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Between Past and Future

Sorin Antohi

IV. The New Europe: Prospects for Cooperation and Conflict

16. Electocracies and the Hobbesian Fishbowl of Postcommunist Politics

Karen Dawisha

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1All but two postcommunist countries (Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) have held at least one election that international observers have deemed to be largely free and fair. Fully sixteen of the twenty-seven postcommunist states have held multiple, free and fair elections. Yet at the same time, less than half a dozen countries have made sufficient overall progress toward a full and self-sustaining democratic transition to justify inclusion in the first rounds of planned North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) expansions. And beyond that, in many states (Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine) democracy has been so fragile at one point or another in the last ten years that we can speak of a total breakdown of the transition. Indeed, in some of these states, violence has not decreased, trust has not increased, and elections are treated by the population as an insufficient instrument for achieving the dramatic break with the past they feel is required.

2This sketch rather begs the questions: What did we expect elections to deliver, and what have they delivered? In general, what does democratic theory tell us about the carrying capacity of regular elections in entrenching the habits, rhythms, and norms of democracy even when other features of developed democracies—like civil society, the rule of law, and a stable market-oriented economy—may be either absent or only emerging? By relying largely on minimalist or procedural definitions of democracy (as a polity in which the formal and actual leaders are chosen through regular elections based on multiple candidacies and secret balloting with the right of all adult citizens to vote), did we overemphasize and oversell their capability to build democracy?

3One could argue that the procedural or minimalist definition works as shorthand, not because any or many democratic theorists believe that free and fair elections will in and of themselves both produce a transition to democracy and sustain it over time, but simply because such elections are unlikely to take place (and historically have not taken place) unless a large number of prior conditions are met, including the rule of law, the existence of civil society, and a democratic political culture. Yet in none of the postcommunist countries are all conditions fully present, and in some countries they are largely absent. We expected—or perhaps more honestly, we wanted to believe—that these other conditions would operate not as preconditions but as coconditions and that progress could be made simultaneously in a number of sectors, each mutually supporting the other in the so-called triple transition. In no other democratic country has transition taken place so quickly and along so many fronts simultaneously. We hoped that, given their unified desire to rid themselves of communist oppression, the postcommunist publics would unite like spokes in a wheel with an equally single-minded international community to move democracy forward.

4At the hub of the wheel we placed free and fair elections, monitored by the international community, with electoral systems heavily shaped by consultants and advisors from Europe and the United States. But my argument is that in placing them at the center of the wheel, we hoped they would achieve more in the East than they had in the West: that they should not only reflect the general will, but shape it; that they could not only cement the social contract, but write it; that they might not only mediate states’ interactions with civil society, but substitute for it.

5Where elections served only as the hub holding multifaceted spokes together, as has occurred in Central Europe, where the triple transition has been largely successful, they have helped to promote, deepen, and regulate democratic patterns. But in many other countries, including those of the former Soviet Union, in which elections have taken place against a bleaker and starker backdrop, elections have not been able to substitute for, or stimulate the production of, conditions that are otherwise absent. Indeed, and most worrying, there is concern that good elections in bad conditions could even hinder the transition to democracy. As will be discussed below, do free and fair elections that elect gangsters, anti-Semites, and antidemocratic communists and fascists really help democracy? Can such elections equally institutionalize both democracy and its opposite?

Elections and Suffrage in Early American and Western Democracies

6The difficulties and failures of some postcommunist countries are easier to understand when one stops to consider the monumental burden placed on these modern elections as compared with the development of suffrage and the electoral system in the United States and elsewhere in the West. In America, democracy was developed by a narrow elite that established the rules of the game by which an equally narrow electorate would choose its representatives. The elite was generally divided along a single socioeconomic axis, and the electorate, too, was highly unrepresentative of the general population. A stable two-party system emerged, fully capable of orchestrating the genteel minuet that was called American democracy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Thus, in the 1824 presidential election, the first for which the popular vote was even officially recorded, John Quincy Adams won with a total vote of a mere 114,023—and this in a country that, by the time of the 1830 census, would have a total population of 12.3 million. The franchise was regulated state by state, but certain similarities existed among them. Lacking the franchise were all women (as a footnote, women had the vote in New Jersey up until 1807, but were subsequently denied it), all slaves, all Native Americans, all citizens under the age of twenty-one, most freed blacks, most non-property owning white males, most non-income tax paying white males, indentured servants, recent immigrants (including all Asian, nonwhite, and non-English speaking immigrants), felons, illiterates, and those unable or unwilling to pay a poll tax where levied.

