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The advancement of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 16:10

Dr. Zoltan Toth in the Hungarian Parliament

By Dr. Zoltán Tóth, Secretary General, Association of European Election Officials

In discussing the development of democracy in East-Central Europe, it is essential to make mention of some significant historical developments: the World Wars; the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947; the formation of the post-war Soviet sphere of influence with tacit acquiescence of the US and the Allied Powers; the Warsaw demonstrations; the 1956 Hungarian revolution; the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania; the Polish Solidarity movement; the power of Soviet gerontocracy and Gorbachov’s glasnost and perestroika.

The weakening of the military, economic and domestic power structure within the Soviet Union was one of the decisive political changes to the process of enhanced democratisation in the region.

The new balance created in the global political arena coincided with the pent up desire of East-Central European nations to achieve their own freedom. This desire was further fueled by the serious socio-economic and political crisis characterizing the region between 1985 and 1990.

Domestic and foreign policy conditions have come of age in the area: the process of political changes got under way in all countries, namely in Hungary, Poland and Romania. The collapse of the Soviet Union provided additional impetus to various independence movements and democratisation processes.

In addition to the official establishment of a multi-party system, legitimate parliaments and governments sprung up everywhere, marking the end of the exclusivity of state ownership in the newly sovereign states. All countries declared the need to join Europe. To belong to Europe became equivalent to holding free elections.

The Association of European Election Officials (ACEEEO) established in Budapest in 1991 was one of the prominent founding players in organising the first free elections in the region.

In the course of the past 20 years, ACEEEO’s membership grew to 24 countries during which time it has regularly interacted with ten international organisations specializing in global elections.

How many countries in the world can be characterized as democracies? It is clear that the 206 U.N. member states cannot be considered a maximum; should we count the current members of the European Union and NATO as a minimum, their number would be around 30. Additionally, the number of so-called transitional countries is between 30 and 50.

Upon closer examination it can be concluded that a real democracy does not exist in the majority of the world’s countries, thus elections held there cannot be considered to be democratic either.

We cannot speak of democracy in a one-party system even if, certain great powers based on their own well-formulated politico-military considerations, declare elections held by certain dictatorial regimes to be ‘democracy initiatives’.

Some people representing ‘mature democracies’ make themselves appear in the role of ‘democracy instructors’, while characterising representatives of  ‘new democracies’ as ‘students of democracy’.
Based on the lessons of history of the past 20 years, it is quite clear that nowadays there are no students or instructors in democratic countries.

In countries of the ‘old democracies’, the transgressions and immoralities of the past also tend to become undone. However, the gradual revelations of election fraud should not dishearten the new democracies; on the contrary, they should make it unequivocally clear before everyone that  democratic elections are part of a learning process for mature democracies as well, and that they are not based on an instructor-student relationship, rather on integrity, a level playing field and transparency.

The constitutional foundation of electoral systems is the principle of proportionality. From a perspective viewpoint of democracy, the principle ‘winner takes all’-long accepted and considered to be democratic is unacceptable. The same can be said for the archaic indirect (electoral) system of elections.

ACEEEO is clearly aware of the fact that both of the above principles are deeply rooted in the Anglo-American tradition. However, it is also clear that the future belongs to the proportionate electoral systems. The United Kingdom has already taken positive steps in this direction.

We also cannot idly sit by without commenting on the endeavors of some countries who attribute peculiar characteristics to the democratic principles of the North Atlantic Alliance and the European Union.

According to Western political terminology, these countries are characterised as dictatorships, even if they do everything in their power to make their laws appear to be as democratic as possible. One of the essential prerequisites of a democracy, however, is the existence of a real multi-party system, a legitimate parliament and government as well as the dissolution of exclusive state ownership of all means of production.

ACEEEO is diligently laboring to the end that the above named preconditions be realised in an increasing number of countries globally.

Our motto has been: “Not by the might of bullets, but by the power of the ballots!”

In the spirit of the above, we would like to extend a heartfelt invitation to our 20th anniversary conference to be held in Budapest from June 15-18, 2011.