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Election largely peaceful but held in uneven playing field – EU observers

Though the 16 November presidential election was largely peaceful and “technically well-managed”, unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources and media bias resulted in an uneven playing field, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) concluded.

Chief Observer Marisa Matias presenting the mission’s preliminary findings today said the playing field in the traditional and online media was affected by instances of bias, hate speech and disinformation.

“It was further affected by the misuse of state resources by both frontrunners and the absence of campaign finance regulations,” she said.

EU parliamentarian Isabel Santos who led a delegation that observed the mission’s findings said: “We have observed well organised and peaceful elections. However, action is needed to reinforce the legal framework, in particular regarding campaign finance transparency, and to level the playing field for candidates and parties in the media.”

Noting an increase of one million voters since the 2015 elections, Matias said that, however, some 180,000 to 200,000 voters who turned 18 in the interim were disenfranchised for this year’s election.

On the campaign front, despite a small number of violent incidents and reported threats, said Matias, campaign on the ground was peaceful and calm.

“National security was a prominent theme with strong nationalist rhetoric. This also brought religious and ethnic rifts to the fore,” she said.

Both leading candidates made “extensive use” of traditional media with a heavy presence in both television and print media through paid advertising, said the Chief Observer.

“There was a significant gap in resources between the two main candidates and the others, the vast majority of whom were scarcely visible,” she said.

Matias also noted a lack of transparency in campaign spending.

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“With no limits on campaign advertising spending, coverage in traditional and online media was highly monetised,” she said.

“The media environment is characterised by a high concentration of ownership divided largely along political lines, which significantly influences content. Secondly, the Election Commission has constitutional power to issue guidelines to all media – state and private – but only state media have a legal duty to comply. Thirdly, state media kept to their legal requirement to allocate free time to candidates. Fourthly, there was a lack of in-depth and and critical editorial analysis, in particular, broadcast media,” she added.

With regard to social media, Matias said, damaging online environments distorted reality and curbed voter access to factual information and political opinions, an important element for making a fully informed choice.

“Among the social media platforms, Facebook was a prime contributor to the crafting of political narratives in the public space and to setting the electoral agenda. However, Facebook did not take appropriate measures to ensure that [candidates] adhered to campaign silence rules,” she said.

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