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As Countries Emerge From COVID-19 Lockdowns, Debates Emerge On How, When To Hold Elections

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A woman leaves a voting booth to cast her ballot for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Seoul on April 10.

From Russia, Iran, and the Balkans to presidential primaries in 16 U.S. states, elections around the world have been postponed by coronavirus restrictions.

But as the lockdowns are slowly being lifted, political battle lines are being drawn in many countries over how and when polling stations should reopen.

Since late February, more than 50 countries have pushed back dates for nationwide, regional, or local elections.

Postponed ballots include Iran's April 17 second-round parliamentary vote, legislative elections on April 12 in North Macedonia, and Serbia's April 26 general elections.

European lockdowns had already begun by March 17, when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that set April 22 as the date for a nationwide vote on changes to the country's constitution, though he said the date could be changed.

Term limits in force under the constitution bar Putin from seeking reelection in 2024, but one of the proposed amendments would allow him to run in 2024 and again in 2030, meaning that he could potentially remain president until 2036.

But Putin announced on March 25 that the nationwide vote would be postponed, and a new date has not been set. Some analysts have even suggested it may not be held as Russia struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Russia has also postponed all local and regional elections across the country -- more than 90 public ballots -- that had been planned from April 5 through June 23.

By-elections in Pakistan were delayed in March along with Armenia's April 5 referendum on changes to the Constitutional Court.

Dates for local elections have also been pushed back in Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, and Romania.

Belgrade Delays And Debates

In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic is facing a possible opposition boycott of parliamentary and local elections that could foreshadow an even deeper political crisis.

On March 15, when Belgrade declared a state of emergency over the pandemic, the country was in the midst of preelection campaigning for general elections scheduled for April 26.

On March 16, Serbia's State Election Commission halted all election activities.

But Vucic, leader of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, has been accused of using his daily official appearances for self-promotion and to support his political allies in the vote.

After Vucic traveled personally to Novi Pazar to deliver hospital equipment and hold a press conference, one of the town's five deputy mayors, Emir Asceric, accused the president of staging a covert campaign event.

Asceric wrote on Facebook that Vucic and his party were "more concerned with themselves and with politics" than dealing with the public health emergency.

"The word 'abuse' is too weak to describe this active political self-promotion in the midst of a state of emergency and a dangerous pandemic," he wrote.

Political observers say they expect Serbia’s ruling party to come out on top if the vote is held on its rescheduled date of June 21 and they say the Serbian Progressive Party will benefit from the elections being held relatively soon.

With the early general elections, Vucic’s ruling party can benefit more from the popularity with the government’s coronavirus measures -- including a 11,750-Serbian-dinars (about $108) economic stimulus check for every citizen and state help to pay minimum wages to people facing financial difficulties.

WATCH: Supporters of Serbia's opposition Freedom and Justice Party defied a COVID-19 lockdown curfew and took to the streets of the capital, Belgrade.

Serbia Opposition Protest Breaks COVID-19 Lockdown
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Political analysts say keeping the polls closed in Serbia until late in 2020 would have risked having an election in the midst of an anticipated recession. They say that would benefit opposition parties.

Parliamentary speaker Maja Gojkovic, a member of Vucic's ruling party, rejected calls from Bosko Obradovic, a leader of the opposition Alliance For Serbia, for the elections to be delayed until autumn, adding that doing so would violate Serbia’s constitution.

Opposition parties have threatened to boycott the early elections over accusations that there will not be a level playing field for the campaign.

Skopje's Snap Elections

North Macedonia disbanded its parliament in February and called early elections on April 12 in what was seen as a setback for the country's aspirations to join the EU.

Skopje locked down all electoral activities and postponed the ballot just two days before the formal start of campaigning.

Ironically, pressure on Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski’s center-left Social Democratic Union (SDSM) has declined since then due to progress on Skopje's EU membership bid.

As in Serbia, the deadlines for rescheduled elections in North Macedonia will automatically continue after the country emerges from its state of emergency. Officials suggest that will happen in mid-May, provided public-health conditions allow.

A woman walks in front of the EU office decorated with Macedonian and EU flags and their logo "EU for You" in Skopje.
A woman walks in front of the EU office decorated with Macedonian and EU flags and their logo "EU for You" in Skopje.

Whenever the election is rescheduled, it is expected to be a closely fought battle between SDSM and the center-right, nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE party led by Hristijan Mickoski.

Like the ruling party in Serbia, Spasovski's party is expected to benefit more if elections are held sooner rather than later. Some political analysts say the VMRO-DPMNE could benefit more from polls staged in the autumn when economic conditions could deteriorate.

