Contingent direct exchange*

Vote, vote,“, they told us, “vote and she’ll get a job.”

The woman in front of me could at a glance mistakenly be taken as about 70 years old. The wrinkles in her face, the four missing upper front teeth, her style of dress. But her playful glittering eyes and a quick calculation of her daughters’ age reveals that she is no more than 55 years old. Maximum.

I know her. She’s hard working, doing her best to make ends meet. Maybe she, like so many of her generation, only has elementary schooling. 5 years. She definitely does not understand the fine grains of politics, only that jobs are promised by politicians and sometimes you get one if you vote for the winner.

Her daughters are of the new generation. Educated, both with a profession. It was one of the girls that would have got a job at a hotel in exchange for the family’s votes.

“But of course she did not get the job. Someone else got it”. You could almost touch the disappointment in her voice. They needed that extra income. Like so many other families struggling in southern Italy’s small towns. It is easy to fall prey to politicians empty words when hope is almost the last thing you have to cling to.

Some 500 km further north, not far from the Capital, a commune is holding early elections.

I am told by a friend that the candidate who is openly awash with money “has no political affiliation, all the money comes from private donations.” A senator is apparently involved. Another prominent person from the south who moved in just six months ago is working as head of the campaign. There are other rich, influential people involved.

I am told about the non-affiliation to political parties and private donations to be assured that this particular candidate is independent, not involved in the dirty politics of Italian parties. Instead I hear alarm bells.

The commune council, including the Mayor, have been removed from power by the Court. The Mayor himself has been found guilty of neglect and abuse of power (and accused of much more), and will have to pay hundreds of thousands of euro to his former employer.

The commune is beautifully set with breathtaking natural scenery, all now depressingly littered with rubbish as the commune is brought to the brink of collapse. But the rubbish itself is also an economic attractions. The commune hosts a hub for waste. Lots of money involved in waste management. There are voices about the Neapolitan mafia Camorra infiltrating the local businesses.

It is here the private donations enter.

Because contingent direct exchange does not only work in the sense that politicians promise personal goods and benefits to voters, but also that politicians promise goods to donors. It is such an ingrained aspect of the Italian political life that is is hardly even questioned.

Upcoming politicians-to-be may fall an easy prey to forces stronger than they expected. Or perhaps they knew exactly what they entered when accepting the money and didn’t care.

The point is that the free vote is perhaps not as free as one would hope. That is not acceptable in a democracy.


*The interested reader can find more about contingent direct exchange in for example Kitschelt and Wilkinson, eds (2007) Patrons, Clients, and Policies: Patterns of democratic Accountability and Political Competition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Elections in Serbia 2016: The game that backfired

I wrote this analysis for Baltic Worlds, a scientific, peer-reviewed online journal, where the original piece is posted. Visit their Election Coverage for more great electoral analysis! 

Serbia held early Parliamentary elections for the second time since 2012 on 24th April, together with regional elections in Vojvodina and local elections in a majority of communes.

The early elections were called by the Prime minister, Alexandar Vučić, with the argument that he needed a longer period to ensure stability to oversee the opening and first phases of EU membership negotiations. But the move has been widely interpreted as a cynical attempt to consolidate, or even increase power now when Vučić has managed to open EU negotiations and at the same time the opposition against the EU in Parliament is weak.

However, that was a move which backfired quite substantially. At first it looked like it was going to be quite an easy victory, but after the nationalist right wing leader Vojislav Šešelj was acquitted of all the accusations against him in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the electoral game changed quite radically.

But despite the re-entrance of anti-EU and pro-Russia forces in Parliament, the vote was quite substantially interpreted as a strong approval of the governments EU policy. In fact, the results of these elections are widely interpreted as a referendum on how Serbia should relate to the EU and the recently opened membership negotiations. From this point of view the governing SNS got a strong mandate from the population to continue the road towards EU membership and away from the past.

The elections were generally deemed as in accordance with international standards, efficiently administered and in concordance with the law. EU representatives have praised both the result and the electoral process. However, international observers took notice of the biased media coverage, which gave “undue advantage” to incumbency. The collected opposition asked to review the electoral material in protest to what they claim to be rigged elections, and promised to stage protests if they did not pass the 5% threshold to enter Parliament. Electoral irregularities were identified in 15 polling stations, and reruns were held on 4 May. The opposition parties eventually all entered Parliament with a tiny margin, two parties even with fractions of a percent.