7The actual—rather than the purported or subsequently mythologized—principle behind the franchise until the end of the century appears to have been the minimization, and not the maximization, of participation in suffrage. Not until the twentieth century was there success in realizing the communitarian aims set out in the Declaration of Independence: direct election to the Senate was introduced (unlike direct elections for the president and the House of Representatives, senators were chosen indirectly by state legislators until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution introduced direct popular election), women were given suffrage in 1920, and the rights of blacks to vote without encumbrance (through the 1965 Civil Rights Voting Act) were given full recognition. This is to suggest that the interests of the founding fathers in establishing strong governance were at odds with the principle of universal suffrage. Yet it was the commitment to governance more than the principle of universal suffrage that explains the ability of U.S. democracy to emerge as a rule-governed, stable, and strongly institutionalized system. One naturally wonders how the institutions of U.S. democracy would have emerged if all those groups denied suffrage until the twentieth century had the vote from the beginning. And it is also probably the case that U.S. attitudes toward the problems of transition in postcommunist countries would be more forgiving if we were more mindful of the tortuous path that this country itself traveled.

8The wisdom exported to and received by the East from both the United States and the West generally has been that shock therapy could deliver the same big bang for democratic transition as it was designed to deliver for economic transition. But this notion is based on a revision of the rich and, frankly, anguished history of democratic development throughout the West. Writ large, that history has been reduced to the simplistic notion that democratic development was an unbroken chain of accomplishment in which a country’s founding fathers reflected the general will of the entire population and established the rules of the game by which the electorate would choose them. Yet this history of “for the people, by the people” overlooks the fact that throughout Europe and the United States until well into the second half of the twentieth century, both the electorate and the elite overwhelmingly were white, Christian, affluent males. Divisions within the elite along a single socioeconomic axis produced a narrow, but stable, two-party system over time. However, even these systems did not emerge in exactly the way that current policy-makers mythologize. The gloss of uninterrupted and steady development forgets the U.S. Civil War, the glorious revolution in England, five republics with monarchist restorations in France, the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany, and the fact that democracy did not even begin to emerge on the Iberian peninsula until the 1970s. Historical amnesia may have served well the cause of the legitimization of democratic regimes in the West over time, but it is not necessarily the case that this amnesia is helpful as a guide to avoiding pitfalls in the same process for postcommunist states.

9The narrow basis of both the elite and the electorate in most western democracies did allow, however, the conflict between the needs of governance and the desire for representation to be kept in balance by the mutual observance of rules, including the rales and rhythms of elections. The desire for expanded representation certainly produced protests and demonstrations, but not of an antiregime or revolutionary nature. When it did finally occur, the expansion both of suffrage and of representation of nontraditional elites and interests at the top did not destabilize any of these systems because of the mediating influence of electoral rules that by and large were regarded as neutral and nonpartisan. The systems were seen as functioning to provide proportional representation of societal groups within the elite and to aggregate rather than suppress the upward flow of demands. The fact that no western democracy operated an electoral system of pure proportionality means that the regimes were able to legitimize themselves even without pure proportional representation as long as the society trusted the state to operate on the dual principles of the rule of the majority and the noncoercion of minorities.

