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Monday, 1 February 2021

Can elections bring (real) change? Lessons learned and prospects for the Western Balkans

The second webinar of the SEESOX Seminar Series Hilary Term 2021 was held on 27 January 2021, asking “Can elections bring (real) change? Lessons learned and prospects for the Western Balkans”. It was chaired by Tena Prelec (University of Oxford) and it brought together Florian Bieber (Graz University), Donika Emini (Civikos Platform), Borisa Falatar (Nasa Stranka), Vujo Ilic (CRTA, Serbia), and Jovana Marovic (Politikon Network, Montenegro).

Tena Prelec set the stage by noting the frustration felt by those who study and live in South-Eastern Europe that nothing brings about fundamental change and elections seem to legitimize the status quo. She gave the examples of Serbia and Montenegro, which have been downgraded from semi-democratic to hybrid regimes by Freedom House in 2020 (a hybrid regime, according to their definition, is a democracy which only meets the minimum standards for the selection of national leaders). However, recent events have challenged this assumption. She gave the counterexamples of the August-elections in Montenegro that ended the thirty-year rule of Milo Dukanovic, and the parliamentary and municipal elections in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina that challenge this notion that elections do not really bring about change. Asking “Even when things seemingly change, how long will they last?”, “If this change ends up being disappointing, will there be a backlash?”, and “What have the reactions of citizens been to the change?”, Prelec handed over to the speakers to unpack these questions.

Jovana Marovic presented the results of an anlysis she had conducted with Prelec, based on a BiEPAG-EFB public opinion survey that was carried out on a representative sample of people from different Western Balkan countries. She first explained the factors which influenced the victory of the opposition party in the elections in Montenegro in August 2020. These were: the opposition’s ability to organise themselves meaningfully, in three groupings for the first time, and to mobilize the citizens to vote for them, which resulted in the high turnout of 76%; the great dissatisfaction in the country because of widespread corruption, organized crime, and vandalism; and the influence and the active role of the Serbian Orthodox church that helped one of the opposition blocs with door-to-door campaigning. Marovic pointed out that the public opinion survey shows a striking 80% rate now of Montenegrins believing that the government can be changed through elections. This, she suggested, signals that it can also happen in the rest of the Western Balkans, although this percentage is currently lower in Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia. She moved on to comment on the reasons for the low confidence in these countries, the first of which is the obstacle to the election process presented by pressure on voters. Citizens feel they will lose some benefits such as employment by public authorities unless they vote for the ruling party. The second reason is that the opposition often uses boycotts as a tool to demonstrate their dissatisfaction, but around 50% of citizens do not believe this is an effective instrument to influence the process of democratic decision and to put pressure on the ruling party during the elections. The third reason she mentioned is the belief that the opposition is not well organized, one held especially by the citizens of Serbia. She concluded her remarks by evaluating the effect of diaspora votes on the election results.

Vujo Ilic argued that elections are necessary for change, but not sufficient for real change, and he unpacked this argument by illustrating it with examples from Serbia. He stated that, even though the decline of democracy gained pace following the 2008 economic crisis, there were preconditions for it even before: firstly, mistrust in traditional political actors, and secondly, mistrust in democratic institutions, notably elections. What led to the highly negative public opinion about the opposition’s capacity or organization and the common perception that the government can’t be changed through elections, he claimed, is not only due to the rising authoritarianism since 2012, but the confusing role of the internal and external actors. He explained that it is difficult for any political actor to bring about change, because authoritarian ruling parties are political machines that have all public resources, and replacing them is practically impossible. Also, there has not been enough innovation to democratic practices. Ilic stated that, while the incumbent parties have advantages in almost all democracies, it does not become the determining factor of who wins the elections. Authoritarian regimes, he continued, use two methods: (1) mobilizing the ruling party voting base, and (2) disincentivizing the opposition. The first is done by clientelism and patronage as the main instruments of redistributive politics, and the second, at least in Serbia, by media domination. He also drew attention to how, even if governments change, the policies remain the same, and we do not see a deep-seated tackling of the underlying problems. We cannot limit our perspective to electoral changes, he noted, because what matters is not who comes to power next, but whether the underlying issues are addressed.

Focusing on Kosovo, Donika Emini began her presentation by saying that her initial response to the question of the panel discussion was ‘no’; if it were yes, Kosovo would be the front runner of the integration process as it had had elections every two years since 2014. Every political crisis triggers snap elections, and these elections did not necessarily translate into real change. Because Kosovo, in the past 20 years, has been ruled by a political elite which has been spreading its power to every area through clientelism, even when the political elite changes, disentangling all of that within the mandate requires a multi-frontal effort. In terms of the things that have changed, Emini pointed at the changes in the procedure of the elections - how they improved in their organization and administration -, and the building of a critical mass of a diverse and dynamic opposition. Another issue she highlighted was how the diaspora votes are game changers as the diaspora members are large, vibrant and active participants in the political and public life in Kosovo. She commented how the Central Election Committee made the process very complex and difficult this year for voters coming from outside of Kosovo, which is a tool that the ruling parties are using against potential change. Emini ended her presetation by emphasizing that the citizens are willing to take anything but the ruling party, but how Kurti will use the support he has when he comes to power, or whether changing the ruling elite can cause actual transformation, remain to be seen.

