The Staggering Chutzpah of Ending Staggered Election Cycles

As he ramps up for his eight-month term as Chairman of the BiH Presidency, HDZ BiH’s Dragan Čović has begun to sketch out his vision for the future. One of his noted priorities is to change the election law so that rather than holding general (state/entity/canton) and municipal elections in an every-two-years staggered cycle (2012, 2014, 2016, etc.), the country would instead work according to a synchronized election cycle, in which elections for positions at all levels of government would be held every four years. See article: “Čović poručio DF-u: Odlučite konačno šta hoćete, ne mogu razumjeti da netko želi nered”.

Political parties and international supporters of this change will argue that there are many benefits to this approach. However, citizens should not be fooled. This is not about good governance, but is a naked attempt to both extend the current municipal status quo to 2018, and to increasingly politicize the election environment at the local level.

Supporters of this reform make a number of arguments, all of which can be easily refuted by anyone familiar with the politics in the country in the past 20 years.

First, they point out that the problem preventing reform is not the lack of will or interest in reform among the ruling parties, but the inconvenience of an electoral system in which citizens are offered the opportunity to show their preferences for parties and programs every two years, by alternately voting for four-year mandates for either general or municipal level officials in a staggered election cycle (general elections in 2014; local in 2016, and so on). If only – this argument goes – the BiH parties didn’t have to worry about the toxic campaign environment every 24 months, then they would have a full 48 months to put their nose to the grindstone and work to undertake reforms for the people of the country.

This is silly. The lack of meaningful results by officials serving in the current mandate since the October elections demonstrates yet again that both among elected officials and unelected party leaders, the implementation of tangible reforms is not their number one priority. As described further below, most countries intentionally stagger their elections to provide mid-term opportunities for citizens to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their elected leaders, and to therefore send a mid-term signal about their support for their agendas. Staggered elections for different government levels are the norm in the democratic world.

Second, proponents of synchronization say that having elections every four years will give politicians more time to talk about the issues that really matter, and eliminate the incentives of campaigning based solely on narrow populist, nationalist rhetoric (which, admittedly, works in this election system.)

This is also baseless. The reason parties do not campaign based on real-world interests is because in this system they don’t have to; they can win based on the age-old application of fear and patronage. By not talking about how you will improve schools, create jobs, and fix potholes, you are also assured of never being held account for failing to improve schools, create jobs or fix potholes. Again, this electoral behavior is predictable according to the rules of the game in BiH. See: “Is Substantial Political Reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina Possible through the Ballot Box in October 2014?”.

Further, merging general and local elections would actually have a negative impact on both issue-based campaigning and the municipal political environment generally, by ensuring that high-level, constituent people party politics infect – even hijack – election discourse even at the local-level. Municipal elections – including the right of citizens to directly elect their mayors – have been one of the rare democracy success stories in BiH. Citizens can put a name and face to their mayor, and vote them in or out. (This accountability very likely explains why municipal level responses to the 2014 floods were among the only effective government reactions.) More generally, there has been academic research that suggests that staggered elections tend to improve fiscal discipline at the local level; again, accountability works. If general elections are held at the same time, then campaigns will very certainly not be about local economic development or garbage collection or local environment concerns, but about the same “us vs. them” politics that dominate the general election campaigns. This would result in backsliding, not progress.

Third, supporters will note that elections are expensive, and that it would be fiscally responsible for cash-strapped BiH to cut down on the costs of polling through such efficiency-minded innovations.

Upon first glance this seems to make sense. If you only have to drag out the ballot boxes and employ election staff every 4 years rather than every 2 years, then that will result in significant savings, right?

Wrong. First of all, the complexity of the balloting process would be increased by having elections for 4 levels of government at the same time. This would affect ballot preparation, election staff needed, public education and outreach, etc.

However, and even more important, is that in an attempt to respond to the criticism above – about the negative impact on local elections of higher-level campaign politics – a leading suggestion for synchronization would in fact NOT have all of the elections on the very same day, but would have two separate sets of elections at two different times, just within the same general time period. All those planned “savings”?? Gone.

What is the general practice on this issue in other countries in Europe? Luckily, such information is available. See: “COMPARATIVE STATE PRACTICE: TIMING OF STATE AND LOCAL ELECTIONS”.

There is a variety of practice, but a preference for staggering schedules that allows for mid-term citizen reviews.

18 countries in Europe intentionally stagger their elections, including Denmark, Germany, Austria, Belgium and other quite functional democracies. There can be times when elections are unintentionally synchronized – due for example to the fall of a government and the need to call for snap/extraordinary elections. However the election laws tend to support the staggered approach.

Several countries have hybrid staggered/synchronized election cycles. The rationale for this can vary. In some cases this reflects the impact of 6-year terms, which throws off synchronization (e.g., the Czech Republic); in others it reflects different timing for Presidential or Parliamentary elections (e.g., Cyprus).

Hungary holds general and local elections in the same year, but at different times.Romania holds local and parliamentary elections in the same year. Sweden synchronizes. In Switzerland it is up to the cantons to develop their own election timetables, so there can be quite some variance.

So, the facts are not on the side of synchronized elections as the answer to BiH’s woes.

However, for Čović and other BiH politicians, this is a brilliant strategy. After delaying and obfuscating meaningful reform since the October 2014 elections, and upon returning to work this autumn, the parties in power can argue that if only they had more time to introduce socio-economic reforms they would buckle down and do so. However, those pesky local level elections in 2016 will be singled out as the only obstacle on the path to progress, as the parties will despairingly note the tendency of some (but of course never them) to “politicize” reform in their campaigns, and thereby downgrade the overall environment.

Further, this is an initiative that could attract the support of many parties who might otherwise not agree on anything. Why? It would mean another two years of the status quo without having to worry about being held to account on actions taken related to privatization, asset stripping, laws to reduce transparency in governance, etc.

Unfortunately, there are many in the international community who are also likely to buy into this proposal, for their own self-serving reasons. First, they will point to the few countries that institutionally rely on synchronized elections, without admitting that the bulk of the strongest democracies stagger. Second, the hunger to see the parties agree on anything will likely cloud the vision of diplomats and technocrats accustomed to viewing political elites as “partners” rather than as adversaries; they will point to this unneeded and unwelcome reform as well-intended progress that will pave the way for more reform. Third, synchronized elections would make it even easier to blame citizens for the political situation in the country by voting these guys into office, thereby absolving outsiders of any responsibility in the country’s frozen status quo. (For more on why this is a disingenuous argument, see: “Is Substantial Political Reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina Possible through the Ballot Box in October 2014?”).

It will be interesting to see what happens. Next up in nefarious election reform proposals? The argument to return to closed lists, including at the local level, to purportedly ensure that more women are involved in political life. Don’t be fooled.

BHS verzija – BCS version