Democratic Development in Countries with Full Suffrage: The Hobbesian Moment

10At the moment of transition in postcommunist states, they shared other interesting features besides emerging from authoritarian pasts. Full suffrage had been a feature of communist regimes since their founding, and the expectation that citizens would vote as a duty was deeply ingrained. Furthermore, the regimes’ so-called “nationality policy”—most prevalent in the Soviet Union but adopted in different guises in Eastern Europe—had allowed ethnic groups to maintain their cultural and (occasionally) linguistic autonomy. Newspapers and books were published in multiple languages, “houses of culture” for ethnic groups flourished (albeit under strict political guidelines), and national leaderships and elites arose, many of whom gained surreptitious popularity for their ability to achieve symbolic victories in promoting ethnic rights while sailing close to the political wind. The suppression of economic distinctions in the name of egalitarian principles meant that when communist rule ended, classes expressing different economic objectives did not emerge. Rather, a jumble of ill-formed socioeconomic aspirations rubbed up against often more robust conflicts concerning national rebirth and primordial identity. Consequently, rather than a party system emerging along a single axis characterized primarily by socioeconomic splits, as largely occurred in the West, a cacophony of parties erupted in postcommunist countries with each party staking out a corner of a multidimensional, fragmented, factionalized, and inchoate party system. Moreover, unlike in the West where elites were fundamentally homogenous and cooperative as to interest, background, and basic orientation, elites in most postcommunist states were diverse and competitive—the case of Poland being more the exception that proves the rule. And whereas the West had the “luxury” of establishing core institutions before universal suffrage, mass political participation, universal education, and minority-oriented media outlets emerged, in postcommunist states independence took place against the backdrop of extensive popular mobilization that preceded the collapse of communism. Ethnic and minority groups were fully mobilized, widely divergent interests had full access to newspapers and media outlets, and the population at large was infinitely more aware of the plethora of choices available to them once communism collapsed. In general, they looked to the electoral system first and foremost as the place where their democratic aspirations for “full” and “true” representation would be fulfilled.

11Popular and elite interests converged at the moment of transition; populations were ill-inclined to trust elites to represent their interests indirectly, and elites for their part were united only on the basis of two negative values: wanting to rid the system of the worst excesses of the authoritarian past and wanting to create systems that would be open to manipulation in the future. This consensus, based on negative values of high mobilization and low trust, led to the introduction of electoral systems that in general emphasized representation over governance. The absence of trust produced electoral systems that shared some basic features: for parliamentary elections, voting based on total or partial proportional representation rather than majoritarian formulae was favored in eighteen of the twenty-seven states, low or no (zero to four percent) thresholds were required for parties to gain seats in parliaments in eleven of the states, and the balance of power between parliaments and presidents kept the presidents weak vis-a-vis parliaments, with seven of the twenty-seven opting for parliamentary systems and thirteen of the twenty-seven giving parliaments complete immunity from dismissal by the executive. And of course, in the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya, where even these measures failed to attract the support of minorities bent on self-determination and titular nationalities bent on oppression, conflict soon broke out, serving as a vivid harbinger of the Hobbesian view that life without order can be “nasty, brutish, and short”. The first impulse of postcommunist societies, therefore, was centrifugal: to construct systems that provided high degrees of representation, even if at the expense of strong government. Indeed, the very idea of strong government, associated as it was in the minds of the population with authoritarianism, was eschewed. Only in those countries where the communist party managed to maintain a strong institutional presence were single member districts and majoritarian formulae retained (Albania, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan).

Burke to the Rescue: The Emergence of Governing Institutions

12Under the cumulative impact of multiple social and economic crises throughout postcommunist states, demands for strong government grew and popular support declined for highly fractionalized party systems that either produced unlimited numbers of small “sofa” parties that never got elected or put parties in parliament that would not cooperate in finding a way out of these various crises. Electorates wanted electoral systems to work to limit and aggregate the upward flow of demands; they did not want to see the Hobbesian fishbowl of their own societies reflected at the elite level. Public opinion in most states (the Czech Republic and Hungary being among the exceptions) increasingly showed a desire for stronger government, still elected democratically but capable of solving outstanding and critical issues. At the same time, elites who won majorities in the first postcommunist governments began to think of political reform that would extend and deepen their own grip on power. Once again, a convergence of interests set the backdrop for the next, Burkian, phase in which the principles of gradualism, governance, and delegative democracy would take precedence.

13A number of reforms were introduced, all of which were designed to increase governability, while moving the transition from communism forward. The results these reforms actually achieved have not, however, always been in line with their intentions. Looking first at thresholds, in eight countries thresholds were increased with an eye to decreasing the impact of minority and extremist parties, magnifying the influence of centrist groups, and reducing the number of parties actually represented in parliament. Democratic theory generally favors the view that the fewer the number of parties (above two), the more stable the system will be over time, since splinter or “sofa” parties are less responsive to voter preferences (they have little chance of being elected and thereby influencing policy) in any but the most divided parliamentary systems. So an increase in the percentage of votes a party requires in order to have any representation in parliament (a threshold) was favored and supported by Western specialists in many postcommunist countries as a way of moving the polity toward a more stable, centrist competition among a small number of parties, any of which might over time form a government and all of which have an imbedded interest in playing by the rules. Between the first and second parliamentary elections, the average for thresholds increased from 3.9 percent to 4.6 percent, with higher thresholds for coalitions of parties also being increasingly employed (in Hungary, for example, a threshold of fifteen percent for coalitions was introduced).

