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The Future of European Electoral Support 

Global geopolitical, technological, and political developments are putting pressure on electoral processes worldwide. Support to electoral processes has historically been a cornerstone of European democracy support and with growing autocratisation it is just as relevant as ever. In its latest report, the European Democracy Hub gathers some of the foremost electoral experts to provide ideas for taking electoral support forward in the next decade

Elections are the key feature of democratic politics, for better and for worse. As billions of citizens around the world head to the polls in 2024, most attention will be focused on who wins and why. Yet, a rising number of elections around the world are disputed under unfair or increasingly inequitable conditions leading to opposition boycotts, increased polarisation and low government legitimacy.

Since the adoption of European Union guidelines on election assistance and observation in 2000, electoral support has been a cornerstone of European democracy support and a central instrument of EU external policy on account of both its political significance and the financial resources involved. Electoral support encompasses two key elements: election observation (independent information gathering and assessment of the election process) and election assistance (funding and technical support for the conduct of elections).

Today, this support is under pressure due to global geopolitical, technological, and political developments that directly impact the competitive environment of democratic politics and the management of electoral processes. Similar pressure is apparent in a whole swath of policy areas, from human rights to global trade. Given that the EU guidelines on elections were developed almost a quarter of a century ago, there is a need to reflect on how the EU and its member states can adapt their electoral support to meet these pressing challenges.

Electoral support faces new challenges

Countries are becoming less open to being observed from outside and even from their own citizens and civil society. Elections are also increasingly fought online, starting well before the official campaign period and using sophisticated targeting tactics that can be hard to monitor. And there is widespread concern about the use of new forms of artificial intelligence for electoral disinformation. At the same time, support to electoral authorities does not seem to have delivered the outcomes that had been anticipated, with observation missions frequently encountering the same systemic problems election after election. Electoral technical assistance is clearly hampered by the general trend towards autocratisation that has impacted many areas of politics such as civic space, media freedom, parliamentary oversight, and political party competition. This is shown, for example, by the fact that an increasing number of incumbent governments are finding that there are fewer repercussions for interfering with and even manipulating electoral management bodies than in the past. This set of challenges poses searching questions for the future of European support to electoral processes worldwide. 

How much is the EU spending on electoral support? 

Data from the European Democracy Hub, which re-categorises OECD data to provide greater clarity on democracy spending, shows that the EU spent 216 million dollars from 2014 to 2020 on election observation and just under 468 million dollars over the same period on election assistance. Due to the central role the EU institutions play in election observation, spending by European governments (EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and the UK) on observation was much lower in the same seven-year period – checking in at 68.8 million dollars. On the other hand, election assistance spending was much higher with the same governments spending 532.3 million dollars between 2014 and 2020. European states and institutions spend almost three and a half times more on election assistance than on observation. This is to be somewhat expected given that organising an election is a far more expensive endeavour than observing one, but it stands in stark contrast to the higher level of visibility and attention that is given to observation. This data suggests the need for more analysis and policy discussions devoted to election assistance. It also suggests that, while election observation is expensive, it packs a significant punch in terms of visibility for the EU. In any case, the amounts are significant and underline how important both election observation and assistance are for EU support to democracy worldwide.

The EU can point to many cases where its observation and assistance played an important role in improving the electoral process or contributed to help prevent the use of elections for autocratisation such as in East Timor, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Lebanon, the Maldives, and Zambia to name a few examples. One may quibble over the exact to which this is attributable to the EU’s contribution, but it is undeniable that the influence has been positive for democracy. It is also undeniable that electoral support provides an extremely visible example of European support to citizen aspirations for democracy worldwide and therefore serves as a vital soft power tool. Yet, the simple fact remains that despite the resources spent on electoral support, the quality of democracy is not improving in the aggregate.  

In the latest report of the European Democracy Hub on the Future of European Electoral Support, EPD brings together leading experts to explore ironies and dilemmas deriving from a worldwide trend of democratic backsliding, providing ideas for taking electoral support forward in the next decade. 

This introduction was written by Ken Godfrey, Executive Director of the European Partnership for Democracy.

The European Democracy Hub is a joint initiative implemented by the European Partnership for Democracy and Carnegie Europe.

Photo credits: ROMEO GACAD, Getty Images