by Vladimir GLIGOROV
Elections and democratization: Since elections have been or will soon be held in Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, all of them could be taken as examples in our investigation of how elections affect reform. To them, we could add elections held in Croatia, which should take place by the end of the next year. All of these elections should be observed in the context of two processes - democratization and transition. In theory, democratization, roughly speaking, has the following phases. First, there is the election in which the public removes the previous authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian regime. Then, in the next election the public for the first time chooses between different alternative political programs. Then, there are elections in which the public chooses whether it wants to use its democratic right and replace the government in power. Finally, there is the election in which the public chooses between several already pretty well-known and relatively stable political parties or coalitions. This process can be interrupted in any one of these four phases, which to a large extent complicates everything. If, however, a society goes through the process, we can say that a country has reached the stage of stable democracy. Let us now consider where Balkan countries are in that process of democratization. Despite criticism addressed regularly to Romania and Bulgaria, they are at the very end of the process of stabilization of democracy. An authoritarian regime has been replaced, several political alternatives have been tried out, and although many are dissatisfied with government policies and alternatives they are being offered, it is very likely that democracy has irreversibly taken root in these countries, unless the society gives in to still strong populist pressures. In comparison with these two countries, all countries created after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, with the exception of Slovenia, are far behind in the process of democratization. In Macedonia, where general elections have just been held, there was an interruption in the process of democratization, so that these elections are unfortunately a new beginning. At the most recent elections, populists were rejected, together with authoritarian structures, and bullies of all sorts and it was accepted that democratic rules of decision making about institutional development will be respected. The stabilization of political alternatives and programs, and finally the whole political scene, lies in the future. Croatia, where general elections should be held before the end of the next year, is about to step into the second phase of democratization, the one in which the society for the first time makes a democratic choice. Elections held almost three years ago were the ones in which a totalitarian regime was rejected. In the next elections we need to see whether all political alternatives will be democratic or whether we'll again give in to populism. Finally, the election to come after the next one will be the one after which democracy should take root. Serbia has just entered an election cycle, but it is still unclear what elections it will involve and when they will be held. It is still at the beginning. Although authoritarian authorities have been rejected, elections as a method for decision-making still haven't been definitely accepted. This is to a certain extent similar to the situation in which Macedonia found itself four years ago, when the then elected authorities, which were replaced after the most recent elections, did everything in their power to discredit elections and democracy as such. Therefore, Serbia is at the point when the recently started democratization process can be interrupted and the country pushed back into some sort of quasi-authoritarian regime. That would mean that the process of democratization would have to start from scratch in the near or further future. On the other hand, Montenegro is going towards elections that are supposed to initiate the process of democratization. These elections sort of bring together two first phases of democracy. The public in Montenegro is supposed to confirm the rejection of authoritarianism and select between several political alternatives. If that is successful, some of the dangers of destabilization of the process of democratization will be avoided. Bosnia-Hercegovina is facing first more-or-less regular elections. In normal processes of democratization, these elections would be expected to produce a decision that the previous authoritarian or illegitimate regime is over. Given that Bosnia-Hercegovina is under a sort of protectorate, it is very difficult to make such a decision. Therefore, it is very likely that another round of elections will be needed before the country initiates the process of democratization, but it is very difficult to predict their results. Finally, Kosovo is a true protectorate, so that the elections there have more of a role that is characteristic for local authorities in autonomous entities, than are an element of the democratization process. But, of course, they are a necessary condition for some future process of democratization, because they are at the very beginning of the democratization process and are facing a palpable danger that that process may be interrupted, fail, or fail to sustain itself. In that context, it is clear that the assertion that elections do not resolve anything is wrong. Elections make the most important decisions - how long will the process of democratization last and what will it look like?
Reforms and elections: Another assertion is that elections slow down reforms. Is that true? Intuitively, that should not be the case. Since, reforms should follow after the election of a pro-reform government. In practice, that is frequently the case. Actually, it is hard to imagine how it could be any different in democratic countries. However, in principle, in countries that are going through the process of democratization, things may be different. Of course, it is true that the electorate may make in the election the decision to stop some initiated reforms, and that decision may depend on the timing of the elections. Finally, there is substantial literature discussing the suitability of certain electoral systems for reform, and of course, all of that is very important. Nevertheless, it somehow intuitively makes sense that elections are a precondition for reform, rather than an obstacle for them. Let us consider examples of the Balkan countries. Romania and Bulgaria are usually mentioned as examples of countries where elections supposedly interrupted reforms by bringing anti-reform political forces to power. The validity of this assertion depends on the assessment to what extent political forces that lost the elections were really pro-reform. Of course, there are all sorts of reforms. Some reforms are best abandoned, or at least corrected. If the experience of these two countries is taken into account, the only certainty is that the election of a truly pro-reform government resulted in the following election, regardless of pre-election propaganda and promises, in the election victory of governments engaging in even faster reforms. This is definitely true for Bulgaria, at least as far as the two most recent elections are concerned. And it seems that the situation in Romania is similar, even though it is still too early for any definite conclusions. What about the situation in other Balkan countries? Starting again from Macedonia, it was clear four years ago that it would be difficult to implement new reforms if the political forces in power were not changed. The new authorities failed to fulfill expectations of the electorate, but elections are not to be blamed for that. Similarly, it was obvious that no reform was possible unless the new authorities were thrown out of power, which the electorate did in the most recent election. We shall see what the new authorities will do, but they did get a pro-reform mandate in an election. Without elections, none of that was possible. The situation in Croatia is similar. On the one hand, there no reform was possible until the HDZ lost an election. It is also most likely true that very little can be done with further reforms until new elections are held, not because elections are looming in the future, but because the current government has used up its reform potential. How that happens, how a government uses up its reform potential, is an interesting issue that cannot be thoroughly analyzed in this article. But briefly, that usually happens because potential for reform is underestimated, rather than overestimated, at the start of the tenure of a new government. That was definitely the case in Croatia. The new government had the mandate to change everything but instead opted for cosmetic changes. Thus, the next step towards reforms requires a new mandate from the electorate, and it is still unclear whether any political force will get it. Montenegro is an even clearer example. The authorities have initiated reforms without ever getting a clear mandate from the electorate for them. Now it is becoming apparent what limitations of such policies are. Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo are specific cases because in these two cases we have different types of protectorates, where populism beats reforms hands down simply because the local political forces do not bear responsibility for their decisions. This is an interesting, but somewhat different topic. Therefore, based on the experiences of Balkan countries, it is impossible to conclude that elections slow down reforms. On the contrary, it is obvious that almost everywhere and almost always elections provided a new chance for reform. It is true that it is more difficult to take advantage of that chance in countries that are on the path towards democratization than in stable democracies, but it is also true that there is no different path. There are no examples of successful reforms in the countries in the region that were not initiated or continued after an electoral victory. Nevertheless, one can still hear frequently in Serbia that the country went through several cycles of failed reforms. But, for some reason it is not pointed out that none of those reform cycles failed because of an election. All of them failed either in the street or in some political institution, or, most frequently, by decision of some politician. The current reforms are facing similar risks. Most likely, nothing but new elections can maintain the push for reform or perhaps speed up reforms.
