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1996 In Review: Election Roundup II -- Russia, Romania, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Moldova

  • Ron Synovitz

Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- There was plenty of encouraging news in 1996 about the consolidation of democracy in Eastern Europe. But elections in at least three countries serve as a depressing reminder that the trend is not universal. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitored most of this year's ballots. (This is part two of a two-part article.)

Russia: Fraud charges not substantiated in Yeltsin victory

A year ago in Russia, after a strong turnout in parliamentary elections for Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party, political observers widely predicted that President Boris Yeltsin would fail in his bid for reelection. Opinion polls at the beginning of 1996 showed Yeltsin's approval rating was a mere nine percent. His dramatic come-from-behind victory on July 3 was surrounded by allegations of fraud in the final days before the runoff ballot.

But OSCE observers conclude that those charges have not been substantiated. The monitors say the election was generally well managed and efficiently run. They noted some problems, but said those issues did not affect the final results.

One area of concern was apparent bias in media coverage of the campaigns. Not only was there more coverage about Yeltsin. The OSCE says the president was generally shown in positive terms while Zyuganov's campaign tended to be depicted negatively. Other critics note that the head of Russia's private NTV during the campaign, Igor Malashenko, also served on Yeltsin's election team. But the OSCE says legal provisions about free TV and radio time for candidates were followed with "scrupulous fairness."

OSCE monitors say a common shortcoming on election day was the lack of secrecy. The observers say many people voted outside of the polling booths, and that family members often went into booths together. But the monitors said they did not get the impression that voters were pressured to vote a certain way.

The monitors also said there were some difficulties with the registration of temporary residents who were entitled to vote, but did not have the necessary documents. Also, the OSCE noted that some events at public festivals, organized with public money, clearly assisted Yeltsin's campaign. In contrast, other candidates reportedly were refused permission to use public buildings for meetings. The OSCE said this violated the provisions of the electoral law.

Romania: Election of new head of state passes democratic milestone

In Romania, the elections of November marked the first time since 1937 that a government in Bucharest has been changed at the polling stations. It also was the first time that a Romanian head of state was changed in a democratic process rather than by a leader's death or by a coup d'etat.

Romanians voted the ruling Party of Social Democracy in Romania (PDSR) out of power and replaced President Ion Iliescu with Emil Constantinescu of the opposition Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR).

In its review of the election process, the OSCE noted major improvements since the 1992 ballot. Generally speaking, the monitors say that election officials "did remarkably well in organizing and conducting" the ballot. Only minor irregularities were reported.

The OSCE sited the need for a permanent and professionally-staffed Central Electoral Bureau in Romania. Another important recommendation is that the entire electoral process should be reviewed with the goal of simplifying and speeding both the vote and the count. Delays in publishing results were said to be inevitable this year because of current procedures. But the OSCE said the trend could, in the future, lead to the questioning of results.

The long hours required for conducting and counting the vote also were said to be "an intolerable burden" on poll workers. Eventually, qualified poll workers could be discouraged from becoming involved. The entire process could be speeded, and the number of voided ballots reduced, by simplifying the format of the ballot papers.

Incomplete and inaccurate voter lists also were a major area of concern. The OSCE says the "fragmented arrangements for compiling the voters lists" urgently requires review. It says "detailed regulations" on voter registration are needed. Draft lists should be produced and published, and there should be adequate provisions and time for claims about inclusion.

The OSCE concluded that Romania requires more civic and voter education, especially in rural areas, in order to continue developing the democratic process. It said this should be done through the media, schools and civic organizations.

Lithuania: Ex-communists never recover from bank scandal

Lithuania's autumn parliamentary ballot brought conservative Vytautas Landsbergis and his Homeland Union to power after four years of rule by former Communists in the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDDP).

Analysts say voters were dissatisfied with the former Communists' inability to improve Lithuania's economic situation. More importantly, they say voters were unhappy about corruption.

