There have been numerous claims that the 2020 election results were rigged or fraudulent. Many Americans now believe their democratic systems are falling apart, and that those that have been put into power through these “rigged elections” are going to dismantle the rest of them piece by piece. While it is important to pay attention to the political acts and decisions made by officials, a comparison to other countries shows that the U.S., and its elections, are relatively fine. Unlike the U.S., countries like Serbia, while holding democratic elections, have blatantly and visibly violated basic democratic principles, and are clearly seen as democratic governments eroding into full-blown autocracies.
On the surface, everything about Serbia’s 2017 election seemed democratically legitimate. The then prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, ran under the Serbian Progressive Party and won his five-year term with 55 percent of the vote in a race that included 10 other candidates from parties including the Serbian Radical Party and the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats. Below the surface, however, it became apparent that Aleksandar Vucic used his position as prime minister to undermine the democratic institutions of Serbia through the electoral arena and media, securing Serbia’s title as a “competitive authoritarian state”. This is a title that Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way give to governments that have democratic systems, but either blatantly ignore these systems or use these systems (such as an election process) to undermine and weaken the democracy.
Issues arose with accusations that Vucic was inappropriately using his position as prime minister while campaigning. According to Balkan Insight, Serbia’s Bureau for Social Research identified eleven instances in which Vucic abused the power of his then political position. One major offense was using his prime minister airtime in combination with his campaign airtime. This means that, on top of his typical political ads, Vucic was promoting himself as a candidate during news and press conferences as the prime minister, adding substantial bias to official proceedings (such as state addresses) and significantly increasing his overall media presence in relation to his fellow candidates. Beyond this, there were allegations of vote buying, ballot stuffing, and other forms of tampering during the election, as well as voter intimidation tactics.
Despite his ill gained victory, Vucic promised after the election to keep Serbia on track to join the European Union. However, in 2020 there were some major events that resulted in further democratic backsliding of the country. The term “democratic backsliding” was coined by Nancy Bermeo, who uses it to describe a country with democratic institutions but is delegitimizing its own constitutional democracy. The Serbian Progressive Party showed its true intentions again by packing Serbia’s Parliament with its own party members. The opposing political parties organized a boycott for the election and pulled their candidates from the campaign, as they believed the election had not been fairly arranged. Their refusal to participate would have meant that, unless everyone decided to abandon their party of choice and just vote for the Serbian Progressive Party, most candidates would not have been able to secure the required five percent vote to win a seat in parliament. The members of the Serbian Progressive Party, however, decided to use this to their advantage. A few weeks before the scheduled election’s new date (it had been pushed from April 2020 to June 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic), the party lowered the voting threshold from five to three percent. The result? The Serbian Progressive Party won by a landslide, securing 188 seats out of 250 seats.
This means that after 4 of Vucic’s 5 years as president, he has been far more successful in monopolizing the Serbian government than his predecessor, Tomislav Nikolic (founder of the Serbian Progressive Party), and many consider this to be the first step to full blown autocracy. This is a classic example of controlling one of Steven Levitsky’s four arenas of government: the electoral arena. While protests have occurred and have been allowed after these elections, all of the power to change this system remains with one party, leaving all opposition to sit, watch, and wait. If we were to compare these conditions to those of the United States, we would find the following results.
The first comparison is use of airtime and media. During the United States’ election season, the Coronavirus pandemic was in full force. Because the media’s full attention was on covering the progression of the virus, there was very little airtime given to campaigns and political ads in general. However, the incumbent president still had a significant amount of airtime through press conferences and state addresses as the leader of the country trying to handle a global health crisis. This can be viewed as an unfair advantage in the incumbent’s favor. However, unlike in Serbia, there were still forms of independent media covering the incumbent’s responses to the pandemic, as well as social media outlets where people could freely support or disapprove of the incumbent’s decisions, and thus a sign that the United States’ electoral arena was still free and democratic. While it is important to note that the media did eventually focus more on the opposing party later in the election season, and that the incumbent ended up hurting his campaign through this airtime, it’s something that should still be watched carefully in the future.
Another comparison I feel is important is that of vote buying. During the pandemic, a few months before the election, the incumbent heartily agreed to distribute aid throughout the country. However, during the last 3 years of the presidency, the incumbent and his party took a stance against aid programs. These past views combined with the sudden change of views indicated a form of vote buying that has been used by corrupt officials in poor countries. Furthermore, after the election, the new president made a statement saying that electing two of the candidates in Georgia’s Senate Runoff would result in another stimulus package. While neither of these were explicit transactions of “benefits for votes” (most vote buying is an actual economic transaction in which candidates actually buy votes like one would buy produce), and the U.S. Constitution provides checks and balances to prevent the abuse of funds and power, it is still a questionable strategy that, based on this last year, is going to be used again in the near future by both the left and the right and should be monitored closely.
Despite these small incidences, there were a lot of differences between the United States’ election and Serbia’s. For example, Serbia changed its vote threshold within a few weeks of an election. There were no major political changes to the U.S. system, as absentee ballots and voter drop-off boxes had been used before (just not to the extent they were used during the pandemic). Furthermore, the United States did not experience voter intimidation, mass breaches in voting systems, or mass cases of ballot stuffing. It’s also important to note that, while there were some inaccurate sources of media, all media had the same opportunity to broadcast and reach people. Furthermore, people had the right to respond and share these sources pushed by the media, even if they were inaccurate. Thus, while the U.S. isn’t perfect, our liberties and the checks and balances of the constitution are still being respected, allowing us to hold legitimate elections, which is much more than what can be said for Serbia and countless other countries.
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