European Western Balkans

BiEPAG Policy Brief: Trust in the democratic process can be regained

Photo: CRTA

LONDON – “The ‘collective action’ problem in the Balkans – characterised as lack of confidence in the possibility of change, leading to disillusionment with the democratic process and individual unwillingness to act to bring about change – might not be as difficult to break,” reads the new Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) policy brief.

In the policy brief titled – No longer voting for the devil you know? Why the Balkans’ collective action problem might be easier to break than we think, the authors Jovana Marović, Executive Director of the Politikon Network and BiEPAG member, and Tena Prelec, Research Fellow at DPIR, University of Oxford and BiEPAG member, argue that when it comes to elections – „vote for the devil you know“ adage could no longer be working.

“The findings of the brief indicate that in relation to electoral participation, the ‘collective action’ problem in the Balkans – characterised as lack of confidence in the possibility of change, leading to disillusionment with the democratic process and individual unwillingness to act to bring about change – might not be as difficult to break as previous research had indicated,” Marović and Prelec explain.

They point out that this shift in behaviour could have been perceived in Montenegro, when Milo Đukanović had to concede the victory of the August 2020 parliamentary elections, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, when citizens have ditched candidates from the three main ethnic parties and embraced political outsiders in November’s municipal elections, and also in Kosovo, where Kosovar voters similarly rejected established parties, crowning a former opposition movement (Vetëvendosje) as the relative winner of the election.

During the online conference jointly organized by BiEPAG and South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX), “Can elections bring (real) change? Lessons learned and prospects for the Western Balkans”, held on Wednesday, Marović presented the findings of a large-scale survey conducted on a nationally representative sample of citizens in all six countries of the Western Balkans, which was included in the policy brief.

“The high individual costs of acting to try to bring about change and the low perceived chances of success make it unlikely for citizens of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian countries to express their grievances against the regime. As studies have shown, citizens often choose not to challenge their governments under such circumstances,” reads policy brief.

“Majority of citizens in the Western Balkans are opting not to challenge the political elites through elections, but the turnout of 76% at the elections in Montenegro has proved the opposite,” Marović state, noting that this outcome affected the change in citizens‘ perception of elections as a tool for change: 80% of Montenegrins now believe in what was unimaginable just a few months ago – that the government could be replaced in elections.

With this agrees Vujo Ilić, Policy and Research Advisor at CRTA, who explained that the democratic backsliding was seen in the Western Balkans and that the region is facing similar problems when it comes to the elections.

“Common problems are the mistrust in the traditional political actors and the functioning of democratic institutions, but also the abuse of electoral process, voting machine mobilization and passivization of the opposition,” says Ilić.

Executive Director of the CiviKos Platform and member of BiEPAG, Donika Emini, explains that this is now the crucial challenge in Kosovo, as it faces snap elections.

“We are on the verge of the biggest political and constitutional crisis. The question is who will replace the current ruling elite and whether we will see the most needed change or we are just going to find out that we only have a new state capturer,” says Emini.

According to the survey, 8% of Kosovars believe that the government cannot be changed through elections. That number is much higher in Bosnia and Herzegovina where 27% of citizens believe that change cannot happen through elections.

Boriša Falatar, who ran for the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the October 2018 general elections as the lead candidate of Naša Stranka, believes that only elections can bring change.

“If you look at the results from the elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina from the last 30 years, the results have been remarkably stable. Innovation in the public discourse and the campaigns may motivate the people and bring change through elections,” Falatar notes.

The most quoted reasons for election abstention in Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to the findings, are election irregularity and belief that the election process is decided in advance – 33% of respondents have this belief.

This is the trend that can be noted across the region, not only regarding election but also political opposition.

“In all surveyed countries except Kosovo, a relative majority of respondents believe that the opposition is not well organised. In a combined total, almost 48% believe that the opposition is completely disorganised or poorly organized, compared to a combined total of about 38% who think that the opposition is moderately or well organized. The harshest judgment of the political opposition is recorded in Serbia, where 84% have a low opinion of its effectiveness, with 43% deeming it completely disorganised,” reads the policy brief.

When it comes to electoral boycotts, 56.2% of respondents said that they do not support boycotts as a means of political struggle against irregular elections, whereas 32.2% said that they do.

Professor of Southeast European History and Politics and Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria and BiEPAG member, Florian Bieber, points out that the boycott of elections only delays the process of change of the government.

“The boycott may seem like a good decision at that particular juncture, but it locks the process in the long-term,” states Bieber.

As the only way forward, they see a bottom-up approach. 

“In this political swamp we live in for years now, the change can only come locally when the people can see it with their own eyes and what is done in practice,” says Falatar.

With this agrees Ilić, who points out that the social movements are replacing the role of the traditional political actors. 

“The protest movements are a larger phenomenon and they have their own role – to create pressure and communicate the citizens’ demands,” says Ilić.

Read more: The year (not) to forget: Key events in the Western Balkans in 2020

Marović also believes that a “collective action, active citizens’ engagement and grassroots approach at the local level is needed as a joint effort to deal with the state capture across the Western Balkans”.

“It is very difficult to break the entrenched authoritarian regimes. Using shortcuts and by-passing will not work. If you want the change, you need to go for the top,” concludes Bieber.

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