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Op-Ed: Yugoslavia and Europe's Elections Deficit

Yugoslavia and Europe's Elections Deficit
October 2000

This has been a remarkable and hopeful month in the Balkans. And with Vojislav Kostunica now installed as Yugoslav President following Slobodan Milosevic's triumphal ouster on the streets of Belgrade, in the months to come international attention will doubtless be focused on the political and economic reforms desperately needed in a country laid low by years of stagnation, corruption and destruction.

We would do well, however, not to neglect the political spark that ignited Yugoslavia's revolution - a contested election result - and the broader issues it raises. Wind back to the evening of September 24th. With polling stations closed in Yugoslavia and unofficial returns leaking out, it rapidly became clear that Kostunica had decisively beaten Milosevic in the first round of presidential elections.

But by how much? Citing its own figures, after some delay the official electoral commission eventually announced that a second round of voting must be held. Based on returns from its own agents and domestic non-partisan observers located at polling stations around the country the opposition DOS coalition insisted that Kostunica had polled over 50 per cent - enough, in other words, to secure a first-round victory under Yugoslav electoral rules.

The international response to this electoral stand-off wavered between recognizing Kostunica's first-round victory and suggesting that he fight - and, presumably fingers crossed, win - a second round with Milosevic. But why, one may ask, this mixed reaction? This was not the first time Milosevic had tried electoral trickery. In the case of the autumn 1996 municipal elections, eventually he even conceded that (partial) electoral fraud had taken place. More broadly, too, examples of governments treating national election commissions as little more than their puppets remain all too common in post-communist countries.

Yugoslavia's recent electoral debacle indicates a need for Europe's established democracies: to re-emphasize and internalize the existence of a normative framework guiding the conduct of elections; and to build their own network of independent expert entities - electoral management bodies (EMBs) - to reinforce and further elaborate standards for electoral processes.

  • Electoral principles and criteria. Curiously these democracies, which view themselves as prime movers in the global trend towards democracy through elections, have not as yet sufficiently articulated the principles governing the conduct of elections on their home patch. Both individually and collectively they should do so, in the latter case within the regional framework of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

    This would provide them not only with a clear moral basis on which to respond the next time a Milosevic - or looking ahead a Lukasenko of Belarus or Aliev of Azerbaijan - opts to try and fix or otherwise manipulate an election process. It would also add an independent, professional voice to the ranks of those responding to future electoral manipulations.

  • Strengthening election machinery. In Europe as in other parts of the world, the sensible way to deal with problems that arise in the conduct of elections is to ensure that management of the process rests in the hands of independent, professional bodies of experts, or at a minimum, inclusive, multi-party electoral commissions. Hitherto in Europe's established democracies, the need for independent management of the electoral process has been dealt with by the fact that elections take place in the context of consolidated multi-party political systems: electoral integrity and independence, in other words, is simply viewed as part of the existing political furniture.

    In reality, however, this independence is not entirely self-evident. Indeed the somewhat uncomfortable fact is that in almost all established European democracies, management of the electoral process is in the hands of some part of government, even if precisely which part varies - from France's centralized Conseil Constitutionnel and local council officials in the UK to the tax authorities in Sweden.

Faced with the more fragile political picture in other regions of the world where the momentum towards electoral democracy has gathered speed over the last decade, the case for establishing independent electoral management structures, at both the national and regional levels, has grown in both strength and importance. As a West European, indeed, it seems particularly strange that Europe remains the only continent where an EMB network has yet to be set up.

Concrete moves towards the setting up both of professional national electoral bodies and an overarching regional network of EMBs covering Europe's consolidated democracies would serve a number of purposes. First, it would contribute significantly to the impetus towards professionalization of elections. Second, the current lack of an expert electoral network covering Europe's developed democracies means these countries are not enriching the broader debate on electoral issues as much as they might. (And, some might add, means appearing to call for the adoption of standards in Europe's emerging democracies which they themselves have not fully institutionalized.)

Third, by putting the business of setting standards and codifying normative electoral practices in the hands of a network of independent experts, it would provide a clear mechanism for responding to future Milosevic-style electoral manipulations. This would, moreover, allow for that response to assume the coherent and robust form implied by real commitment to the democratic principles agreed by OSCE member governments a decade ago in the Paris Charter.

And if the lessons drawn from the Yugoslav elections by the international community, starting with the OSCE, result in decisive movement in this direction, then the citizens of Europe's other surviving dictatorships and semi-dictatorships, no less than the people of Serbia, will have extra cause to be thank-ful for the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh is Secretary-General of International IDEA (The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance).

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