Elections and everything that goes along with it: a festival or a travesty of democracy?

“Innovations are key to survival and they stem from the spirit of the society; as a part of democracy, elections and referendums are here to serve to citizens, and the real innovation would be not only to have the authorities amend laws, but to ask the citizens what they think about the laws”, this is the core message of the “Election Innovations Conference” – a two-day international conference organized by GONG at the National and University Library in Zagreb.

“Amendments to the laws are not innovations, but amendments to the laws,” Suzana Jašić, a GONG advisor, reminded the ‘forgetful’ ones in the final part of GONG’s Conference. Despite having heard a range of innovative solutions from across the globe, the local political representatives once again invested most of their energy into lamenting about the things they would not change and failed to show courage to take a step forward regardless of the risk of failure. It remains open to discussion whether this is due to their fear or a lack of will.

However, as Jašić pointed out: “Innovations can be initiated by both the Government and the Parliament, but there is no political will; they can also be initiated by DIP (State Electoral Commission), although, in our experience, it has more often tended to impede them. However, the fear of failure represents the greatest obstacle. So what if we fail? The important thing is for us to try”. “It is crucial to remember the purpose of elections in the first place and those in their focus – citizens”, said Boško Picula, a professor at the University College of International Relations and Diplomacy, who believes that the model used in the elections for the European Parliament is an optimal model for national elections, given its simplicity, respect for proportionality and direct voting for candidates.

Duje Prkut, a researcher at GONG, also advocated openness in the electoral model that would strengthen the role of voters. Among other things, he warned of the problem of (lack of) democracy within the parties and further concentration of power at the local level – in the hands of mayors. The story about the referendum continues to provoke the same old, divided opinions, both at the national and local levels; however, it is clear that the authorities must become aware of the fact that it concerns restoring and strengthening of citizens’ trust in the political processes which affect and shape their everyday lives. Therefore, as Picula concluded: “One has to be brave and this is the time to be brave. Why wouldn’t Croatia see its 25th anniversary of elections with at least one innovation?”

Money flow reveals (almost) everything

“The electoral administration is of key importance for fair elections; however, the role of media is certainly of considerable importance as their task is to provide clear information to voters with the aim of facilitating their decision-making, while the responsibility of political players should not be lost from sight either, because their task is, among other things, to present to the public in a transparent fashion what they advocate and the manner of financing their actions,” these were some of the conclusions from the first half of Day 2 of the “Fair of Electoral Innovations”.

Within its EU accession process, Croatia has become more transparent, but also more sensitive to corruption. The court epilogue concerning the Fimi Media affair is at last reaching its final stage these days; however, the question is why only now when numerous justified allegations had already been made public earlier? In this sense, a considerable anti-corruption potential is hidden in the monitoring of financing political activities and election campaigns that Croatia has only started to discover. Experiences of other countries were presented as examples of how to use this potential.

The situation in the U.S.A. was presented by Lisa Rosenberg, an advisor for Government affairs at the Sunlight Foundation who is engaged in lobbying activities in the Congress aimed at introducing legislative changes that would increase transparency in the work of public authorities. She presented two ways of financing parties and publishing their data. The first one, pertaining to the money that goes directly to candidates and parties, is rather transparent as it provides the public with an insight as to the most influential persons. The second way, pertaining to the money that is paid by external groups as a way of influencing elections, is shadowy as it mostly leaves the sources investing over one billion dollars unknown.

Although the information about donations for candidates is published by the Federal Electoral Commission, while the law also requests the publication of information about financial transactions paid out to lobbying groups, it is not quite comprehensive and is often incomplete. However, the Sunlight Foundation has created the online application Follow the Unlimited Money in order to track down as much information as possible about such expenditures.

Slovenia’s example of how to track down the money flow was presented by Rok Praprotnik, Head of Analytics and Information Security of Slovenia’s Anti-Corruption Commission, with the help of Supervizor – an online application for displaying public sector expenditures. The Supervizor provides information about activities of public bodies – all, direct and indirect, budget beneficiaries. These data are updated daily, which ensures proactive transparency in the area of public sector expenditures. The application is used by public bodies, executive bodies, state auditors and tax administrations, as well as by journalists and citizens. The tool proved notably useful at the local level, where people use information obtained through the Supervizor application to actively participate in the creation of policies at the local level and in the distribution of public funds.

What about Croatia’s Supervizor?

Having in mind recent developments, the question that cannot be avoided is: Why doesn’t Croatia introduce its own Supervizor? Its manufacturing does not cost more than one EUR, said Praprotnik. However, a part of the problem is the fact that Croatia lacks databases that could be easily searched, and, above all, lacks political will. Dragan Zelić, GONG’s Executive Director, also warned of this issue, emphasizing that he “certainly expects that a proactive role be assumed by the State Electoral Commission and notably by the state, i.e. the Government, whose task it is to gather all necessary data”.

As expected, the curious case of Milan Bandić, who reported that he had spent five million more kuna than collected through donations for his candidacy in the presidential election three years ago, could not go without mention. Where the difference came from, who paid it and for what reasons or interests remains a mystery which, for who knows what reason, has failed to draw attention of competent institutions. That is why Zelić fears that the “invoices for Bandić’s mayor campaign will be paid by the companies that constructed the fountains in front of the National and University Library.”

