect example to follow and two of their last six Presidential elections have resulted in ‘wrong winner’ scenarios. Luce also points out that Biden’s predecessor, George W Bush, advocated his war on Iraq on the basis that he was bringing democracy to the Middle East - and look how that has turned out. US democracy is clearly not as bad as President Trump would have us believe and the recent election was conducted - according to international observers and US law enforcement - without significant fraud, but it is still a system which needs improvement. Areas such as restoration of the Voting Rights Act, transparency in campaign finance, and the use of cyber and other resources to protect the voting systems are all covered in Biden’s plan, as is the need to restore America’s moral leadership in the world.[2] Biden says his summit will involve the world’s democracies and the aim will be “to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values,” looking at areas including fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, improving election security, and advancing human rights. And he goes on to say that civil society organisations, technology corporations and social media giants will also be invited and will be asked to make their own commitments.[3] That Biden does not see elections as the be all and end all of democracy is very encouraging, as the conversation needs to be about the rule of law, freedom of speech and equality in addition to the mechanics of elections themselves. But to suggest that Biden is new to this debate would be wrong. He has long been an advocate for greater world wide democracy and in 2018 he gave a major speech on the subject at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit where he talked about the threat and reasons behind populism. Then he named Hungary, Poland and Romania as countries which were seeking to dismantle the checks and balances of the rule of law. He also listed Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as nations which needed the support from more established democracies. In the case of Ukraine, he said the decision to send a new missile system to support the country’s fight against Russian-backed insurgents was right “but Javelins will neither win the war nor help Ukraine become a democracy.”[4] Some have suggested that there ought to be some sort of D10 - a club for the leading democratic nations including the countries of the G7 plus India, South Korea and Australia. But that would, I think, be a massive mistake for two reasons. First because of those it excludes. The G7 is created on the basis of economic size and power. Using this as the basis of some assessment of the best democracies will exclude many smaller countries who have far stronger, fairer and frankly better systems of governance. New Zealand, Sweden and Uruguay spring to mind. And this leads to the second point. By setting themselves up as the D10, these countries are giving the impression they think their democratic systems and structures are beyond reproach. Geopolitical need means that the US cannot afford to offend countries such as India and so creating a small clique would inevitably mean giving a complete thumbs up to countries which have shown worrying signs of degrading the human rights of some of their citizens. The second idea being floated is that this is somehow going to be used to target China. The Christian Science Monitor specifically calls for the summit to be used to take China to task for what is happening in Hong Kong.[5] It is certainly the case that China is an authoritarian state which abuses large numbers of its population and the tearing apart of the semi-democratic structures of Hong Kong is very concerning. But they are not unique in this regard and it is perhaps a wasted opportunity to use such a summit to make a point to one country which will not be listening. It is difficult to be on the democratic moral high ground if you ignore what is happening in many gulf states and treat those countries as your close allies whilst castigating China. A more humble approach, and one which would have far more chance of succeeding, would be for Biden to be as inclusive as possible. Freedom House suggests that 2019 was the 14th year of democratic decline in the world. Biden readily admits that the US system is not perfect. And if that is the case, then others can come together on the basis that their countries have their own degrees of democratic imperfection too.[6] This summit should be a United Nations of those countries which aspire to call themselves democracies. A seat at the table should be available to any nation that aspires to a better system of democracy and human rights than they currently have. So what might it achieve? I think there are five key outcomes. First, it may focus the minds of Americans on the flaws within their own country. There has not been a better time to get both Democrats and Republicans on board for the need to overhaul the system. It may be a bit of a stretch to imagine that they will agree on a constitutional amendment to remove the Electoral College. But if they can reach a consensus that having different systems and rules for each state, and often for each county, is a recipe for voter confusion and bureaucratic collapse, then that will be a massive step forward. For too long, the US has operated on the basis of winners justice. Whoever controls the levers of power seeks to address the biases that favour their opponents whilst ignoring, or exacerbating, their own advantages. Bi-partisanship is a tricky thing to pull off in the febrile atmosphere of American politics, but it is needed now more than ever. Second, it puts democracy, human rights and the rule of law at the top of the agenda. Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union has the world really thought about why democracy matters. And even in the 90s the focus was more on dragging the new countries over to western economic values rather than democratic ones. Moreover, the lack of focus means that autocrats can convince their populations that the electoral charade in their country is much the same as the fully fledged democratic exercise taking place elsewhere. Call it an election and no one will know how flawed it is. More publicity means an increased chance of populations demanding better. The rate of backsliding, even in the west, is concerning and even members of the EU have seen their regimes start to denigrate the concept of liberal democracy. As Sophie in’t Veld points out, there is a concern even among MEPs that they need help to reverse the rise of illiberalism and the Biden summit could provide that.