Burden of reform: Probably the most frequently encountered assertion of Serbian reformists is that reforms hurt. That vocabulary, for some reason, is also favored by international financial institutions, although their data without exception prove the opposite, that reforms improve the lot of most inhabitants of societies in transition. Very often, we encounter both assertions in a same paper, article or speech. As a rule, it is stated that it is obvious that everyone is doing much better than before the changes and reforms, but that, of course, those changes must be painful. Orwel would definitely find this amusing, but in any case it does not make much sense. Again, in principle, it is always possible to implement reforms whose goal is not to improve the status of all or most inhabitants, but only some groups or individuals in a society. This was without doubt true for several reform programs in several Balkan countries, which is mostly the reason why relatively decent and sustainable reforms came only after a wait. In most cases, we cannot talk about "stop and go" strategy and reluctance of the public in those countries to embrace reforms, but about reforms that were characterized by bias, lawlessness, and in some cases unprecedented corruption. Most members of Balkan societies did not benefit from those reforms, and were even harmed by them. It makes, therefore, perfect sense that the electorates threw out advocates of such reforms in elections. In all other cases, reforms were sustained and even speeded up, although people in power changed. It is especially unclear why the burden of reforms should be especially heavy in countries in transition, and especially in countries that, for this reason or that, had significant losses or are underdeveloped. In principle, transition begins with liberalization and macro-economic stabilization, which, during transition, must improve the status of a great majority of citizens. And indeed, in most countries in transition, known to me, there was neither general resistance to liberalization nor stabilization. It is only natural to expect that the same will happen in the Balkans. Indeed it is true. For example, Romania and Bulgaria very early and very quickly signed association treaties with the European Union (so-called European treaties) that envisage gradual, but very radical reduction of customs protection against import of goods from the European Union. This did not destroy the production in these countries and I am not aware of any forceful demands to change this regime. Therefore, liberalization, which in these countries is far more advanced than for example in Serbia, did not have negative consequences for the output and export of these countries. Thus, for example, Bulgaria exports more than twice as much as Serbia, and its exports are to a much larger extent directed towards the European Union markets than Serbian exports. Similarly, stabilization is popular everywhere. Moreover, in Romania, where high inflation is chronic, the support of the public for cooperation with the International Monetary Fund is greater than in all other countries because the public believes that that it the only way to secure price stability and low inflation, which is, as elsewhere, very popular in Romania. Therefore, at least as far as liberalization and stabilization are concerned, it does not make sense to claim that reforms are hard for a majority of population. However, the situation is different with structural reforms. However, as was theoretically shown at the very start of the process of transition, this is a matter for the strategy of transition, rather than something that cannot be avoided. Indeed, it is possible to implement a series of measures that can on the whole worsen the status of a majority of population in a country, but that is definitely not sensible, nor is it an unavoidable strategy for reform. On the contrary, there is always a strategy for reform that in a particular moment suits a majority of population. In democratic countries, that majority will choose such reforms. Therefore, it is not true that reforms must be painful, although numerous bad reforms programs have hurt many persons. And then, the best possible outcome is when they express their dissatisfaction with their ballots.
Paternalistic attitude: Finally, let me mention my observation about pro-reform rhetoric. In Serbia it can be heard frequently that not only must reforms be painful but also that they can be compared with difficult surgery. All of that is for the good of the patient, although it will hurt. Furthermore, frequently the discourse talks about the patient as someone who has somehow become addicted to his disease. Therefore, not only is that for his benefit, but the patient is also not aware of that, and not only because the operation will hurt. Thus a significant doze of paternalism is needed, because the patient is in love with his disease. Such rhetoric did not work anywhere in the Balkans. Mostly, successful reforms are those that open new possibilities and perspectives, while allowing everyone to decide on his or her own how to use them.
The author is with the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies. This article was reprinted from the September 2002 issue of the magazine "Prizma", published by the Center for Liberal-Democratic Studies