Resistible Force Meets Immovable Object

How’s this for a nerdy parlor game… Guess which country is being described in these three snippets from a preliminary statement by international observers about recent elections:

Most candidates and party representatives whom [international election observers] met said vote-buying was a major and widespread problem, but were unable to provide concrete information or evidence substantiating their concerns. The Ministry of Interior informed that investigations into a number of suspected cases of vote-buying had been opened. Regardless of the veracity of the allegations of vote-buying, their pervasiveness diminished trust in the fairness of the election process. Some opposition parties and candidates also claimed that pressure had been put on some of their municipal candidates and supporters. These allegations usually referred to threats of job loss or pressure through inspections of businesses owned by candidates or their relatives.

The number of voters registered for the presidential election totaled 6,933,748, and 6,514,917 for the municipal elections. According to the 2011 census, [Country X’s] population is 7,364,570. The ratio between the number of inhabitants and the voting-age population raises concern.

Interlocutors expressed concerns about the political balance of election commissions and that the law does not guarantee opposition parties to be adequately represented in leadership positions. The meetings of the [Central Election Commission] were closed to the public and to election stakeholders, thus reducing transparency.

Answer: Bulgaria!

Given the small size of the OSCE election observation mission involved and observers’ general tendency to downplay abuses in “transitional” cases, I suspect these and other concerns identified in the report are hinting at some real and serious flaws. Intimidated voters and inflated voter rolls are a far cry from the violent attacks and outright fraud that bedevil elections in some “developing” countries, but Bulgaria is not any old “developing” country; it has been a member of NATO since 2004 and the European Union since 2007.

In the 1990s, Western officials argued that conditional expansions of NATO and the EU would encourage reforms in candidates for membership and then help lock in those reforms once the new members had joined. None of those organizations’ new members has suffered a democratic collapse, but as Bulgaria’s electoral troubles show, some of those new members have also failed to reach the point where that kind of collapse seems out of the question.

Why is democracy still fragile under these, arguably the most auspicious, conditions? There’s a substantial academic literature on EU membership and democratization that I won’t try to summarize here, beyond waving my hand in the general direction of the collected works of Geoffrey Pridham and Milada Vachudova as a starting point.

Instead, I’ll stick to the general and say that I think the Bulgarian experience shows how hard it is to overcome organizational and institutional legacies that conflict with democratic practices, even in cases where the incentives to do so appear to be strongest. In Bulgaria, a core problem is the deep involvement of organized crime in politics. As one Bulgarian parliamentarian told the New York Times in 2008, “Other countries have the mafia. In Bulgaria, the mafia has the country.” The story goes on:

The United States helped Bulgaria into NATO, has rotated troops through for joint exercises since 2004 and has tried to encourage commerce, education and democracy. It has just announced that it will invest more than $90 million in facilities and equipment for joint use in military exercises. The European Union, eager to improve the lives of the 7.5 million Bulgarians, has promised 11 billion euros, or nearly $15 billion, in aid.

Far from halting crime and violence, the money effectively spread the corruption. Once Bulgaria’s shady businessmen realized how much European Union money was at stake, said many of Sofia’s advocates for reform, they moved from buying off politicians to being directly involved in politics themselves.

The nation’s homegrown mobs of men in black–the “mutri,” or mugs–control construction projects in city halls. And questionable business networks have moved from declining black markets for smuggled cigarettes and alcohol to legal investments in booming real estate. They have made their mark on the capital’s atmosphere: men nicknamed “thick necks” for their muscular appearance linger in neon-lighted nightclubs like Sin City and Lipstick, or keep watch over Mercedes jeeps and Audis outside. Sofia guidebooks offer tips: Avoid restaurants that draw businessmen with four or more bodyguards. Now, men like this are muscling into public office.

These criminal networks trace their roots to the collapse of Communist rule in 1989, and the corruption they have sown is directly linked to the kinds of electoral malfeasance the OSCE is still seeing more than 20 years later. According to that 2008 New York Times article,

Admission to the European Union did not halt the carnage, but emboldened a power grab. According to corruption fighters and election observers, votes can be traded, depending on the town, for marijuana cigarettes or sold for up to 100 leva, or $69. People document their votes by taking pictures of their ballots with their cellphone cameras, according to Iva Pushkarova, executive director of the Bulgarian Judges Association. “They trade votes freely on the streets, kill and threaten people with no shame,” Ms. Pushkarova said.

If entrenched interests can resist and distort large investments in democracy promotion this effectively inside the European Union, just imagine how hard the task must be elsewhere.

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