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1999 In Review: Free And Fair Elections: Under Threat In Region?

Free and fair elections are a basic component of democracy. Yet across much of the transition region, from Ukraine to Tajikistan, voices have been raised to condemn recent votes as biased or rigged. Does this mean that the electoral process, one of the pillars of democracy, is tottering? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke examines trends evident in the past year.

Prague, 16 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- "Fraudulent", "unfair", "invalid", "farcical". These are some of the words typically used to describe elections held during 1999 in the transition countries.

Usually spoken in anger by those who lost the vote in question, they show the fragility of the democratic process in the region. That's because stable democracy depends on the broad social consensus that elections have been conducted honestly, and that the results can be trusted.

Not all the opposition claims of fraud were wrong, of course, in that international monitors agreed that some voting during the year was indeed deeply flawed. Reviewing some of the key elections during the year, a mixed picture emerges, with both dark and light patches.

The brightest spots are found in Central Europe and the Baltic states. There, elections are routinely seen as free and fair. But the further East and South one goes, the more problems one encounters.

In Ukraine, the losing candidate in last month's presidential election, Petro Symonenko, demanded -- unsuccessfully -- that the supreme court invalidate the results, which gave victory to incumbent Leonid Kuchma. International observers noted irregularities and unfair campaigning practices, but said it was unclear to what extent those affected the final result.

The head of the elections department of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Hrair Balian, in remarks to RFE/RL, expressed disappointment at Kyiv's handling of the election process:

"In Ukraine for example, we can not talk about progress, unfortunately, we even saw some retrograde steps during the presidential election".

Similar recriminations arose during last month's presidential vote in Macedonia, with opposition elements (the Social Democratic Alliance) charging fraud. The Supreme Court subsequently ordered a re-run of voting across some 200 polling stations, a move which led the ruling VMRO party to criticize the court edict as biased. The re-run however did not alter the original result, namely that the VMRO's Boris Trajkovski was elected.

Despite these problems, Balian expressed cautious optimism that Macedonia is improving and on the right track. The OSCE official also praised the situation in Armenia, where orderly parliamentary elections took place in May.

And in Georgia he also sees some advance, despite the serious violations which the OSCE reported last month in parliamentary run-off elections (Nov. 12), including intimidation of officials and stuffing of ballot boxes.

Among the Central Asian republics the situation is gloomier. In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rakhmonov's overwhelming election win (Nov 6) has been rejected as rigged, by opposition candidate Davlat Ismonov. International observers found no irregularities, but significantly the OSCE declined to send a team of observers on grounds that the Tajik poll did not meet its democratic standards.

As the OSCE, with its 54 participating states, is seen as the most prestigious election monitor, doubts linger over any election from which its observers were absent. In fact, the absence of full OSCE observer teams from Central Asian elections grew to a trend.

They were not officially present at the Uzbek parliamentary election (Dec. 5) and the Turkmen parliamentary election (Dec 12). The OSCE said subsequently that the voting was seriously flawed, and the United States supported this contention, saying the election was neither free nor fair.

In the case of Turkmenistan, the OSCE did not receive the required formal invitation from the government to monitor proceedings, and after the voting it said the election was completely orchestrated by the state.

Earlier in the year, the OSCE had declined to monitor the Kazakh presidential election, leading to accusations from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev that the OSCE is high-handed in its demands. Nazarbeyev spoke with reporters in Istanbul:

"All of us are Asian countries within [the OSCE] and that is why I say they should not look at us in the same way that Moscow looked at us when Kazakhstan was a Soviet republic."

RFE/RL Central Asian analyst Bruce Pannier says there may well be a lack of understanding in Central Asia regarding what is required in a genuinely democratic election process:

"I think the big problem with Central Asia is that they have this idea that if elections are competitive, meaning there is more than one candidate running, then that qualifies as being a democratic process. What a lot of them forget is that what you need is at least two parties with significantly differing points of view".

In other words, Pannier says that in most cases the two or three candidates running for a seat are practically identical in their views, and they support government policies. True opposition tends not to be represented, he says.

So what can be done to improve the overall election situation across the entire transition region? Continued and detailed engagement is the remedy suggested by the OSCE's Balian:

"Keep on pushing, keep on helping, keep on working with the governments and opposition of many of the participating states, and to try to find new ways of working on these issues, and hopefully by incremental measures the end result will be a more positive atmosphere for elections".

With the new millennium about to dawn, there's certainly still room for improvement in the way elections are handled in countries in transition. But nevertheless, for many observers the key fact is that at least a start has been made.