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Moldava: Analysis from Washington -- Less Political Participation Points To Institutionalization Of Democracy

Washington, 23 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recently released poll in Moldova calls attention to a trend found in many post-communist states: Even those extremely dissatisfied with the conditions of their personal lives no longer assume that the political system will solve their problems.

According to a sampling of 1,000 voters in Moldova by the Soros Foundation's Romanian Center for Urban and Rural Sociology, nine out of 10 Moldovans are unhappy with their lives. But despite this unhappiness, approximately 20 percent said they had no intention of taking part in the March 22 elections, and another third said they had not decided whom they would support.

Some observers have suggested that these and parallel results elsewhere reflect rising popular apathy in these countries, an apathy they link either to a sense of hopelessness in general or to a belief that individual voters can have little impact on the actions of government.

While such negative factors obviously play a role in causing people to turn away from political participation in these countries as well as in other democratic states, there are at least three other factors at work that suggest this turning away from politics may reflect some more hopeful developments.

First, such declines in participation point to the emergence of a civil society, to a space between the population and the state in which individuals can achieve their goals without having to participate directly in the political process.

Under communist conditions, virtually everything was decided by the party-state. And with the collapse of communism, many citizens in these countries continued to look to the political system to solve all their problems.

But both the inability of the political systems in these countries to do that and the growth of non-governmental institutions in society and the marketplace that can are leading ever more people to focus their hopes and energies elsewhere.

Viewed from that perspective, declines in voting rates may be less a threat to the new democratic and free market system than a measure of just how far these new arrangements have been accepted and institutionalized.

Second, these declines reflect the emergence of a broad consensus on many issues. While this poll, like many others, tapped into popular differences on such questions as relations with Moscow or the West, its findings suggest that ever more people in the population do agree on certain key issues such as the value of democracy and free markets.

The Soros Foundation poll found that Moldovan voters were deeply split on the question of which party they would support. And the poll results indicated that nearly half of those surveyed favored closer relations with Moscow, while approximately a third believed that Moldova should seek stronger ties with the European Union and NATO.

While such divisions are obviously real, they have not succeeded in splitting society to the point that everyone feels he or she must take part in the vote. Instead, a relatively large proportion of the electorate appears to feel that such choices are at the margin rather than at the center of their lives.

That in turn suggests that there may be a genuine consensus lying behind these differences.

And third, these declines in voter participation suggest that the voters may not actually be as unhappy with their lot as they have told the poll-takers.

If the voters in Moldova were genuinely as unhappy as this poll suggests, the experience of established democracies suggests that they would be available for mobilization by one party or another. Unless one assumes that Moldovan politicians are incompetent, their failure to electrify the electorate suggests that the reported unhappiness may be widespread but not nearly as deep as some might think.

To the extent that these three factors are at work and not just feelings of apathy or the lack of a sense of efficacy, declines in political participation in the post-communist countries may in fact be a measure of the institutionalization of democracy rather than a threat to it.

And consequently, while very low levels of popular participation in these countries or elsewhere would be a threat to democracy, the levels of participation this Moldovan poll suggests almost certainly are not.