This analysis of the elections is divided as follows: first a discussion on the EU integration and Serbia’s relation with the EU. That is followed by a discussion on the return of the ultra-nationalists in Parliament. Then the results will be discussed and the analysis will end with some words on the possible new government, the role of the divided opposition and the state of the Serbian democracy.


The given reason for snap elections: EU integration

Vučić campaigned on portraying himself and his party as the road towards the future, against extremists from the past. And this future is the EU, there is no other option. This became even more pronounced as the far right nationalist Vojislav Šešelj, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Yugoslav War of dissolution, was acquitted from all accusations in March. His return to politics showed clearly what Vučić claimed he wanted to leave behind.

The role of Serbia and its former nationalistic leader Slobodan Milošević in the wars that broke up Yugoslavia, and the crisis in Kosovo put the country at logger heads against the EU and NATO. Milošević ruled Serbia, and later the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, until 2000 when he was forced from power. His authoritarian regime and policies were consequently strongly anti-EU and anti-NATO, pursuing a nationalist rhetoric and politics along the lines of Greater Serbia in the region, seeing the EU and in particular NATO as the enemy which forced Serbia to give up on Kosovo and Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After his removal from power Serbia has struggled to find a new path, balancing the past and the challenges for the future. The process of democratising Serbia, leaving the authoritarian and nationalistic past has been difficult. The Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in 2003 when he challenged organised crime and the power of the former security structures under Milošević. The nationalists have preferred a pro-Russian foreign policy, in particular since Russia is backing the Serbian position on Kosovo and Srebrenica. Overcoming these forces and pursuing a pro-EU path is not uncontroversial in Serbian politics. This is an achievement to be recognised.

All along, the EU has worked hard to pull Serbia closer, to make both politicians and the population embrace democracy, rule of law and human rights, and the EU itself. It has not been easy, as both Serbian and member state interests have at times clashed. One such moment was when the Netherlands halted the Serbian Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2006 over disputes regarding cooperation with the ICTY. Today Croatia opposes opening negotiations on two central chapters of the Acquis and demand that Serbia strengthen the situation of the Croat minority and act stronger on war crimes.

But despite these difficulties, the EU and Serbia could open membership negotiations through the adoption of a negotiating framework in 2013. This process started in earnest in 2013 as some important hurdles regarding Kosovo were agreed to be dealt with. Many Serbs feel that Kosovo is an integrated part of Serbia, and it’s possible, indeed highly likely, separation from Serbia through an EU membership has kept many against the EU. Many EU members have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, adding fuel to the fire. This is the most sensitive issue in Serbian politics, perhaps in all Western Balkans, and it has taken finely calibrated diplomacy mixed with geopolitical realpolitik to come to the conclusion that Serbia is better off in the EU than outside in partnership with Russia.

Given this background, the strong support for the pronounced pro-EU is a huge success for the EU and pro-EU forces in the country.


The return of ultra-nationalism

However, that victory was somewhat clouded by the return of the ultra-nationalists in Parliament. Ultra-nationalism has a long history in Serbia, with several prominent politicians and parties in parliament coming from either Milošević’s SPS, or Šešelj’s SRS. Both Vučić and the President Nikolić come from the SRS, and the SPS is the second biggest party in Parliament. But the most extreme party, the SRS, which is anti-EU and pro-Russian, have been pushed aside the last couple of years, losing their seats in 2012. After that they have almost been considered a force of the past.

However, Šešelj, who has been under trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the ICTY, was cleared from all charges in March 2016. The acquittal surely overturned Vučić’s calculations completely, and he has in fact accused the ICTY to be biased against Serbia politics by acquitting him so close before the elections. The timing of Šešelj’s return to Serbian politics made it possible to get maximum media coverage before the elections without needing to make a strong effort or to pay much advertisement. His release naturally made the headlines without him needing to do more than being visible.

Commentators have warned that Šešelj’s release could be seen as a possibility for other politicians, the PM Vučić included, to clean their pasts and even legitimising some of their nationalist stands, as there will always be the more radical SRS to compare with. That is indeed something which needs to be monitored by the opposition and analysts in Serbia, particularly in the light of the fear that the quality of democracy is weakening.

