„September 1999. The three of us are in the office of the then President of the Croatian Parliament, holding boxes containing 28,000 signatures of people requesting the introduction of non-partisan election monitoring into the electoral law, collected in 28 cities. Vlatko Pavletić looks at us with interest, maybe even with sympathy: ‘You‘re young and clever, why don‘t you join the HDZ Youth?‘ ‘No, we would like to join the electoral law,‘ we answered“, this was how Suzana Jašić, one of the founders of GONG, remembered the association‘s early days during celebration of GONG‘s 15 anniversary, that took place on April 13 2012 at the Croatian Journalists‘ Association in Zagreb.
„September 1999. The three of us are in the office of the then President of the Croatian Parliament, holding boxes containing 28,000 signatures of people requesting the introduction of non-partisan election monitoring into the electoral law, collected in 28 cities. Vlatko Pavletić looks at us with interest, maybe even with sympathy: ‘You’re young and clever, why don’t you join the HDZ Youth?’ ‘No, we would like to join the electoral law,’ we answered“, this was howSuzana Jašić, one of the founders of GONG, remembered the association’s early days during celebration of GONG’s 15 anniversary, that took place on April 13 2012 at the Croatian Journalists’ Association in Zagreb.
Democracy development within 15 years of GONG
This celebration was preceded by monitoring 15 elections and one referendum in Croatia. As Tihomir Ponoš, Novi list columnist, pointed out: “There were over 20,000 people monitoring the elections, but the interesting thing is that the number of monitors has declined over the years. So that monitoring the elections became almost like a secondary activity to GONG. This shows another big change. At the beginning, the political elite could only be confronted by ‘muscles’ and big numbers. Today, the political elite can be confronted by ‘brains’. Another change that was mentioned by the Platform 112 in its report on the first one hundred days of the new government, is the relationship with the civil society organisations that are today treated as partners.“
This relationship was built over time and through development of democracy in a young country such as Croatia. Branko Hrvatin, Supreme Court president, emphasised the following: “Earlier, the main feature of GONG was its youth, and over the years, this youth was combined with experience. For me, youth still remains the main feature of GONG – because only youth can provide such enthusiasm and such belief in ideas that you stand for, and that you wish to implement in the best possible way. You can really help the democracy. The experience came over time, facilitated by another process that I witnessed – responsibility. Responsibility guarantees continuity, and this is something that GONG has.”
Vesna Kesić, activist and member of the GONG Council, emphasised the importance of institutionalisation of civil society: “ In a way, GONG is an institution today. If by institution we consider stability, responsibility, expertise, visibility and trust.”
Citizens’ (dis)trust in politics
A relatively small voter turnout in 2011 parliamentary elections and in referendum on Croatia’s EU accession points to deterioration of citizen trust in politics. „Trusting institutions is not enough, and it seems that it all lead to deterioration of trust in representative democracy“, concluded Dragan Zelić, GONG executive director. „There are big expectations from the new government – it is expected to set an example and to use its actions and decisions to enhance the citizen trust in politics and institutions. They must not underestimate the citizens, but include them in decision making, thus raising the quality of democracy. In one year’s time we will enter the EU, and we hope that the new government will not lull itself to sleep, but continue to implement reforms, as well as remain responsible and open to the citizens.“
Zoran Milanović, Prime Minister, also referred to the growing citizen distrust in political processes, institutions and politics as such, by stating that this trust represents the foundation of development of the rule of law: “The point of the story is trust – trusting the system that is functional, trusting that nobody is cheating, and trusting the representative nature of such system. GONG is one of the institutions that people trust. They trust it because it’s active but not aggressive; because it’s determined but not annoying. There are no hidden interests behind it, only the intention to make improvements towards greater good. This is how I would like to see political parties work.”
In the spirit of changes advocated by GONG, the Prime Minister Milanović pointed out the key issues standing in the way of development of the rule of law, and at the same time representing the foundation of democracy: “Parties, electoral law, these are all the things that we need to improve. We have disastrous electoral rolls, which do not represent a problem in terms of influencing the final election result. But the fact that there is such discrepancy between the actual and the real situation, creates distrust among people. We have to take care of that.”
Civil society as the centre of social power
Political participation, transparency, responsibility, rule of law, activism, democracy, cooperation – this is what we aim for. Berto Šalaj, GONG Council President, accentuated the mission of GONG: “To promote civil and human rights, to promote the ideals of active citizenship – therefore, to promote active, responsible and informed participation of citizens in political processes.” Through its four programme units (electoral system, good governance, active citizens and civil society, Croatia and EU), and in cooperation with individuals and organisations who share similar values, GONG actively promotes the culture of dialogue, openness and responsibility in the public sphere by conducting research in the GONG Research Centre, through advocating social change and carrying out education in its EDUcentre.
In the oncoming years, GONG will focus on securing the rule of law through the 112 requests of the Platform 112, gathering 60 civil society organisations; strengthening the participation in political processes at the EU level; advocating the formalisation of education for democratic citizenship; introducing the new electoral codex so that the 2015 elections could be held in accordance with improved electoral rules; implementation of principles of good governance in the work of political institutions and public administration; ensuring independence and freedom of media through its existing programmes.
In future, GONG will definitely remain focused on pointing to the necessity of further civil society development. Berto Šalaj recalled that there are three types of power in contemporary societies: “There is the power of government, economic power and social power. If the government ensures legitimacy through elections, and the economic power ensures validity through control, what is left to the citizens? Civil society is the centre of social power. The possibility to activate the citizens in order to achieve collective goals – this is the chance that the citizens have, and this is why civil society matters. Without the civil society, social power cannot be developed. This is where I see the additional role of GONG – to work on the process of social empowerment.”
Audio recording of the whole programme of GONG’s 15th anniversary is available for listening and download at:
15th Anniversary of GONG