The coronavirus disease COVID-19 has transformed labour markets in just a few weeks. It shattered global economy, suspended global trade, closed the borders, and made us reconsider the practical efficiency of health care system.
However, the field of human rights and political processes may undergo some irreversible changes.
In the context of discussions about the physical survival, it is rather premature to talk about having elections to local self-government in the coming autumn.
All things considered, it is not the ultimate survival need and development goal at the same time.
We got accustomed to democracy, whatever lame it might have been. However, the future holds a very different perspective for us.
When no one is sick, it is not critical to pick at the quality of health care services, to scrutinize whether the staff is qualified enough, or whether there is enough equipment and basic sanitation and cleaning materials.
When there is a risk for almost 400,000 citizens to get a virus in a 40-million country at the same time, one loses hope to rely on the immunity or on private medicine (for those who could afford it), or on the first-come-first-served waiting line at the doctor’s office.
When Russia had not yet committed aggression against Ukraine, the army would be taken as a luxury, an atavism, or a burden for the budget. Conversely, since 2014 it has become a mandatory frame for survival.
A strong state is not a luxury. It is not about a mythical “powerful hand,” either. In fact, in practice, it resorts to deceit and violence over their own population or citizens of the neighbouring states when no one is going to ask whether they want the “protection.”
Even in China, the police could have acted differently, when back on January, 3, the late 34-year-old doctor Li Wenliang from the Wuhan Central Hospital who died from the coronavirus infection was officially prohibited to make any statements about the new virus strain he detected.
Today, many countries assume the Chinese methods to fight the pandemics consequences – and not without reason. Whereas one of the scenarios was to prevent it.
SARS-CoV-2 is called by many public speakers, thinkers, and plain "TV experts" a "Black Swan" alluding to the same name book by Nassim Taleb. There, he described an event that would change global economy and history, but was impossible to predict.
The same author justified another popular statement: we are more impacted by the events that have never occurred rather than by those that have taken place.
Thus, as to the temporary suspension of rights – these are the processes that shall be predictable, commensurate with the risks stemming from the epidemics, and clearly regulated.
We may either try not to be looking into the future without democracy, rights and freedoms, and elections, or we might take clever steps to prevent it. Therefore, let us start with elections as a democratic institute.
Restrictions of rights and freedoms in order to protect citizens from the pandemics shall be introduced in line with the acting Constitution and the laws of Ukraine. Democracy is highly unpredictable. It is not because of its platitude, but because the authorities, the same as their separate branches presently sacralized by certain groups in our reality, shall act only within the powers assigned by the laws, and follow the procedures.
Some few weeks ago, deputies and experts racked their brains over a dilemma how to organize elections in the context when you do not have to finalize decentralization and the administrative territorial reform at the same time.
Constitution on Hold
Changes to the Constitution in two readings that are adopted at two sessions of the Verkhovna Rada would not have come into effect before the start of electoral process in September. The context was that the final text with amendments was not available, but the Parliament shall appoint the elections within 90 days before the election day, including also to the levels of councils that might no longer be provided by the finalized decentralization, such as district councils. Then, the Parliament started half-jokingly discussing various scenarios.
All of them had to address a number of issues, such as the incomplete reform that would have a direct impact on the powers of the newly elected local self-government bodies, and on the organization of elections. After all, the idea about enlargement of local communities and territorial-administrative units is part of the reform.
It is not a good practice to elect a local council or a head of hromada with certain powers, but redesign them later. It implies both an element of legal uncertainty that goes against a number of international standards and the de facto misleading of voters.
Nevertheless, the most illogical thing to do would be to finalize the enlargement of local communities post-elections, since it would result in a hundred-per-cent need to declare the new elections. Back and forth with a billion or so to organize the voting is the unimaginable luxury for us to indulge.
The Constitution is unambiguous and clear about the need to conduct the regular local elections on the last Sunday of October, on the fifth year of office of local self-government. No other way... Except for one.
Introduction of a legal regime of the state of emergency (or the martial law, under other circumstances) due to the pandemics.
It will lead to an explicit ban to introduce any changes to the Constitution or the electoral laws during this time, to conduct elections and referenda, to restrict the rights and powers of peoples’ deputies.
For the period of the state of emergency, the term of office of the representative local self-government bodies shall be extended, if expires. A piece of good news is that such restrictions are only valid within the set period, such as within 30 days on the national level, or within 60 days on the local level, one time extendable for 30 days more.
In fact, a much more worse scenario is not the introduced state of emergency, but its introduction in the time when it is not going to help solve a problem but rather act like implementing a political agenda.
In terms of the Constitution, the rights can be restricted as long as all the three following conditions are met: lawful procedures, legitimacy (need) for the decision and proportionality, when the usefulness of the decision outweighs the damages.
Voting rights are the formal part of checking the ballot paper. European Charter of Local Self-Government ratified by the Ukrainian Parliament in 1997 stipulates that local self-government bodies are an important pillar for any democratic regime, while the rights of citizens to participate in public administration is one of the democratic principles shared by all member-states of the Council of Europe.
Ukrainian government seems unlikely to have such a long-term plan for the after summer time as the introduction of the state of emergency. However, the reality might well be conducive to the decision as most logical at that time.
It is impossible to overstate the role of capable local self-government in overcoming crises or in due response to such challenges as the pandemics is.
Providing the country is not stable enough, and the executive power is in the state of turbulence, the quality of the horizontal power structure is no less important than the government as an entity professional and creative in its administrative decisions.
As to those who are going to fail now, they might altogether be negatively evaluated by voters in autumn, and vanish into thin air.
World, Coronavirus, and Elections
To have a general idea, it is highly useful to review world practices of fighting the pandemics consequences, policy statements of governments and plans for public policies to support business, to keep jobs, and to take public security measures.
A tectonic difference with the deep-pocketed countries is that their big businesses do not replace the government, and assist only occasionally, wherever they deem necessary. On the other hand, the government has systematically provided financial assistance, tax breaks or zero-interest loans to medium and small businesses.
Capacity of local self-government and support thereto is a no less important investment into the development and security of the state than support to medium and small businesses abroad.
The forthcoming local elections is quite a bit of a test for local self-government who could earn their pre-election assets on the grounds of overcoming pandemics consequences, or lose any chance to be re-elected, alike.
Olha Aivazovska specially for УП.