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East: Analysis From Washington -- What Elections Can And Cannot Do

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 22 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Elections in post-communist countries are effective at distributing power when the pre-existing power structures have been broken up, but such votes seldom can break up those structures by themselves.

That conclusion, contained in an article by Thomas Carothers in the current issue of the "East European Constitutional Review," provides some important insights as to why some elections in the post-communist world are democratic and others are not.

Those East European and former Soviet republics where the old power structures were effectively overturned in 1989 or 1991, Carothers notes, have become more or less functional democracies in which elections do lead to an alternation of parties in power.

But those countries in which members of the old communist structures succeeded in holding on to power and simply proclaimed themselves democrats have had a very different and much less satisfactory experience.

These states too routinely hold elections, but such polls have a very different meaning. There, power holders use such periodic voting as a means to relegitimize themselves rather than to provide their citizens with a genuine chance to choose.

In these countries, incumbents routinely roll up huge margins against any challenge to them. But to the extent that they conduct the actual vote in a more or less transparent way, the victors are often certified by Western observers as democratically elected.

And that certification often has the effect of blurring the distinction between genuine elections and the pseudo-voting that such successor regimes practice.

Carrothers, a vice president of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a longtime participant in efforts to promote the rule of law in post-communist countries provides a corrective.

His argument, which builds on the 1998 essay of Joel Hellman entitled "Winners Take All: The Politics of Partial Reform in Postcommunist Transitions," suggests three lessons about both the past and the future.

First, elections by themselves will not produce democracy. At best they may help to promote it -- but only if other conditions are met.

Many people around the world greeted both the first multi-candidate elections and even more subsequent votes as the harbinger of democracy.

And in certain cases, there is some evidence that opposition figures are learning with each passing vote. But so too are those entrenched in power. And in this competition, the former have seldom if ever won out over the latter.

Second, building democracy where most people viewed the communist party as indigenous is going to take far longer than in those where communism was viewed as a form of occupation.

In Eastern Europe and the Baltic states many people viewed the communist regimes as a foreign imposition, something they were only too glad to get rid of when they had the chance.

Having overthrown what they viewed as an occupation force, the people of these countries have generally been in a position to choose among political candidates not completely tied to the old system.

But in most of the 12 former Soviet republics and in Yugoslavia, many people saw the communist system as part and parcel of their national life.

They were less willing and often less able to drive the representatives of the old regime from office, especially since many Western governments opposed lustration, the effort to exclude from political life those tied too closely to the communist system.

As a result, the former communists whatever they now call themselves have tended to remain in power, using elections to legitimize themselvess in the eyes of their own people and the West but not to allow genuine competition.

And third, those in both these countries and the West who hope to promote democracy in these countries must adapt a very different strategy than they have up to now.

For much of the last decade, those in the West committed to democracy in the post-communist countries have spent more time and money on monitoring elections than on almost any other part of their assistance efforts.

Governments in these countries have responded by making elections a central part of their strategy to remain in power. And their opponents have reacted to this Western attention by focusing their efforts on electoral procedures.

But Carrothers' observations about what elections can and cannot do suggests that everyone interested in promoting democracy will have to look beyond elections and to focus on all the other aspects of social and political life that make democracy possible.

That is a far greater and much longer challenge, but one that the supporters of democracy need to meet if they hope to see the regimes who use elections for their own purposes replaced by those who bow to the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box.

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