Borisa Falatar gave a brief summary of the complex system of governance in Bosnia and Herzegovina consisting of 3 presidents, 14 prime ministers, 180 appointed ministers and more than 700 lawmakers which are in 14 different parliaments in a country of 3 million people. In the last elections, they had 65 registered parties, 24 independent parties, and more than 20 coalitions, and the general elections, the parliamentary elections in all 14 parliaments, and presidential elections all happen at the same time. Falatar argued this complexity is another obstacle for change. Within this complicated political process, the focus shifts to the top: to the election of the presidents. When presented with their own representatives in the presidency, Bosnian citizens also consider what other people’s choices are. Comparing this to the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, Falatar claimed that this leads voters to take decisions in interdependence as opposed to making the most beneficial choice for themselves. In turn, the choices people make very often lead to the same results – in this case, more nationalistic leaders - as can be seen in the results from the last 30 years, which have been remarkably stable. On the other hand, running for office also involves a risk because there is very little chance of succeeding. Falatar explained how this risk gives bigger political parties an advantage over the smaller ones - which also stands in the way of change. His answer to the question of the webinar was that only elections can bring real change. Noting that there is so much room for new ideas, new policies, and innovation, Falatar encouraged people to get involved as much as they can.

Florian Bieber’s answer to the question was clear: The key point, he stated, is that without elections, none of the changes that happened in North Macedonia would be possible. He added that if you do not have change through elections, the options are no change, revolution, or change only within the ruling parties. For functioning democracies, these are not desirable scenarios. Then, he elaborated on the functionality of boycotts, stating that boycotts only delay the processes and outcomes of elections. They cause the government to have additional powers for a certain period of time and they also make it harder to challenge the government through the institutions. Bieber explained that there are two types of boycott – election boycotts such as in Serbia and institutional boycotts, such as those in Montenegro and North Macedonia. While institutional boycotts can be reversible, election boycotts are not, he claimed, because the terms for the next election are not being set; it is only a one-way ticket out of the institution. He then asked how free and fair elections come about in authoritarian regimes, and focused on pressures from the citizens and external actors in his answer. He added that in surveys, paradoxically, voters claim that there is pressure to vote for the ruling party but that they never felt this themselves. He interpreted this as implying that the pressure is invisible and very much coded in the system, so that even if they do not explicitly feel it, they know that their jobs and benefits are tied to the ruling party. Going back to the example of Montenegro and the better organization of the opposition, he ended his comments by suggesting that, when the elections are “competitive enough”, rather than “free and fair enough”, there is a chance for change.

In the subsequent Q&A section, a number of issues emerged:

  • In the past year in Kosovo, there has been a lot of going back and forth to the constitutional court, which is well known to be under the influence of the former president. It was not the citizens who decided on who the prime minister was going to be, and this situation impacts on how the next elections will look.
  • The change and the critical mass in Kosovo were created by Vetëvendosje, which started as a social movement and a grassroots initiative, and then made it to the parliament and transformed into a political party. Now, Kosovo stands on the verge of a critical transformative process. However, we should be cautious about the changes and see how Kurti’s team will try to undo decades of development.
  • As the 30-year-long single party rule controls both the political system and the economic actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, change can only come at the local level where nationality and national interests matter less.
  • We see a lot of protests but a very poor translation in the polls of this dissatisfaction with the current government. The opposition parties are stuck with the question as to how they should treat social movements, and the ever-flowing nature of these movements anesthetizes the opposition.
  • The changes we observed at the local level in Turkey and Hungary had a lot to do with innovation and the capacity of locally organized political actors to overcome a media blockade. The opposition politicians need to overcome the blockade and find ways to engage with potential voters, which can be achieved through door-to-door campaigns and movements at the grassroots level.
  • The biggest challenge for the EU accession process in Serbia is the lack of progress in the rule of law. We need to think about what this process does for the democratic development of the country, and what closing the process might entail, as both options will have serious consequences.
  • When it comes to how to deal with state capture, the first step is to change the government. A collective action by the citizens is very important and everything starts from the local level. The impression that the government can be changed must be built in the Western Balkans.
Mehmet Karli (Academic Visitor, St Antony's College; Coordinator for the SEESOX Programme on Contmpory Turkey)

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