[7] Third, it gives encouragement to those states which are far from perfect democracies to carry on improving. Those countries such as Uzbekistan which are responding positively, if partially, to the recommendations made to them by international election observers need encouragement as well as admonishment. Getting a seat at the table of this summit is a viable reward for a commitment to continue improving, whilst also acknowledging that there is still much to do. Fourth, this should be a summit not just for nations but for those groups who help to advance electoral and democratic ideals. This would include international groups such as OSCE, the Commonwealth, and African Union. But also the NGOs such as our own Westminster Foundation for Democracy. And there should be recognition of the work that domestic observer groups do both during the electoral period and between elections. For the bigger groups, there is the chance to discuss and refresh their methodologies to understand the particular problems facing elections at the present time. For the smaller groups, there is the chance to raise funding and learn from others so that they can be stronger advocates for human rights in their own country. However, as Biden himself points out, there are many private companies which have a significant effect on elections. And so the likes of Facebook and Twitter need a seat at the table to discuss what they are doing to respond to the needs of each country holding elections and how they can improve and uphold democratic ideals. Finally, it does indeed exclude some states. Kevin Baron, of Defense One takes a relatively absolutist position: “Biden should make it clear that government leaders of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and their ilk are not invited. Frankly, neither should Middle East and Asian monarchs and dictators. Turkey? Debatable. Perhaps Biden could invite such nations to send representatives as observers — free to watch and support, but not to participate in any mainstage discussions, decisions, or sign any proclamations about democracy or human rights. This can’t be the UN Human Rights Council where, as Pompeo said, “brutal regimes” come to lecture the free world.”[8] And whilst he is clearly right about the majority of countries he lists, if this programme is to be more than a gesture then it needs to keep the semi-democracies involved and encourage them to move forwards. It may seem odd to argue that Russia should have a seat at the table - if they want to come - whilst excluding China and others. But whilst Russian elections are deeply flawed, they take place on a regular basis and there is a recognised path to improvement. Putin will not be around forever and there must be a hope that we can persuade whoever comes next to make more of a commitment to democratic ideals. In China there is no such thing. Keeping them out - as well as nations who show no commitment to progress - is the best means of persuading those where backsliding has taken place that a renewed effort is needed. Image by Gage Skidmore under (CC). [1] Kevin Baron, Give Us That Democracy Summit, President Biden, Defense One, November 2020,[2] Edward Luce, Biden’s dilemma on global democracy, Financial Times, November 2020,[3] Joe Biden, Why America Must Lead Again, Biden Harris campaign website, July 2019,[4] Speech by Joe Biden, Democracy in an Age of Authoritarianism, Alliance of Democracies, June 2018,[5] Monitor’s Editorial Board, A focal point for Biden’s democracy sumit, The Christian Science Monitor, November 2020,[6] Sarah Repucci, Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy – Democracy and pluralism are under assault, Freedom House,[7] Sophie in’t Veld, How MEPs can help Biden’s ‘Global Democracy Summit’, EU Observer, November 2020,[8] Adam Shaw, Pompeo says US critics at UN Human Rights Council ‘have the most to hide’, Fox News, November 2010, [post_title] => Biden’s Democracy Summit [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => bidens-democracy-summit [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-01-29 17:46:55 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-01-29 16:46:55 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 9 [filter] => raw )[5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 4903 [post_author] => 77 [post_date] => 2020-08-10 11:38:31 [post_date_gmt] => 2020-08-10 10:38:31 [post_content] => Real change in a country takes many years as populists who come to power soon find out. It cannot be achieved just by a clicking of fingers and a Picard-esque command to ‘make it so’.[1] Leaders of states emerging from authoritarianism are also experiencing this impotence and, in the case of the (relatively) new leader of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, it will be up to the international community to help him decide whether or not to keep his country on course to reform. In 2016, in his first election since taking over from Islam Karimov, Mirziyoyev won handsomely in a contest that was generally regarded as being neither free nor fair. What made the post-election atmosphere different, however, was that the government responded positively to many of the criticisms and recommendations made by the OSCE’s election observation report and sought to engage with the most respected of the international election expert groups.