The right wing parties have fed on the growing discontent with Vučić’s pro-EU stands and the austerity policies coming in the heels of a poor economy. The SRS and the DSS/Dveri coalition will not be strong enough to substantially challenge Vučić, but would be able to voice their anti-EU and anti-NATO opinions in Parliament and give Vučić considerable trouble at times, in particular regarding deals concerning Kosovo.

Vučić, in turn, does not turn the back on Russia, rather the opposite. He is actively pursuing a sensitive balancing act, perhaps leaning towards his former political preferences, but being clear that an EU membership is the strategic goal of Serbia. Vučić, has managed to balance the EU and Russia in a delicate equilibrium allowing Serbia to continue towards the EU without upsetting either Russia or the nationalists substantially. Serbia even participated with troops in the traditional Russian military parade celebrating the victory in the Second World War on May 9 2015, recognising the common foreign policy interests in some areas and the domestic dynamics in Serbia.


The results

The final results, as announced on May 5, were as follows (it should be noted that the coalitions are not exactly the same from one year to another):

Party Vote 2016 Mandates 2016 Mandates 2014
Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) coalition 48,25% 131 158
Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) coalition 10,95% 29 44
Democratic Party (DS) coalition 6,02% 16 19
Social democratic Party of Serbia (SDS) coalition 5,02% 13 18
Serbian Radical Party (SRS) 8,10% 22 0
Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) coalition with  Dveri 5,04% 13 0
Enough is Enough 6,02% 16 0
Others 10 11


The category “others” is made up of parties representing ethnic minorities and which do not need to pass the 5% threshold.

The governing SNS and its (former?) governing party Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by the former Milošević protégée Dačić did both lose seats, together as many as 43. It is thus very clear that rather than strengthening his position in Parliament, Vučić has actually lost ground. And he lost to his former party and leader, the Serbian radicals under Vojislav Šešelj, plus a new reformist minded movement, both representing diametrically different views of how Serbia should be governed. The outgoing, and very likely incoming, Prime minister is having a very different hand to play with than he could have imagined when he declared that the snap elections were needed.

The opposition parties, which stood against Milošević during his time in power, the Democratic Party (DS), led by Pajlić, and its splinter party Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDS), led by the former President Boris Tadić, also lost ground, and holds not even 30 seats together. They have been the effective pro-democracy, pro-EU force in Serbian politics until that role was taken by the SNS.

In this sense, the majority of parties represented in the 2014 Parliament were all losers in this election. The winners were those who entered at the expense of the parties already present, in particular the SRS which won as many as 22 seats.

The right wing nationalists, represented by Serbian Radical Party (SRS) with Šešelj as its most prominent member, and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by the former prime minister Koštunica, which entered into coalition with the pro-Russian group Dveri, together won 35 seats, giving them a substantial platform in parliament to disturb the SNS in its negotiations with the EU and the necessary reforms to conclude the negotiations, but not enough to effectively block legislation.

The second new force in parliament is the party Enough is Enough led by the former minister for economy, Saša Radulović. They did not pass the threshold in 2014, and took a substantial leap forwards in these elections. This party based their campaign almost solely on digital platforms and social media, as they felt excluded from and discriminated by the traditional media. Nevertheless, they took 16 seats and represent a different political force in Serbia. They are pro-EU and pro-reform, and accuse Vučić of not being able to solve the real problems of the country: that of corruption. Radulović has vowed to never enter into coalition with the SNS, nor its partners.


Setting up a new government

It seems like one of the aims of Mr Vučić with the snap elections was to distance himself from the governing partner SPS rather than making a reshuffle of the government. The game to form a government has started, and while Vučić was initially hesitant to invite the SPS for talks, it seem like he eventually will need to in order to secure their backing on regional and local level, in particular in some key communes, where it in certain areas is crucial for the SNS to get an absolute majority to be able to pursue their policies. Such a move would go against the pre-election indication given by Vučić that he did not necessarily trust the SPS and its leader, and also against post-election statements that the sole coalition partner in government for the SNS would be the Alliance of Vojvodinan Hungarians, holding four seats.

There will surely be some political dancing back and forth before a government is settled. But given the SNS’s actual loss of seats in Parliament and the need for SPS backing locally, the SPS will most likely eventually be invited by the SNS and will probably accept the invitation after having strapped some desirable posts as ministers or other political positions.