14A second aspect of the reform process was the introduction of electoral formulae that rewarded winning parties by giving them a higher proportion of seats in parliament than the proportion of the vote they received. For example, pure proportionality would require that a party winning twenty-five percent of the vote receive twenty-five percent of the seats. But formulae exist and are widely used throughout democratic countries that favor winning parties by giving them a higher proportion of the seats than they “deserve”; once again, by favoring winning parties, democratic theory presupposes that parties, seeking the advantage of getting extra seats if they win the most votes, will move their message to where the votes mainly reside—in the center. Therefore, it is surmised that these formulae will both create stronger governments in the short-run and make them more centrist in the long-term. Thus, among the seventeen states utilizing proportional representation to elect some or all representatives to parliament, in the first postcommunist elections, nine used formulae that were more proportional, while eight from the beginning put in place systems that would give a disproportional number of seats to the winning parties. By the second round, only five states allocated seats using proportional formulae (St. Lague, Droop, and Hare); twelve used formulae that would favor winning parties (notably Hagen-Bischoff and d’Hondt).

15A third aspect of the political reforms undertaken was the introduction of mixed electoral systems in which only a part of the seats would be chosen by proportional representation (PR), while another part would be chosen by first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections. The introduction of systems in which a percentage of the seats would be chosen through FPTP elections was also designed to increase the power of parties with a strong field of locally well-known candidates who could command majorities in their districts. Smaller ethnic groups would be disenfranchised unless they held a majority in geographically concentrated districts, as would minority political interests, both of which could still find a voice via the seats chosen through PR, but here parties that could field a list of nationally known candidates also could do well under PR. Clearly the dilution of PR was designed to decrease the influence of minority political and ethnic opinion and further stabilize the center.

16Finally, in the balance between the executive branch and legislature, popular interest in decreasing the ability of “debating society” parliaments to forestall swift action by executives to ameliorate the collapse of people’s standards of living led to the introduction of reforms to strengthen presidential authority vis-a-vis the legislature in some countries, giving presidents the right to rule by decree, call referenda, and otherwise circumvent divided and divisive legislatures under certain circumstances. Particularly in the post-Soviet states, the extent of popular dissatisfaction with parliaments’ inability to agree on appropriate measures to resolve crises set the backdrop for popular support of increased executive authority, most notably in Russia in 1993, but also in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, where parliaments lost ground to strong presidents. Indeed in several of these republics presidents actually manipulated this resentment to roll back democratic gains.

Good Ideas Go Astray

17If these were the intended results, what actually happened? To be sure, the introduction of thresholds decreased the number of parties represented in parliaments. The introduction of electoral formulae to strengthen winning parties in parliament did work to provide more seats to those parties. The use of mixed systems has indeed rewarded various kinds of parties, ensuring a diversity of representation.

18But if one of the clearest intentions of these reforms was to diminish and eventually eliminate the organized and institutional power of “red” postcommunist parties on the one hand and their opposite “brown” parties of power on the other, then this clearly has not occurred. Early optimistic forecasts opined that communists’ strength was actuarially limited and would “naturally” decline as young noncommunist voters became more numerous and voted for centrist and liberal parties. But then postcommunists came to power in Poland in 1993, and analysts had to reevaluate their forecasts. The glib view that this most anti-Russian of countries would never elect “real” communists (only the Russians were somehow seen as still capable of having an authoritarian communist party) was really only part of the picture. Did voters go to the booth and decide that they wanted to vote for the noncommunist communists? And if that was their preference, why not vote for any one of the centrist or social democratic alternatives? The answer is simpler: The electoral system had been reformed by the 1991 government with support of western policy makers to strengthen governance and ensure the emergence of strong centrist parties, but instead, the communists were the unintended victors. This occurred not because voter preferences changed that much; what did change were the rules that raised thresholds (ensuring that fewer parties gained seats in parliament), gave more seats to the winning parties (the postcommunists and their agrarian partners), and introduced a mixed system, which favored parties that had both a strong central organization and regional clout (the postcommunists).

