Now more than ever we need politics to work and our ruling classes to be able to do it. It is a matter of democratic resilience. Indeed, the magnitude of the tasks our states are now facing, from managing the health crisis to mobilising resources to spur reconstruction, put pressure on our political institutions, especially the collective ones (parliaments or national assemblies). The obvious health concerns that arose with the spread of Covid-19 could hamper and even block parliaments’ activities. As such, the state of emergency and the general lockdown currently adopted in many countries around the world could also affect parliaments and national assemblies in their gatherings and their functions. For example, the Italian parliament reduced the agenda of its sessions and will work only one day out of seven; the European Parliament has suspended all its normal sessions; in the United States (USA) at least 26 legislative sessions have been postponed; China has postponed its annual parliamentary session for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. The pandemic is also affecting the electoral process in many countries around the world. Elections have been postponed in more than 20 countries, including parliamentary elections in Iran (second round), local elections in France (second round), a constitutional referendum (Russia), primary elections in several US states. Unlike in authoritarian regimes, the spread of coronavirus is posing new challenges to the basic procedural principles of any democratic regime. For how long can our policies be ruled by special decrees with limited legislative discussion and scrutiny? Are there alternative solutions, for example involving digital technologies, to overcome this democratic impasse?
What is at stake is the resilience of democratic regimes, which among other principles should feature accountability. For example, this can refer to what electors expect from the elected (vertical) or to what the executive has to answer for to other political institutions (horizontal). In times of crisis, postponing an election is in general an event that constitutional orders normally foresee. It is a safeguard principle when constitutional or legal provisions cannot be met because of natural disasters, epidemics or conflict. For example, in 2014 Liberia postponed its presidential election due to the Ebola crisis. Differently, horizontal accountability is not periodic but constant in nature. Therefore, due to forceful limitations, governments around the world are figuring out solutions to overcome such impasses, including digital ones. For example, the last European Union summit was held via videoconference; the same solution was also adopted for the first video plenary session of the European Parliament, which had to vote for some emergency measures. This was the first time that the EU Parliament held a plenary session in videoconference and MEPs used electronic "tokens" to verify identities during votes.
The need to rely on digital technologies to make politics work rekindles public discussions about their security in different countries. As a matter of fact, cyber threats are growing and becoming more and more sophisticated. Public institutions are among the favourite targets for different malign actors, including hacktivists and state-sponsored hacking groups. In the US the House of Representatives recently published a report on “Voting Options During the Covid-19 Pandemic” where it is affirmed that “Although off-the-shelf products exist to allow a member to videoconference his/her vote, for example, they have not been tested under the sort of pressure they would face from enemy states or other bad actors trying to force the system offline or to prevent individual members from accessing it”. This could generate detrimental effects for electoral integrity and, in turn, for the legitimacy of political institutions, for the quality of democracy and international credibility.
Nevertheless, the times we are facing are forcing us, and our political class, to find new solutions to keep politics working and to avoid worsening the crisis of legitimacy currently hitting representative institutions in democratic regimes. E-voting alternatives should be really considered as a valuable option for parliaments and national assemblies (including committees and other meeting forms) to be used in case of emergency. Safe solutions – such as distributed ledger technologies (DLT) associated with biometric authentication, such as fingerprint scanners or facial recognition – for small networks exist. It may take time to achieve this goal both in legal and technological changes. For example, not all constitutional orders foresee e-voting for representative institutions. Moreover, from a technical standpoint, the transition must be securely tested and implemented. But achieving democratic resilience by allowing representative institutions to work in any condition is a key component for the future of our democracy. We do not know for how long we will be in lockdown and when our “demos” will be back to business as usual, or when the next black swan will endanger our representative institutions. This crisis abruptly recalled to everyone the importance of the state. In many countries it has a democratic nature and accountability is one of its founding principles. Therefore, missing the opportunity to demonstrate that democratic regimes “can do it” could probably have worrisome and detrimental consequences for both their domestic and international positions.