A divided opposition

With the democratic opposition from the early 1990’s decimated, the return of right wing nationalism as a political force, and a third pro-reform party entering Parliament, it is obvious that the opposition is divided. Although they did get together to protest against alleged electoral fraud, it is unlikely that they will pose a strong, efficient, united opposition against the SNS and its possible future coalition parties.

Boris Tadić is making an effort to unite the opposition, which may have only one single point in common to unite around: the wish to weaken the SNS and Vučić. Šešelj, however, is showing few signs of wanting to cooperate with the rest of the opposition, or indeed to attack Vučić, as of yet.

But at the same time as we conclude that the opposition is weak and fragmented, it is important that they function efficiently. Vučić has been accused of being a Putin-like leader, and under his watch the press freedom has considerably weakened, and he is named in person by the Freedom House as putting pressure on media. He and his government have also been noticed to be sensitive about criticism in general, including by civil society and watchdogs like the Ombudsman. These are developments which have prompted the growth of Enough is Enough and similar movements protesting against the high level of corruption and the attacks against free speech and media freedom.

Commentators notice that Vučić has been good at talking the talk on issues such as the fight against corruption, but has achieved little. There are those who fear that this strong pro-EU mandate will give him the opportunity to show good results on EU reforms and negotiations, while at the same time close an eye regarding democratic standards. Some even predict a scenario similar to that in Hungary: weakened democracy and rule of law but without a significantly weakened EU commitment. Although he has a weakened position in Parliament, the SNS coalition still holds an absolute majority. A weak and divided opposition will have little to set against the government, and that may be a bad prospect for Serbia and its level of democracy.

From this point of view, Vučić may not be the ideal partner for the EU, although they have solidly backed the Vučić government and have expressed their satisfaction with the electoral results. Given the strong pro-EU mandate given by the electorate, the EU should be able to afford to be somewhat critical towards Serbia, in particular regarding press freedom and the general state of democracy and rule of law. It is true that the Radicals and their partners are pro-Russian, and it is true that Russia is particularly offensive regarding foreign policy at the moment, but that should not steer the EU away from being tough on the core EU values for the fear of pushing the country towards the nationalists. There are other forces to collaborate with in the country and to strengthen, such as Radulovic’s party. That is a potentially good platform to build on, and which can function as a further lever of democratic norms into the Serbian society. That would be good not only for Serbia, but for the entire region.

Macedonian early elections: an opportunity to break with the past

So the date is set. The invitations are out. Even the grumpy old uncles will be there whether we like it or not.

But now?

Macedonia is facing its fourth consecutive early parliamentary elections  on June 5th 2016. The reason for these early elections is the difficult political crisis which culminated during 2015 when the opposition party SDSM decided to publish transcripts and recordings of wiretapped conversations between high level politicians, business men, journalists and others. These recordings revealed in detail how high level politicians had been involved in electoral fraud, abuse of power and corruption.

It was obvious that the levels of trust between the two main political parties, the governing VMRO-DPMNE and the opposition SDSM were exhausted. The SDSM had already boycotted Parliament since after the early elections in April 2014, claiming that the ruling VMRO-DPMNE had won through fraud. They continued to stay out of parliament until 1 September 2015.

During the spring of 2015, after the publications of the transcripts and recordings, the international community got involved, and the EU entered and brokered a deal, called the Przino agreement,  including the resignation of Mr Gruevski and the preparations for early elections. SDSM returned to Parliament in September 2015, and participated in the preparation of a revised electoral law. The election date was set for 24 April 2016, and parliament was to be solved 60 days before, on 24 February. But after a marathon session on the eve of  this dissolution,  it was decided to postpone the elections to the 5th June, in order to be able to prepare the elections properly.

While the dynamics behind the political crisis are both disturbing and yet food for analysis and debate, there is now reason to look forward towards the elections themselves. What could we expect?

The deal from 2 June 2015 explicitly states that in order to hold free and fair elections, the State Election Committee should be strengthened, and that all recommendations from the OSCE/ODIHR should be implemented. That includes a revision of the always contested voter list and the potential pressure on voters and abuse of state resources during the campaign period.