Observers also say Spasovski's party could use concerns about the possibility of another deadly outbreak of the coronavirus to push for an earlier date.

Poland's Postal Vote

The May 10 presidential election in Poland became a bizarre ballot in which polling stations remained closed and official turnout was zero after a political crisis over how to conduct a legitimate election in the midst of the pandemic.

The presidential vote was formally neither postponed nor canceled, because the government and opposition were unable to agree on a constitutional and safe solution.

Parliament has passed legislation charging the post office with carrying out the ballot. But agreement has not been reached on a date.

The government wanted an election before June, but opposition parties say that's too soon.

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The timing of Poland's election became an issue after coronavirus lockdown orders undermined campaigning and prevented candidates from holding public rallies.

Initially, Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party wanted to keep the original May 10 first-round vote, which it said could be conducted safely using the postal system.

But the government's junior coalition partner balked at the idea, worried about potential fraud and technical pitfalls.

Postal officials are now preparing for the official ballot papers to be mailed to the homes of some 30 million registered voters.

Voters would cast their ballots in special boxes set up in neighborhoods across Poland for collection by postal workers.

Opposition parties, international election observers, and European Union officials have noted the difficulties of having "free and fair" elections by mail.

The opposition has also accused the PiS of putting its own political needs ahead of the public health, and of failing to adhere to the rule of law.

Poland's opposition says a speedy vote gives an unfair advantage to incumbent President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the PiS, who has remained in the public eye on state television to speak about the government's coronavirus strategy, while the nine other candidates could not campaign.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski admits Duda could lose the lead he has in opinion polls if the election is delayed until autumn, when a possibly worsened economic situation is felt by voters.

Success In South Korea

Of the 20 countries that pushed ahead with public votes scheduled in March and April, South Korea is widely seen as the country that carried out a nationwide election most responsibly in the midst of the pandemic.

In fact, voter turnout of 66 percent for the parliamentary elections on April 15 was the highest in nearly three decades.

More than one-quarter of South Korea’s 44 million voters cast their ballots early -- taking pressure off of polling stations on election day.

Voters who did cast their ballots at polling stations were handed face masks and gloves, just as candidates had done to campaign.

The voting booths in South Korea's elections were regularly disinfected and voters stood far apart as they waited in line to vote. The temperatures of voters were taken at the door, with anybody with a fever voting in separate booths.

South Korea never imposed the kind of strict nationwide lockdowns seen in other countries. But even sick voters who'd placed themselves under self-quarantine were able to go to the polls to vote after 6 p.m. on election day under special conditions just for them.

Numerous observers point to South Korea as an example of how elections elsewhere in the world -- including the United States -- could be carried out safely and responsibly.

'Fiasco' In Wisconsin

The U.S. presidential election is still on schedule for November 3.

But primaries that determine the candidates for each party have been suspended since March, when a wave of states began delaying the votes due to the coronavirus.

The state of Wisconsin pushed forward with its Democratic Party primary on April 7 -- along with several state votes -- after legal challenges against staging the election in the midst of a pandemic were rejected by a U.S. District Court.

That ruling recognized that holding the vote on schedule would create "unprecedented burdens" for voters, election workers, and state officials.

U.S. District Judge William Conley pushed the election back until April 13 so that voters asking to cast their ballots by mail would have time to receive and return their ballots.

But the court ruled that it was up to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, and state lawmakers to reschedule the vote.

Evers initially said he didn't have the authority to postpone the elections and called for the Republican-controlled state legislature to cancel in-person voting and extend the deadline for mail-in voting to late May.

But lawmakers rejected his request -- forcing the vote to go ahead. But Evers issued an executive order on April 6 calling for the election to be delayed by two months. That order was blocked the same day by the state's Supreme Court.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Judge Conley's ruling, pushing the election back to the original date of April 7.

On election day, officials in Milwaukee said they could only open five of 180 polling stations because most poll workers were over the age of 60 and were sent home as being at risk of becoming infected.

Some 12,000 Wisconsin voters who'd applied to vote by mail did not receive their ballots by election day.

Meanwhile, even though voters were forced to risk their health by going to polling stations, people stood in long lines to cast their ballots.

Weeks later, health officials in Milwaukee alone tracked down at least 40 cases in which voters had become infected by the coronavirus while going to vote.

Critics see Wisconsin's April 7 vote as a fiasco with important lessons about how the U.S. presidential election should be carried out in November.

They say state governments and federal officials need to take urgent action now to prepare for a massive amount of mail voting, to protect the health of election workers and of the voters coming to polling stations, and to ensure that citizens are not denied their right to vote in a contest likely pitting incumbent Donald Trump against former Vice President Joe Biden as his main competitor.

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