Gong’s Report: European Parliament elections

In its election report, Gong wrote that the European Parliament elections were conducted according to legal regulations and international good practice election standards. However, some shortcomings were noticed so Gong issued recommendations for the next election with the goal of improving the legal framework for conducting the election and improving the operations of responsible authorities.

The methodology of the election observation was aimed towards analysing the legal framework for conducting the election and the operations of responsible authorities, with special emphasis on misuse of public resources and the financing of the election campaigns.

Electoral laws are a solid basis for the democratic election execution, but worrying is the fact that only minor technical changes for the improvement of the election process were made to electoral legislation in the last 20 years. Because of that, the Republic of Croatia has significantly fallen behind the other member states of the European Union, but also many others. In that regard, Gong supports the SEC initiative for issuing a unified electoral law. Gong has been advocating for that for the last 15 years.

Although it was announced as an act that will improve the existing legal framework for financing the political activities, election campaigns and the referendums, the Political Activities and Election Campaign Financing Act represents a step backwards in the transparency of financing these types of activities and was not adopted in accordance with the international standards. The act does not regulate advertising on social media, even though they have an increasing influence in the election processes. It also enables multiple donations from the same party and abolishes the parties’ obligation to report how much of their own resources they invested in promoting a particular candidate. This significantly reduces the transparency of election campaign financing.

The Ministry of Public Administration and the State Electoral Commission use different methodologies in determining the overall number of the voters in the Republic of Croatia. Excluding the voters who have previously been actively registered abroad, but have not used their right to vote from the overall number of the registered voters by the State Electoral Commission had no legal grounds and unnecessarily raises suspicion regarding the promptness of the voters’ registry. Releasing the information from the closed voters’ registry in a closed format, as well as not releasing the number of voters by polling station by the Ministry of Public Administration before the election present  significant steps backwards in maintaining the reached levels of transparency of conducting the elections.

The authorities responsible for the executing and overseeing the elections acted according to their legal powers, but the proactive approach to solving some important electoral questions was absent in order to ensure the best quality of the election process.

Electoral committees and election boards conducted the election in accordance with the laws and regulations with a significantly lower number of irregularities. The SEC transparency could significantly be improved if they announced the meetings on time, published the logs and proactively published all the data in open format on their website. An active education of the voters and election boards was not present, which led to minor issues on the Election Day.

Inadequate legal framework on misuse of public resource causes the spreading in the use of “grey zone” by the election participants and inadequate reactions, interpretations and sanctions of the responsible authorities.

The ethics committee has not, in full, fulfilled its role because it did not, by a narrow interpretation of particular legal norms and inadequate knowledge of international standards and good practices, point to ever spreading and more and more creative ways of unethical behaviour during the election. In addition, the meeting of the Committee should be public, because then the direct explanation of the decisions would be eligible to a two-way communication with election participants and it would surely improve the role of the Ethics Committee as a sort of corrective of the ethical behaviour during the election.

Gong evaluated that the Council for electronic media did not proactively deal with the role of electronic media in the election campaign, justifying that with the fact that they are not legally obliged to do so. Despite the limitations, the Agency did participate in the social media monitoring within the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA), which is commendable. But, because the meetings were not announced in time, Gong renders the publicity of the work of this organisation inadequate.

Except for publishing the translation of the Statement 2/2019 on the use of personal data in the course of political campaigns, the AZOP did not publish any reaction or proactively acted in the context of protecting personal data during the European Parliament election.

HAKOM did not publish any opinions or solutions regarding the election advertising on their webpage or proactively issue recommendations on advertising via mail and telecommunication channels in the campaigns just before the European Parliament election.

Problems with the registration of the candidacy lists have not been recorded, but the fact that almost one fourth of the lists did not meet the legal requirements of the representation of the weaker gender is worrying. Gong invites the SEC and DORH to hand out penalty charges in accordance with the law to the authorised applicants of the mentioned candidacy lists.

The election campaign in Croatian was led correctly, without the unacceptable discrediting of election rivals with a few incidents involving calling to hate and violence. The acquisition of signatures of the two referendum initiatives during the election campaign overshadowed the needed debate on the important European questions

Problems in presenting the candidates and their programmes in the media were not recorded. However, the media attention was mainly focused on presenting the pre-election polls, while, for the future election campaigns for the EP elections should give more information on the European subjects to the voters and ensure the adequate media space for those subjects.

With the goal of improving the transparency in the work of the observers, the SEC should publish the numbers and types of registered observers in the elections. Compulsory instruction on observers restricts their freedom of movement, which is not in compliance with good international practices.

On the basis of around 100 non-anonymous reports on election irregularities from citizens and from the information from the media, we can conclude that the Election Day was calm with a democratic atmosphere, with minor procedural problems, mainly caused by inadequate voters’ and election boards’ education. The most serious and most numerous citizens’ reports pertained to telephone calls from the Bandić Milan 365 – Labour and Solidarity Party. Most citizens regarded the calls as political pressure. Gong calls for the relevant institutions to conduct inspection and give adequate sanctions. Procedures for the work of the election board after the polling stations closed were not adequately regulated by the Directory for the work of election boards and should be additionally specified and regulated by the compulsory instruction. In order for the election procedure to be more efficiently done on the Election Day, all the members of the election boards should undergo an education, with special emphasis on determining the results of the voting and proper packing of the election materials.

There were very few complaints in the election process, which shows good election organisation by the relevant bodies.

The analysis of the final financial reports showed that the financing of the election campaigns is still not transparent enough, which is, unfortunately, enabled by the Law. The IT system for supervising the political activities and election campaigns is a significant step forward towards clearer financial reports, although it is still not possible to analyse them in a single database. The overall amount spent on the election campaigns has increased three times, but most worrying is the fact that the exact purpose of the 40% of the funds paid to marketing agencies cannot be precisely determined. Because of the fact that disproportionately large sum was acquired through private donations (over 80%), Gong invites the SEC to thoroughly examine everything, in accordance with its authority. Moreover, the price lists for advertising in the election campaigns should be available to the public in a single database, and the media oversights should be treated as donations to the parties. Facebook and Google strides are a step towards transparency, but without more precisely regulated advertising on social media and digital platforms, and regulating all the data that needs to be stated in the financial reports, the cash flow in online election campaigns remains not transparent enough.

Gong recommendations for future elections, as well as the entire election report, can be found HERE.

Gong is a Centre of Knowledge in the area of Civil Activism and the Building of Democratic Institutions within the framework of Development Cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.