The electoral law was amended according to the Przino agreement in November 2015, but there is broad agreement that this needs to be further revised after the elections. Continuous revision of the electoral law is neither new, nor uncommon, in Macedonia’s modern history. But it is a bad habit to repeatedly leave out the same aspects over and over again, and thus avoid writing a good and acceptable law which suits a country aspiring to join the EU. Such moves question the democratic dedication of a country.

But a good law is far from enough to conduct good elections. Macedonia’s post-communist elections have a history of troubles, in particular after the armed crisis in 2001. Violence was of concern until the disastrous elections in 2008, when the two Albanian parties DPA and DUI clashed heavily during the campaign, and one person was shot dead and eight wounded during election day.

It was obvious to anyone that the violence had to be dealt with once and for all.

That was done through two moves: first, the responsible DPA minister of interior lost his seat in government as DUI replaced the DPA as the VMRO-DPMNE. Now the DPA trouble makers did not any longer enjoy the protection by the Police. Second, Mr Gruevski realized that violent elections were damaging not only the country’s reputation, but also the legitimacy of his victory, and ordered total calm for the 2009 local elections. That has been kept ever since.

What happened next is that the physical violence was replaced by a more subtle version: voter intimidation.

Or rather: the visible problems have gone from being a violent battle for votes between two Albanian parties to become an administrative battle over votes between the two biggest (Macedonian) parties.

The VMRO-DPMNE allegedly set out to force employees in the public administration to find up to 30 voters each, and to ensure that they would vote for the governing party. VMRO-DPMNE has denied this to me in interviews, and said that they only targeted party members within the public administration, and that such call-centres were perfectly legitimate.

These allegations have been published in Macedonian media, including transcripts of the conversations, but it is prudent to believe that these are no new habits, as VMRO-DMPNE came with counter accusations, and that voter intimidation has been reported earlier also during SDSM-led governments. What is however worrying is the apparent scale of it, and that it seems to be very well organized.In addition it i s aditurbing sing of poor, or absent, division between party politics and the state.

In fact, commentators see this as part of a broader trend where the VMRO-DMPNE is creating an atmosphere of fear where citizens feel controlled by the government, and even on the road towards a more authoritarian state. Stronger clientelistic structures would be a part of this trend.

The elections of 2016 are in this context an opportunity to really break with the past. First, it is clear that Gruevski cannot come back and lead the country towards anything closer to EU membership. His credibility is exhausted and his means of governing are not in line with EU criteria for membership. If the VMRO-DPMNE is reelected, and he returns to power, the EU will have a difficult situation, but it will be almost impossible to endorse him as nothing has happened. Doing so would legitimize his increasingly non-democratic rule, state capture and set a difficult precedence in the region by the EU.

However, there are commentators that voice concern ( see also here) over the willingness to actually acknowledge such irregularities and to take strong action.

It is also an opportunity to break with voter intimidation and electoral malpractice. Such a move takes political courage and support by (domestic) electoral monitors. It is the duty of domestic observers and law enforcement to investigate claims about voter intimidation and electoral malpractice, and to bring out evidence. The new electoral law from November 2015 has strengthened the State Election Commission and given it more investigative resources, but the question is if that is enough to defend the free vote of the citizens.

The revelations coming from the wiretapping scandal show that high level politicians and power holders have been deeply involved in disturbing illegal practices. These persons are likely to fight hard to avoid losing power and ending up in court.

Although the campaign period is officially one month, the preparations for elections are already underway, and it is difficult to imagine that all political parties are preparing according to best international practices. It is unfortunately likely that it will become harder and dirtier by the day.

The opportunity to break with the past, both regarding political culture, electoral practices and general political behaviour, it there. It takes courage and determination, but if it is not taken, the risk is that Macedonia will slip even further away from democracy, rule of law, and good governance, and subsequently a closer relationship with the EU. That would not be good either for the country or its citizens.

Although there are many aspects of the past needed to be broken with, the upcoming elections is a first, and very important, opportunity. It should be taken, and taken seriously.

In the end, the international community, and in particular the OSCE/ODIHR will have the difficult task to judge whether the elections were free and fair. That is to a large extent a political decision, having to balance good progress with reported fraud and malpractice. That is indeed an ungrateful task, but also part of the opportunity.


If you want to read more about Macedonian elections, I have published a chapter here (no 5), and here (no 6).