However, he sees a positive example and certain hope in the words of Nediljka Rogošić, Assistant State Auditor, who said that the State Audit Office was in the past five years monitoring the parties’ donors and checking the suppliers. Among some two thousand of inspected donors and 230 suppliers, irregularities were found in 10 cases and the State Attorney’s Office was informed about them. Since the information is still being investigated, and in other cases collected, no names can be made public yet, said Nataša Đurović, Deputy Head of USKOK (Office for the Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime), who shared some interesting information with the participants. Namely, during the last parliamentary elections, USKOK received from the State Audit Office 955 notices on the basis of which over 40 misdemeanor motions were filed. If reasonable doubt as to the perpetration of a criminal offence is established, the State Attorney’s Office itself should act ex officio.

The improved legislative framework certainly offers more possibilities for detecting irregularities; however, its application is also important, said Josip Kregar, a professor at the Faculty of Law in Zagreb. Đurović agreed, concluding that “laws represent the foundation, while their application in practice represents the superstructure, in the process of which a considerable role is played not only by state institutions, but also by media and civil society organizations”.

Society’s image reflected trough the media

With regards to the role of the media in political communication, notably in the electoral process, there is no magic recipe; political will and professional will in the media, as well as citizens’ trust are the key components to ensure that everything functions properly, said Giovanna Maiola, a senior researcher at the Institute for Media Research Osservatorio di Pavia where she is engaged in researching campaigns, media laws and policies, political and social communication, and democratic development.

“We rely on journalists to draw attention to various issues and question institutions, but many of them fail to do this”, warned Jelena Berković, Deputy Executive Director of GONG, commenting on the painful fact that the journalist profession is too weak and as such unable to strengthen its role in the democratic process. Certainly, a considerable part of the problem lies in the fact that the public is still unaware of the difference between the media that aim for the profit and journalists, whose aim should be the truth and impartiality. This is further aggravated by the fact that more and more journalists are losing their jobs, while those having more or less secure jobs or working either on a free-lance basis or within the RPO system (journalists in the RPO – Registry of Taxpayers – pay for the health and pension contributions and taxes from the gross salary) are in fact blackmailed and have no applicable editorial staff statutes despite the legal requirements, and thus have no influence whatsoever on the process of appointing editors-in-chief.

“There are two types of media in Croatia: those we have and those we want. When owners of media companies seek profit, they will ‘push’ contents that will ensure this, rather than broadcast debates of candidates on the lists for the European Parliament from which citizens could learn more about them”, said Marko Rakar of the association “Vjetrenjača” (Windmill) commenting on the statement of Zinka Bardić, a special media advisor to Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, who, when asked about the confusion created by the (non-) existing communication strategy of the Government and the Prime Minister, said that it was almost impossible to read or hear anything about, for example, the EU elections, in the media.

Rakar said that the media in Croatia were nothing but a reflection of the society; neither the society nor the media have managed to find the right path. For this reason, he sees new media and associations such as Vjetrenjača as the dominant sources of information taking into account the examples of the Register of War Veterans and lists of voters, which initiated debates outside Croatia, as well, i.e. in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia. Bardić took the opportunity to answer to frequent criticism about the Government putting too much emphasis on social networks, saying that she sees their advantage in the two-way communication and lack of noise in the communication channel, while the attitude that electoral debates will in future no longer be avoided should also be taken into account. Journalist Igor Lasić pointed out that the state should clearly define its authority so that everything would not be lost for the “old” media, but also for the media in general. He also commented on the latest reduction of VAT for daily newspaper publishers without imposing any obligations on them in the sense of improvements in advocating public interests, especially when we consider that instead of being a festival of democracy elections increasingly seem like a travesty of democracy.

Electoral administration – key factor for fair elections

In the meantime, we should remember the message delivered on the first day of the Conference – about the need for ongoing improvements of the electoral process, notably in the area of electoral administration, processing and displaying of results, which requires a lot of work.  This issue was also addressed by Ammar AL Dwaik, former chairman of the Palestinian Central Electoral Commission, who spoke about innovations in managing elections in the circumstances of an armed conflict, with the main challenges, in addition to holding elections in the first place, being the security and participation of citizens, as well as the integrity of the process, while innovations would depend on the situation and the context.

AL Dwaik gave two examples from the Palestinian context which include some kind of innovative solutions for some of the challenges faced in the elections. The first example was that of security forces voting in the 2006 parliamentary elections as the main electoral corpus. Due to the electoral law requiring voters to cast their votes in their place of residence, there was a risk that an overwhelming majority of voters would not be able to cast their votes on the day of the elections. In view of unstable political and security situation at that time, the unresolved issue of the security forces threatened to undermine the entire elections. The solution found by the Electoral Commission was a legal/logistic combination as the Commission interpreted the law in the way which allowed members of the security forces to vote in the period of three days before the elections. Their turnout was above 92 percent.

The second example is the registration of emigrant Palestinians to enable them to vote for the Palestinian National Council for the first time in history. Given the complexity and politically sensitive nature of registration of emigrant Palestinians, it is conducted by grassroots organizations and refugee camps’ committees. The process is still underway and there is a possibility that it will never be completed due to political and other reasons, but the key innovation lies in mobilizing wide masses and non-governmental organizations in managing and facilitating activities as a new model of an electoral administration body.

Suad Arnautović, a member of the Central Electoral Commission of Bosnia-Herzegovina, also emphasized the importance of electoral administration, which he singled out as a possible example of the optimal solution. The Commission is a professional body whose members have considerable authority and a seven-year mandate, which means that they “last” longer than the electoral cycle and that gives them more independence from politics. This is a very important factor because, finally, as Arnautović concluded: “electoral administration is the key factor for fair elections”.