19To be sure, other elites and parties subsequently learned the lesson. The postcommunists lost the next election in Poland under the same rules and gave up power, but the point here is that these and similar electoral reforms throughout the area have had the unintended consequence of stabilizing and institutionalizing postcommunist parties. Electoral competition has indeed pulled them away from the extreme left but also into the ideational space where new independent and liberal-minded social democratic parties might otherwise have arisen. The result therefore is both that postcommunist parties are not disappearing from the scene and that they are preventing the emergence of a genuine social democratic alternative in most postcommunist countries. Additionally, the failure of postcommunist parties to disappear from the political scene (and even their resurgence in some—especially post-Soviet—states) has had the dialectic effect of keeping parties of the right on the map longer than expected. And these “parties of power” have also benefited from the adoption of reforms that favor strong presidencies, including in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, and Georgia. And finally, because postcommunist parties are not declining in power, other parties— including both ethnic and right wing parties that are ideologically arrayed against them—are also not disappearing, even though their vote percentages might not be increasing.

20The institutionalization of postcommunist patties, while not foreordaining the failure of democracy, nevertheless does little to strengthen the prospect of its success, if only because fear of communist revanche creates a point of poisonous distrust at the core of the system. Rival parties calculate that if communist elites could succeed in destroying the brick-like wall of interlocking structures that made up communist rule through their sustained abuses, they could certainly undermine what is widely seen as a more benign and straw-like set of democratic electoral rules. And in addition, few elites believe that under all circumstances communists (and, for that matter, parties of the right) would necessarily give up power if parties of the opposite ideological persuasion won an election.

21This perception prevents, or at least impedes, the buildup of social capital—trust in the neutrality and power of the system to maintain itself over time. The multidimensionality of the challenge that the postcommunists present (socioeconomic, secular versus religious, nonethnic versus ethnic, illiberal versus liberal, anti-West versus pro-West, pro-Russian versus anti-Russian) also ensures that there is no single, stable, or even coherent outcome of the challenge that can satisfactorily be predicted in the longer term in many of these states. Yet the legacy of oppression by the communists ensures that as long as they exist, no amount of theorizing by western political scientists will produce the desired tendency toward a reduction in the number of political parties. Indeed, contrary to predictions based on democratic development in the West, in some of the postcommunist states the number of registered parties has actually increased and not decreased between elections; in the Czech Republic, for example, the number of parties increased from seventeen to twenty, in Georgia from forty-seven to fifty-four, in Lithuania from seventeen to twenty-four, and in Hungary the number of registered political parties has remained very high at nineteen.

The Descent into Hell: The Divine Comedy of Electocracies in Postcommunist States—of Dead Souls and Wasted Votes

22In states in which at least a portion of legislative seats is chosen by proportional representation and a threshold is employed, a certain percentage of voters will vote for parties that do not receive a single seat in the legislature because they fail to win a minimum threshold number of votes. In Western Europe, the mean of wasted votes for all proportional representation elections in the postwar era is six percent—that is, slightly more than one vote in twenty will be cast for a party that doesn’t gain any representation in parliament. However, in postcommunist elections the average to date has been almost seventeen percent; in other words, when citizens cast ballots in elections using proportional representation, there is an almost one in five chance that they will vote for a party that does not gain a single seat in parliament. The figure is alarming because there is obvious concern that voters may not be willing to change their preference by voting for parties that have a better chance of winning (like the postcommunists); rather, they will either continue to vote for splinter parties that fare poorly in elections or lose faith over time in the power of the process altogether (while the average turnout for elections has declined slightly over time, it is still well above western averages). The seventeen percent of wasted votes, moreover, applies only to PR elections, or that portion of the legislature chosen by PR in mixed systems. In FPTP elections, many more votes are cast for candidates who are not elected, but voters regard the system as legitimate since, while any given candidate may not be elected, parties in most western democracies do normally gain some representation. But in postcommunist states, where large numbers of parties also contend for seats in FPTP elections, many parties end up without a single seat in these elections as well. Consequently, the total percentage of votes wasted is far in excess of seventeen percent.

