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Ensuring Free and Fair Elections

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For decades, the Communist governments of East-Central Europe held elections. And for decades, these elections produced more-or-less the same results. The Communist Party candidates -- or the candidates of the parties aligned with the Party -- won the elections by absurd margins. The Party in Hungary was the poorest performer in this regard. In the 1980 election, it won with only 99.3 percent of the vote. Its fraternal parties in neighboring countries generally captured 99.9 percent of the vote.

The first multi-party elections in East-Central Europe in nearly 50 years took place in 1990. They coincided with a global upsurge in election monitoring. Outside observers flocked to the region to observe those first elections -- in East Germany in March, in Hungary in April, in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia in June, and so on. Reports by U.S. election observers are available here.

Gradually, NGOs within the countries developed the capacity to monitor their own elections. This became a critical issue in Slovakia heading into the 1998, with the country's prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, taking the country in a more authoritarian direction. There was a growing concern that Meciar, in a throwback to the Communist era, would manipulate electoral outcomes to remain in power. The National Democratic Institute offered funding for organizations working on free and fair elections in Slovakia. Young activist Maros Gabriel took them up on the offer.

"With some young people I founded Civic Eye in 1998, just three months before the elections," he told me in a conversation in Bratislava last February.

We created Civic Eye as an ad hoc organization only to organize election monitoring with election observers for the 1998 elections. This kind of election work wasn't present in Slovakia at the time -- or in Hungary or in Poland. But it was something that we knew was happening in Russia and the Balkans. I thought it was a good idea to show young people the correct practices and ensure that the elections wouldn't be manipulated. This was our attempt to improve the process.

We were joined by Alexander Matus, who worked at Civic Eye that year as a volunteer. "The 1998 elections went well for me and for my generation," he added.

Things changed in 1998. The demand for election monitoring, domestically, gradually vanished. There is now a basic trust in the results of our elections even though there are some flaws that need to be addressed. There have been some cases involving shady political campaign financing. And there have been some constitutional court judgments overturning election results. But those have been around municipal elections. For the parliamentary elections, there's never been a political demand for election observers at the level of 1998.

Success has its hazards. Election monitors had done such a good job in Slovakia that they nearly did themselves out of jobs altogether. "After a few years, the demand for this kind of activities disappeared, together with the funding for this kind of activity," Matus continued.

NGOs had to find another arena. If you really wanted to continue with election monitoring, you had a good chance to do it at an international level by transferring the knowledge acquired in the late 1990s to other countries. Former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Belarus were the most natural countries where we could continue our election-oriented work. So, that's what we've done for the last 10 years and more: focusing our activities on an international basis.

The work has brought them both around the world. "Our full-time work is for the EU/OSCE as election experts, and we've worked in the former Soviet Union, Sierra Leone, Pakistan," Gabriel explained.

I've worked as a political analyst for different election missions for the EU/OSCE. It's the same with Sasha. At home we're trying to do small projects with our NGOs, working in support of NGOs in Tunisia or Egypt and before that in Ukraine with the help of official Slovak aid or international assistance. This is meaningful work, but it's ad hoc.

We talked about how competitive election monitoring has become, the degree of tolerance in Slovak society, and what it's like to live in a world of grays.

The Interview

What made you decide to get involved politically? Was there a particular moment or event? You could have gone abroad or taken a job. But you decided to become involved in political activism.


Maros Gabriel: In my case, I wanted to study politics because I always wanted to become involved in politics. Even under the former regime, I wanted to get involved in order to change it. I had an idea as a young naive guy to change the world in a positive direction. It was also for me an interesting way to have a career.

After I studied at the Central European University in Budapest, I came back to Slovakia in 1996-7. I obviously was very angry at what was happening in Slovakia. I felt that I needed to do something against Vladimir Meciar's regime. Of course, this was a time when I was making a decision about my life and career. I couldn't go to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not during that type of government: I would have felt ashamed. I wouldn't have supported the government at all. It wasn't what I wanted Slovakia to look like.