[2] The 2019 Parliamentary election was the chance to gauge just how serious Uzbekistan was about reform. The result will have disappointed the government as much as it did the international community, but for different reasons. How the country now reacts will be the key. Will they push on with reform in the understanding that progress will be slow, or will they give it up as a failed experiment? In the 20+ years of observing elections in the former Soviet states, I have not seen a contest quite like the 2019 elections before. Rather than a governing party, which abuses state resources and controls the media to the exclusion of all others, the Uzbekistan elections saw five parties given equal airtime and campaigning opportunities and little evidence of any sort of official favour for any of them. The problem, however, is that these parties are not real and all support the Government. The election, at least from a political perspective, was a sham. New parties cannot get registered and there is no organised opposition. Even independent candidates are banned from standing. The only dissent allowed - in a relaxation of the old order - comes from bloggers, although most of these choose to concentrate on the relatively safe space of social reforms and local issues. The effect was like the contest to choose a class president in a primary school. There is no individuality, no street activity and the authorities effectively take all campaigning decisions. In theory, Uzbekistan’s five parties represent a wide range of ideologies. There are two parties of the centre-right - one based on more of a nationalist creed and the other a party of business and good governance. On the centre-left is a party of state professionals and a party of workers. There is also the Ecological Party (Eco-Party), the only new party to be registered in the past 20 years having previously been a movement with a guaranteed quota of 15 seats in Parliament. This last espouses green issues but also favours nuclear power. In my experience, having talked to many candidates over the course of the election campaign, is that, with the marginal exception of the Eco-Party, none really understood what their party is about. None could name policies that set them apart from their electoral opponents and the only way to differentiate between them is through the colour of their rosette. There was also some confusion about how they were chosen to stand, with most appearing to have been parachuted in from the capital. All claimed to have a membership of between 1500 and 4000 in each of the 150 constituencies but myself and my fellow OSCE/ODIHR observers did not observe any of these members undertaking any campaign activity on behalf of their candidate. When it came to the campaign, the few leaflets distributed were all designed and printed by a central government printing house and looked identical. The main campaign activity was a series of hustings, as many as three each day in each seat, which were organised by local election commissions and where each candidate gave a bland speech about their personal history. Again, none set out any real policy platform. There were few, if any, questions from the audience and those that were asked were about local social issues. The media campaign was hardly more grabbing. Each candidate received a regulated interview in which they said little more than their stump speech. Even in the few national ‘debates’ there was little attempt to examine the difference between the party programmes. Nevertheless, the overall coverage was nothing if not even-handed. In election observation, we carefully monitor the media to reveal any bias in coverage of the different parties. Even in the fairest and most pluralistic media environment, we tend to find that some parties are getting as much as 50 per cent more airtime than their rivals. In authoritarian regimes the ruling party can expect to receive as much as 20 times the amount of coverage of its rivals when airtime showing the work of the President and Parliament is taken into account. In contrast, the Uzbek election was fair to the point of being unnatural. Each of the five parties gained exactly the same airtime - to within one per cent. Overall, the campaign did next to nothing to educate the voters about the candidates. Discussion of electoral issues meant pre-packaged segments on local preparations and voting locations rather than policies or candidates. The lack of anything approaching an opposition and the non-existent differences between the parties meant that the authorities really did not mind which candidates got elected to Parliament, which is, in any case, largely toothless. Whilst the lack of political diversity was disappointing to the international community, what really disappointed the authorities was the failure to change the culture of Election Day. Exhortations to ensure that there was no cheating at the ballot box was ignored in many parts of the country, as proxy voting was rife. In previous polls, the government had tended to set a desired outcome for both the share of the vote and the overall turnout. The role of local polling station committees, largely dominated by the mahallas (local community councils) had been to secure these outcomes. This time the authorities wanted and expected things to be different. However, they found that all political systems have a large degree of built-in inertia and it will take several elections for an apparently genuine commitment to change to trickle down. What we observed were significant additions to the voter list on Election Day, mostly without any genuine reasoning, and massive proxy voting, often evidenced by a series of identical signatures on the register. We also saw many instances of one person from a household turning up with the passports of all family members. In some cases, the presence of international observers led officials to protest loudly at this attempt to break the rules, to the bemusement of the poor voter who was doing exactly as he or she had always done and had seen those ahead in the queue do just minutes before. But in many cases the individual was simply given five or six ballot papers. We also observed a few polling committee members stuffing the ballot box with a dozen or so votes at a time. There were some areas where change had been successfully implemented. It is a long running complaint that polling places the world over are often inaccessible to those with limited mobility despite being in schools and other government buildings. The Uzbek authorities were determined to get this area right and each building was assessed before the election with appropriate modifications made. Unlike in many ex-Soviet countries, when ramps were installed they were at a maximum of twenty degrees. We estimated that these efforts resulted in more than four out of five polling stations being accessible to Western standards. That is not ideal, of course, but is far better than anything I have seen before. Rather bizarrely, every polling place also had a white coated medical professional on duty the whole day in case a voter took ill. The question at the heart of this election process, as with so many other aspects of life in Uzbekistan, is how far the government really wants to go in their changes. It is clear that they place a lot of store in 20 world rankings. Around a dozen of these are related to business or the economy and it is abundantly clear that the country is looking for foreign investment.