23This trend toward wasted votes may be increasing and not decreasing. The more the electoral systems are changed to achieve “governance” at the expense of “representation”, the more votes will be wasted. Two examples suffice to illustrate the point. In 1991 in Poland, elections were held using no thresholds; thus no votes were wasted. The electoral formula used—the St. Lague—did not give more scats to winning parties (sixty-nine were registered), so that when the Democratic Union won the most votes with twelve percent of the vote, it received only thirteen percent of the seats. By 1993, however, the electoral laws changed: a five percent threshold was in place (eight percent for coalitions) that led fully thirty-five percent of the votes cast to be wasted. And the electoral formula had been changed from St. Lague to d’Hondt, favoring winning parties, so that when the Democratic Left Alliance (or DLA—the postcommunists) won twenty percent of the vote they received thirty-seven percent of the seats. The Peasant Party received sixteen percent of the vote and twenty-nine percent of the seats, ensuring that with the DLA they were able to form a government even though they received fewer votes between them than the total votes that were wasted.

24A second example comes from Russia in 1995, where of the forty-three parties on the ballot only four received more than the five percent threshold, producing a result in which a staggering forty-nine percent of the total vote was wasted—the highest number of wasted votes ever recorded in European postwar elections. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) received only twenty-two percent of the total vote, but thirty-five percent of the seats were distributed through proportional representation. When added to the seats the CPRF gained by FPTP balloting (including a large number of local bosses who ran as independents and only when elected declared their affiliation with the CPRF), it held a clear majority in Parliament.

25Electoral theory assumes voters and candidates will behave rationally: voters will have a preference for voting for candidates that have a chance of winning, and candidates will adopt policy positions close to those of the median voter in order to maximize their chances of being elected. Over time, therefore, rational choice theory suggests that voters will stop voting for parties with little chance of winning, and parties at the margins will increasingly decrease their share of the votes as candidates vie for votes at the center. In a two-party system, any voter knows that a third party is an irrational vote, even though it may be undertaken for perfectly good reasons (protest, etc.). But in a thirty-four or forty-three party system, what is an irrational vote? How can voters know in advance how to structure their preferences? If they cannot know, given the number of votes that will be wasted, at what point does it become truly irrational even to vote at all? And if the median voter is a communist voter, or a Serbian or Croatian nationalist voter, is a rational candidate well-advised to move toward that median in order to capture votes? Does western policy favor reducing the number of parties to stabilize the system even if by doing so postcommunist parties and parties of power will further increase their share of the vote? Or is it not more likely that postcommunist politics in some countries may proceed not toward the center but away from the center, and candidates and voters group not around a unidimensional axis but around rather stable, yet multiple, groupings involving admixtures of ideology, regional identities, ethnicity, and religious affiliations—affiliations that are deeply rooted in the animosities and illiberal oppressions of the communist and precommunist eras and therefore are less negotiable than the socioeconomic status and associational identities more common in current western liberal democracies, but which emerged very slowly and with greater difficulty than is sometimes accepted even there.

26Such centrifugal forces might be contained without overwhelming a democracy if centripetal forces are greater—including civil society; unifying norms, values, and institutions; a growing economy; and the rule of law. But even in western democracies, elections are not sufficient for resolving the most intractable centrifugal issues like those raised, for example, by the “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Basque separatism, devolution in the United Kingdom, the antigovernment orientation of the Montana militia, or by the demands for recognition by minorities and “first nations”. Such issues have to be dealt with by multiple means at both the elite and societal levels over long periods. In many postcommunist states, and particularly in the post-Soviet states, populations still hungry for revenge, lacking in basic tolerance and trust, and unable to make the economic transition to a market-based economy combine with elites to undermine democracy. Under such circumstances, the demands placed on the electoral system are excessive. The carrying capacity of elections is not sufficient; they can assist in building democracy, but not substitute for it. The prospects are truly frightening; if communist elites could organize elections without any pretense of building democracy in the Soviet era, so can postcommunists and other parties of power if they choose. Does the international community assist in building democracy in, for example, Armenia, Croatia, or Kazakhstan by sanctifying an electoral process whose result is foreordained? Or is it not more likely that setting the bar so low on our definition of a free and fair election in fact gives dictators a smooth ride to an electocratic authoritarianism? Could electoral fraud of the kind seen in St. Petersburg’s local elections be repeated in the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections? Will the cause of democracy in Russia be aided if the international community turns a blind eye in the interest of not wanting to be “discouraging”? Perhaps the question, therefore, is not whether or not elections will succeed in building democracy if other aspects of the transition fail, but why did we ever believe they could?



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Karen Dawisha is professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park and associate director of its Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies.

© Central European University Press, 2000

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