So, I joined a civil society organization, something called the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. As an NGO person, I had an opportunity to meet many different people. I was thinking about what we could do in 1998 when I heard about this initiative of NGO leaders by Pavol Demes and others who were trying to organize a united front against Meciar in the elections. I was the person in our NGO who served as a liaison to this.

I also received an offer at that time from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which was present here and was offering money to those who wanted to organize activities related to free and fair elections. I thought that was an interesting idea. So, with some young people I founded Civic Eye in 1998, just three months before the elections. We created Civic Eye as an ad hoc organization only to organize election monitoring with election observers for the 1998 elections. This kind of election work wasn't present in Slovakia at the time -- or in Hungary or in Poland. But it was something that we knew was happening in Russia and the Balkans. I thought it was a good idea to show young people the correct practices and ensure that the elections wouldn't be manipulated. This was our attempt to improve the process.

It was quite successful. Since then, we decided to continue to do other activities. As a new NGO we had support from international donors and Slovak society as well. We had a lot of young volunteers. We wanted to continue to use this energy. Even if they never said if they were against the Meciar regime or not, it was more or less obvious that the young generation supported the idea that the elections should be free and fair and were against the manipulation of the media and political pressure by the government.

Alexander Matus: I'd never been a full-time NGO guy. I always had a normal job. At the end of 1990s, NGO activities were my after-work, part-time hobby. I had a job with one of the UN agencies that had a regional office here. Since I was close friends with Maros I was also active in the NGO area as well. Most of the NGOs then and even now were on a part-time basis with only a few professionals running the office. But the election monitoring exercise in 1998 involved more than 2,000 people, mostly students or recent school graduates who wanted to contribute to some change. I participated a lot but only as a volunteer activist. Again, I was not one of the leaders.

After a while the situation changed. The 1998 elections went well for me and for my generation. Things changed in 1998. The demand for election monitoring, domestically, gradually vanished. There is now a basic trust in the results of our elections even though there are some flaws that need to be addressed. There have been some cases involving shady political campaign financing. And there have been some constitutional court judgments overturning election results. But those have been around municipal elections. For the parliamentary elections, there's never been a political demand for election observers at the level of 1998.

So, after a few years, the demand for this kind of activities disappeared, together with the funding for this kind of activity. NGOs had to find another arena. If you really wanted to continue with election monitoring, you had a good chance to do it at an international level by transferring the knowledge acquired in the late 1990s to other countries. Former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Belarus were the most natural countries where we could continue our election-oriented work. So, that's what we've done for the last 10 years and more: focusing our activities on an international basis. And I joined our NGO full time in 2004.

Are there any examples from the 1998 elections of major election irregularities that occurred or didn't occur because you had observers present?

Maros Gabriel: It's difficult to say. It would be too much to say that our project of election monitoring prevented some fraud. We didn't receive accreditation to be present at the counting of the votes. But we brought together a lot of people who joined this process in order to take a stand. What was important was to create this atmosphere in which a majority of people in this country cared and didn't want to be cheated. In that atmosphere it was not possible to cheat or achieve significant electoral fraud. The political parties also participated in creating this atmosphere. There were two opposition networks. One, SDK, won the elections. The Left party, SDL, also had a large network of activists that were present at the polling stations. A lot of NGO people joined the political parties to work inside the polling stations as nominees. So, it was really not possible to change the electoral results, at least at the level of the polling station. There would have been a big protest, and it would have been political suicide for the ruling party. There were some fears that the government would put pressure on the media, that it would put pressure on people in the countryside to support the ruling party or else lose their jobs. We had to address these myths by pointing out that the opposition is strong and telling people not to be afraid. It was the last year that people were afraid to say who they voted for.

You talked about transferring the knowledge gained here to other countries. Can you boil down the lessons that you transferred?

To read the rest of the interview click here.