It is now less than six months until the upcoming European Parliament elections – scheduled for May 23rd, 2019 – which looks heavily encroaching on the collective consciousness of many important EU stakeholders. Mainstream political actors are fearful of the likely populist advances in seat number, media and civil society are wary of the campaign types that we can expect in forthcoming months, while the so-called ordinary citizens seem to be falling everywhere on the spectrum from “utterly apathetic about politics” to “gilets jaunes”.
It is no secret that the upcoming elections are coming in the heels of a significant turn in international politics, which is of course inexorably tied with shifts in political power at the national level. EU Member States are no exception, and though they may enjoy some greater measure of stability as a result of large political blocs at the EP level. Furthermore, the populist surge has left very few Member States untouched and many in them are expecting the upcoming elections to be a real challenge in future EU political-economic model. Indeed, the upcoming elections may prove to be critical in the sense that much hinges upon them.
Yet, within all the anxiety (or expectations) about the elections outcomes, less attention seems to be paid to the campaign/elections procedures, and much deserves to be said. Transparency of campaign funding, the possibilities for foreign influence, cyber-security and media responsibility towards citizens are all issues that should be addressed. The framework for the transparency of the election procedure as a whole should be carefully monitored and strengthened.
Firstly, citizens should be systematically informed and educated about what the European Parliament elections entail and what the role of the EP is in the decision that shape their everyday lives. Campaign finances need to be regulated in order to limit, regulate or ban campaign funding from abroad, in order to prevent the misuse of political funding. Strict caps should be also placed on campaign funding in each Member State individually, in order to rule out the possibilities of excessive corporate or otherwise extraneous influence. This is especially important for countries where some political options could mount campaigns with disproportionately affluent and powerful hidden backers.
To this end, mechanisms of political campaigns oversight should be systematically strengthened, enabling oversight of national Central Election Commissions into campaign finances, as the potentially most corruption-prone area in all of election-dom. Further, the commissions themselves need to connect and exchange experiences, as the risks facing the elections are going to be both comparable and simultaneous. Data from candidates and their backers should be available publicly, in open file formats and as uniform as possible.
Finally, the media. Traditional “big” media – those with a reputation for trustworthy and civically-minded reporting – especially have a responsibility to inform citizens in a responsible fashion, providing consistently verifiable information; to challenge and analyse candidates on their merits, without resorting to fear-mongering. In addition, giving a voice to the brand of discriminatory populist rhetoric that is employed by some political actors in Europe today must be taken into account carefully.
Most importantly, EU citizens need to be even more critical of bad practices that threaten to hijack democratic processes, both nationally and transnationally.
All of these recommendations, as well as their analytical backing, can be found in GONG’s policy paper entitled Voting Rights, Transparency and the Challenges of European Parliament Elections, available here (in Croatian).