The Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic has attacked us very badly. It has not only tested the health systems but it has also tested the functioning of democratic systems all over the world. The elections that were supposed to be conducted during the months of February – March got postponed. As per reports 71 nations postponed their national or provincial elections. India too postponed some of its elections at the grassroots level. Rajasthan postponed the elections of 129 urban local bodies, Maharashtra postponed elections of 12,668 Gram Panchayats. Thus it becomes very evident that the pandemic was a major blow towards democracy.
Quoting the very famous line by the very best statesman of our country Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee – “सरकारे आएगी,जाएगी, पार्टियाँ बनेगी,बिगड़ेगी, मगर ये देश रहना चाहिए। इसका लोकतन्त्र अमर रहना चाहिए”। Translating that in English, it basically means that whatever so may happen, governments and political parties will come and go but our motherland should always exist and the great democracy of our nation should remain immortal. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding till when this pandemic will last. But it’s not possible for the democratic nations to stall their democratic functions. The country, the countrymen, the system needs to adapt to these tough situations. To ensure that the democracy keeps functioning and to prevent the democratic system from dying out, India has decided to hold the much anticipated Bihar elections amidst pandemic. The dates are out. Considering the impact of the virus in India, lot of protocols have been set to ensure that the elections are conducted smoothly. Much inspiration and reference can be drawn from the way South Korea conducted its general elections in the pandemic
UNDERSTANING THE SOUTH KOREAN MODEL OF CONDUCTING ELECTIONS
The one country that comes to our mind when anyone talks about handling the covid crisis successfully is the country of South Korea. South Korea held its national elections in the month of March, when it was the second most corona affected country. It had reported over 10,000 cases and had recorded 2000 deaths. Even during these tough times the total voting turnout of 66.2% which was the highest since 192 elections was observed
Numerous protocols had been framed. First was encouraging early voting in order to reduce the number of voters expected to gather at polling stations on the Election Day. Nearly 26.7% of the total eligible voters casted their votes early. On election dates, the poll workers checked the temperature of each and every voter. Voters possessing temperature over 37.5 degrees Celsius or any other respiratory symptoms or issues were redirected to special polling booths where extra precautions were followed. The voters were told to sanitize their hands properly, wear plastic gloves and face masks and practice social distancing. The voters who were kept under quarantine were allowed to vote only after official voting hours were complete.
20,000 additional polling booth workers were deployed compared to last year. The poll workers, the election observers, media, journalists were made to wear masks and gloves. Voting stations were regularly ventilated and sanitized. The voters were informed about the code of conduct through televisions, hoardings and posters across the country. The polling station activities were live streamed during early voting as well as on voting days.
The fact being the National Election Commission of South Korea was extremely successful in conducting these elections and the good part being the south Korean health authorities confirmed that the country did not see any surge in covid cases and transmissions because of parliamentary elections.
PROTOCOLS FOR BIHAR ELECTIONS
In order to conduct the elections without causing any surge in covid cases, the Election Commission of India has set a lot of protocols and safety guidelines. Much relation can be drawn from the way South Korea conducted its elections.
The Bihar elections will be held in three phases. First phase of the election is on 28th November, second phase is on 3rd November and the third phase is on 8th November. From election campaigning, nomination process till vote counting, the election commission has framed a number of guidelines which are to be followed by the voters as well as the politicians.
A) Guidelines to be followed by the contesting candidates
The representatives have to adhere to a number of rules and regulations. These rules and regulations deal with how the candidates shall file a nomination notice to how the candidates shall engage in election campaigning. With regards to nomination notice, the candidates have been given an option to file their nomination and pay the deposit money online. Those who wish to file the nomination offline can do so as well by submitting before the Returning Officer. But while following the offline procedure the number of people and the number of vehicles that can accompany the candidate is limited to two. The chamber of the Returning Officer should have enough space so that social distancing norms can be followed properly.
When it comes to campaigning, the political parties cannot spend the funds recklessly. For door to door campaigning only 5 people can accompany the contesting candidate excluding the security personnel. For road shows, the convey of vehicles should be broken at 5 vehicles and not the usual 10. The distance between two sets of convey should be of half an hour instead of 100 meters. The rallies should be conducting keeping in mind general protocols like social distancing and sanitization. The district election officer and the nodal district health official shall make sure that all covid related guidelines are being followed.
B) Guidelines to be followed by the voters
On voting days, the voters will have to wear face masks and gloves all the times. They will have to sanitize their hands from time to time. The election booths shall make the necessary arrangements for masks, gloves and sanitizers if the voters forget or fail to carry with them. The voters will have the stand in the earmarked circle maintaining a 6ft distance between them. Before entering the polling booth, the temperature of each and every voter will be checked and each voter will have to go through a thermal scanner.
Covid patients that are quarantined shall be made to vote at the final hour of voting under the supervision of health officers with extra precautions being taken. Before entering the polling booth, the temperature of each and every voter will be checked and each voter will have to go through a thermal scanner. If the temperature of any voter is above the set norms of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, then the voter shall be made to vote during the final hour of voting along with COVID patients. Postal ballot facility i.e. voting through posts is also made available for voters who are disabled, above the age of 80, are covid positive or under home/institutional quarantine and are employed under essential services.
C) Guidelines to be followed by the polling officers, polling agents and security personnel
A separate training session in a decentralized manner for the polling officers shall be organized. The polling officers and security personnel will have to wear masks, gloves, face shields and sanitize their hands regularly. On certain occasions it will be compulsory for them to wear PPE kits as well. The polling officers will have to make sure that posters regarding social distancing norms and other such norms have been put up inside polling booths. The booths shall be sanitized properly before and after voting process. A help desk for distributing tokens will be set up so that the voters wont have to wait in a queue. Waiting areas separate for men and women shall be set up so that the voters participate in the voting activity without any safety concerns. The number of voters per polling booth has been reduced as well. Earlier it was 1500 people/polling booth now its at 1000 people/polling booth. This means that the number of polling booths shall be increased to avoid violation of covid guidelines.
For the process of vote counting not more 7 tables shall be set up at counting centers which shall be sanitized and disinfected before and after counting. Also the counting results shall be displayed on a large screen to avoid any congestion. Democracy needs to function. But the process needs to be done with a lot of precautions. India is currently has second highest number of covid cases. If we don’t adhere to the guidelines specified by the MoHFW and ECI during the voting process, things might get worse for our country. It is the moral responsibility of the voters to comply with the rules and co-operate with the election officers to ensure smooth functioning of the voting process and democracy.
Comparative Case Study – South Korea Legislative Elections During COVID-19 by Healthy Elections