Public trust in democracy – how did we lose it and what can we do to get it back

In commemorating EPDE's 10th anniversary, EPDE conducted a panel discussion in Warsaw to discuss the declining trust in democratic institutions and the future role of election observers in Europe.

All panelists stressed the lowered confidence in democratic institutions across the region and insufficient action by democratic governments and the European Union to counter these trends.

As main drivers of the decline in trust they identified the polarization of the political field, hijacking of public institutions, and a lack of comprehension of political processes by the public opening the doors to disinformation and manipulation.

Addressing these issues, citizen election observers play an increasingly crucial role for trust in electoral institutions and defending democracy.


Securitization of democracy and election integrity


Amidst the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine neglecting the threat to democracy was becoming a matter of security, as Levan Natroshvili, Deputy Director at ISFED, emphasized: "We can see today, autocratic states are a threat. Not only to their citizens, but also to their neighbours and the world".

Ukraine and its history of fighting against autocratic political figures showed how free and fair elections are key for securing political rights and the security of society, Olga Aivazovska, Chairperson of the Board at Civil Network OPORA, underlined:

"they are defending political rights, election observation is not about collecting data or writing reports, but fighting for a better life in your countries. The war against Ukraine has shown that free and fair elections are more than important, they are vital for security and must be defended."


Challenges of domestic election observers


While traditional domestic election observation focused on monitoring election days, Zsofia Banuta, co-founder of the Hungarian watchdog organization Unhack Democracy pointed out: "We now live in a permanent state of campaigning", thus emphasizing the need of a comprehensive and continuous examination of electoral processes, use of public finances, access to resources like state media, and beyond.

This proves difficult in a country like Hungary without regulative basis on citizen election observation: "There is no election observation in Hungary today," she added.

In Georgia, the legislative basis for election observation was good in theory, but problematic in practice, Levan Natroshvili reported. This was due to politicized public institutions painting non-partisan organizations as mere enemies of the ruling party and excluding civil society actors from participating in electoral reform:

"It goes as far as planning to introduce a foreign agent law [...] the space for civil society monitoring of elections is shrinking."


Where to go from here? Election observation increases trust in democratic processes


Election observation can help to rebuild the trust in democratic elections if they themselves earned the trust of the citizens. OPORA for instance became a trusted voice in evaluating electoral processes in Ukraine turning citizen election observers into stakeholders in elections.

Corrosive effects of political polarization can be tackled by non-partisan election observers if they prove to be a voice of reason caring solely about the democratic process rather than election outcomes. Zofia Lutkiewicz, President of the Political Accountability Foundation: "This could help increase public trust in the process, especially in a country like Poland where people do not know whom to trust any longer."

As for Georgia, Levan Natroshvili urged "to resist the temptation to be part of this polarization when faced by attacks by one political side is the number one challenge to citizen election observers. Instead, we must focus on professionalism, communicate with people and strengthen links to the public."

Zsofia Banuta called on the EU to assume more responsibility for safeguarding democracy among its Member States like Hungary: "democracy is something that needs to be invested in. It is a shame that the US is still the biggest donor for pro-democracy projects."

Olga Aivazovska appealed to international organizations to be more brave when facing signs of democratic decline: "EU waited too long and left Hungary to develop into an authoritarian state. [...] Democracy is an empty word if you are not fighting for it."


The public panel discussion took place on 13 December 2022 in Warsaw.

Speakers of the panel:

Opening remarks:




Stefanie Schiffer, Chair of the Board, European Platform for Democratic Elections

Cornelius Ochmann, Director, Board member, The Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation

Zofia Lutkiewicz, President, Political Accountability Foundation (Poland)

Olga Aivazovska, Chairperson of the Board, Civil Network OPORA (Ukraine)

Zsofia Banuta, Co-founder, Unhack Democracy (Hungary)

Levan Natroshvili, Deputy Director, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (Georgia)

Krzysztof Izdebski, Expert on transparency in public life and elections, Stefan Batory Foundation

This event was kindly co-hosted by the Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation.

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