The popularity of the former Communists never recovered from a scandal involving LDDP Prime Minister Adolfas Slezevicius, who had withdrawn his personal savings at a favorable rate from the Lithuanian Joint-Stock Innovation Bank just before a decision was announced to suspend the bank's operations.

In January, the LDDP failed to react adequately to the revelations of Slezevicius' unethical behavior. Slezevicius finally was ousted by the Seimas in February. Meanwhile, the Homeland Union appears to have overcome the insularity that contributed to its defeat in 1992.

The OSCE said that the vote was "generally efficient" and that it had been conducted in a "democratic spirit." But it said there is a need for election officials to protect voters' rights to a secret ballot. An OSCE report recommends standardized training for members of district election committees. It also suggests improvements for the postal voting system, along with guidelines for balanced election coverage by state radio and television, and the posting at polling stations of information in minority languages.

Bulgaria: Ballot praised but media controls continue

A victory for opposition candidate Petar Stoyanov in Bulgaria's November 3 presidential runoff preserved the balance of power between the presidency on the one hand, and the Socialist-controlled Parliament and Prime Minister's office on the other. The president's office remains one of Sofia's last branches of government that is not controlled by former Communists in the renamed Socialist Party.

Most important, Stoyanov's victory over Socialist Ivan Marazov is seen in Sofia as a popular denunciation of the Socialist government. Stoyanov's Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) hopes a rift within the Socialist Party will eventually lead to early parliamentary elections. Without an early ballot, the next general election won't be until the end of 1998. The Socialist coalition now controls 125 seats in the 240-seat parliament, but a rift in the party sharpened dramatically after the October 2 assassination of the powerful Socialist parliamentarian Andrei Lukanov.

OSCE monitors unanimously praised the organization of the presidential vote. The mission said it was satisfied that the results accurately reflected the wishes of voters. But the OSCE noted that current electoral laws discriminate against candidates without formal links to parties in parliament. Such candidates were excluded from membership rights on election commissions and from formal debates on television and radio. The OSCE also said there is a clear need to consolidate the five existing electoral laws into a single act.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria's Helsinki Committee reported that journalists in the state media were under pressure from the governing Socialist Party. That group said some journalists were dismissed for apparent political reasons.

A nationwide open primary to nominate a united "opposition" candidate was a significant democratic development for Bulgaria. That ballot marked the first time that a candidate was nominated by a popular vote in post-Communist East Europe. Some civic organizations in Sofia want the practice extended to parliamentary elections.

Moldova: OSCE blames Trans-Dniestr leaders for election results

In Moldova, former Parliamentary Speaker Petru Lucinschi will officially take over the president's office on January 15 after winning a December 1 runoff ballot against the incumbent candidate, Mircea Snegur.

Lucinschi's eight percent victory margin over Snegur triggered a chain reaction in Chisinau. One day after the runoff, Prime Minister Andrei Sangheli's cabinet resigned to make room for a government that might cooperate closer with the new president.

Lucinschi was secretary of the Communist Party's Central Committee in 1991. His pro-Russian sentiments are apparent from his statements immediately after his triumph. He was quoted as saying that he had "close personal contacts with the Russian leadership" and that he intended "to use them for the benefit of our country." He also advocates the restoration of closer ties with the former Soviet republics.

Analysts say Lucinschi's victory could bring deep changes in Moldova's policy of cautious rapprochement with the West. Russia's role in the region also may grow, especially since it keeps a military presence in Moldova's breakaway Dniester region, and continues to be Moldova's main source of energy and fuel.

Political observers say Lucinschi has a better chance than his predecessor to resolve the conflict with separatists in the Dniestr region. Negotiations on a special status for the Dniester region within the Moldovan state are now deadlocked. Attempts failed in May and July to sign a memorandum that would normalize bilateral ties.

In its review of the ballot, the OSCE said that the results accurately reflected the will of the people. The OSCE said the main problems were due to the fact that only a few voters from the Dniestr region were able to participate freely. The OSCE said the problem was "the sole responsibility" of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Trans-Dniestr republic.

The OSCE also recommended a series of changes in Moldova's voter registration process.