[3] Therefore, stamping out corruption and making business processes easier (or at least appearing to do so) is very important. And in Central Asia this is a significant concern. The region produces vast quantities of high quality soft fruits and other perishable crops, but these often rot before they can reach their markets due to poor logistics, red tape and corruption. There is little in the way of business sales understanding and almost no co-operation between the five countries in the region, with attempts to create a customs union derailed by external pressure. Importing foreign expertise and the money to make it happen is a key strategy of the government. Less clear, however, is the official response to demands to end the use of forced and free labour in the cotton industry. Global rankings are also the key to social change and human rights issues. The government has identified some indices it wishes to make progress in and it will make reforms in order to rise to a higher position.[4] Starting from a point as low as Uzbekistan means that limited reforms can produce significant rises. The government is, perhaps rightly, very proud of the award by The Economist of the status of most improved nation.[5] But sustaining such improvements can be very difficult and there is a suspicion that the authorities would rather see the country improve by one or two places every year than make a significant jump to a level from which it is very difficult (or expensive) to rise further. The task for the international community is to make it clear that being number 95 in the world may be better than being number 117, but that it is nowhere near good enough. So what sort of challenges face the government if it is committed to sustained progress up the rankings and real changes in the areas of freedom and speech and elections? The lack of oil and gas in the state puts it at a significant financial disadvantage compared with some of its neighbours, but also means that foreign relations will be based more on intrinsic values than access to natural resources. The attitude of the government in wanting change is clearly a very positive thing, but, especially with the pandemic and economic downturn, it may be easier to revert to an authoritarian mean than press on with progress. If democratic reform is to continue, there are three key areas where I hope that progress will be made, in addition to renewing the efforts to stamp out polling day corruption. All are based on developing political pluralism and the debates that go with it. But, in true Uzbek style, all can be made incrementally. First, there needs to be an understanding that the current system of political parties is a farce and does nothing to engender debate and the better governance that comes from having a genuine opposition. Ultimately, there needs to be the right for any concerned group of citizens to set up and register their own parties on either a local or a national basis. But the first step should be to allow candidates to run as independents at all levels of election and a light touch regulatory system to make sure that there is freedom to get a political message across and inspire electors to want to go to vote. In the process, it is likely that some or all of the existing parties will wither and die as it becomes increasingly clear that they stand for nothing. Second, the power of the mahallas needs to be tamed. In the most recent contest, they compiled the voter list, nominated the members of the polling station committees and ran the hustings meetings. We heard anecdotal evidence that they were also responsible in some areas for finding and choosing the candidates. To western eyes, the mahalla will look like a strange beast. It is a cross between a local council and a tenants committee. However, this underestimates just how much social control they have. We were told that a household that falls out with its local mahalla could find access to many local services restricted. Over the course of a number of elections, mahalla election controls could gradually be stripped back and handed to returning officers or the parties or simply done away with altogether. Finally, there needs to be more progress made in the area of media freedom. The semi-liberated blogosphere is a significant step forward, but its audience is very limited. Uzbekistan starts from a position of strength having managed such an even division of electoral coverage. But the media best serves its customers - the audience of voters - if it dives deeper and challenges candidates to speak up for their manifestos through probing questions. All candidates can still be treated equally and fairly, but a more confident media helps voters identify which are the stronger performers and which are weaker. In a country with a small oligarch class, the risk of descending into a Ukraine-style polarisation with each privately owned station promoting their own candidate and trashing all opponents is limited. In due course, there might also be debates in which more differences emerge between the party programmes, but this would be a cultural change in a country where the questioning of authority has always been a dangerous pursuit. Photo by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, under the following CC license [1] Referencing the popular phrase uttered by Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek the Next Generation and as used in subsequent social media memes.[2] OSCE/ODIHR, Republic of Uzbekistan, Parliamentary Elections 22 December 2019, ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report, May 2020,[3] Such as the Ease of Doing Business ranking:[4] Such as the Democracy Index:[5] The Economist’s country of the year, Which nation improved the most in 2019?, The Economist, December 2019, [post_title] => Uzbekistan’s slow path to democratisation [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => uzbekistans-slow-path-to-democratisation [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2021-01-29 17:46:23 [post_modified_gmt] => 2021-01-29 16:46:23 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw ))

Biden’s Democracy Summit

Democracy is not exactly seen as a sexy topic for world discussion. Every year, at least in normal times, there are economic summits and climate change summits and occasionally there…

Article by Alex Folkes

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