Research shows that in recent decades numerous European nations have been prioritizing the enhancement of local democracy due to the consistent decline in voter turnout and the challenges faced by political parties in establishing a meaningful link between society and the realm of politics. This is not surprising as elections lie at the heart of democratic processes, serving as the linchpin for various critical functions such as aggregating citizen’ preferences, determining leadership, ensuring accountability, managing conflicts, and cultivating a shared sense of legitimacy of the institutions and people that society. Nonetheless, European Union member-states like Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, and France have emerged as beacons of democracy, boasting high scores in the Democracy Index. They have achieved this through a combination of free and fair elections, robust political participation, and unwavering protection of civil liberties.
Conversely, Moldova stands at a challenging crossroads, a nation striving for European integration as it holds the coveted EU candidate status. Currently the country is on the brink of its eighth general local election, scheduled for November 5, 2023. In this electoral exercise, 898 mayors and 11,058 local councillors will be elected, encompassing 9,972 village, town, and 1,086 district/municipal councillors, each set to serve a four-year term. As underscored in the Promo-LEX report, a persistent shadow looms over its electoral landscape, cast by the disconcerting phenomena of political party switching and the recruitment of local elected officials. The upcoming elections in Moldova, therefore, stand as a pivotal juncture in the nation's democratic trajectory. Local election practices matter as these either hinder or forge the path to effective democratic governance and to European integration. And here is how:
First, political trust
Trust in political institutions is deeply rooted in the effectiveness of legal systems and their ability to enforce laws, regulate social behavior, and ensure justice. Key players in this trust-building process include politicians and parliamentarians as well as the police and the legal system. When local government branches, such as city halls, operate with fairness and embrace democratic practices, studies have already shown that this fosters a culture of trust and cooperation among citizens. In such environments, people are more likely to act fairly, help and trust each other, and abide by collectively shared norms which, in turn, conditions a well-functioning democratic society. Through legal institutions, elected (indirectly) by citizens, governments incentivize trustworthy social behavior by upholding and promoting the rule of law, encouraging democratic values, and providing essential civil services.
In the dynamic landscape of modern democracy, the electoral process is just one facet of a much broader concept. Democracy extends beyond election days, embodying the principles of equality, freedom, and active civic engagement. The responsiveness of elected representatives to their constituents is a crucial determinant of the quality of representation in a democracy. This accountability includes authorizing representatives through the election process and holding them accountable for their actions on behalf of the people.
Sweden, like many other Nordic countries, has long been celebrated as a model for maintaining high levels of social and political trust. This trust can be traced back to the establishment of the welfare state, which represents a fully integrated system of governing a society based on mutual trust. This has been investigated and evidence emphasizes that high social trust acts as a powerful deterrent against corruption, social instability, and high crime rates. It also contributes to individual well-being, fostering high life satisfaction and healthier lives. In nations like Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, and France, democracy is not confined to the act of voting but is interwoven into the very fabric of society. It encompasses principles such as equal voting rights, a level playing field for political parties, freedom of expression, a diverse and independent media, and the active engagement of citizens from diverse backgrounds in shaping the public discourse. These elements collectively contribute to a thriving democracy and a society where trust between citizens and their institutions remains strong.
Second, citizen engagement.
Citizen engagement and participation in decision-making processes at the local level lie at the core of a robust and flourishing democracy. Effective democratic systems require a constant commitment to regular, inclusive, transparent, and credible elections. Countries like the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, France, and Sweden place immense value on the resilience of their states and societies, which is inherently tied to the bedrock of democracy, the rule of law, and the safeguarding of human rights. It is through the act of casting a vote that citizens manifest their dedication to these foundational principles.
For an effective design, implementation, and public acceptance of policies, infrastructure, and services, citizen and stakeholder engagement in decision-making processes is pivotal. The OECD Infrastructure Governance Index on stakeholder participation provides a window into how countries perform in developing national guidelines for stakeholder (citizens) engagement. Among the top performers on this index, Finland stands out with a score of 0.66, surpassing the OECD average of 0.52. Approximately 49% of citizen initiatives in Finland revolve around three primary policy domains: 1) healthcare, social well-being, and housing, 2) individual freedoms, civil rights, and law enforcement, and 3) the functioning of government and political procedures.
Participatory processes have undergone a significant expansion, moving toward greater inclusivity and representation of all citizens in EU member-states. Cities are increasingly incorporating representative bodies of civil society into consultative and co-decision roles. The Eurocities report shows how city administrations can propose initiatives akin to citizen initiatives, and, in cases like Reims, France, they have the instruments to suggest participatory budget proposals. Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, allows associations to apply for co-management of public spaces if they can demonstrate better suitability for managing these areas than the city administration. Germany's Bonn has established the Coordination Office for Citizen Participation, serving as a central point of contact for politicians, administration officials, and citizens. Simultaneously, Berlin has developed a comprehensive handbook on citizen participation, translated into sector-specific and project-related guidelines, further empowering local engagement and decision-making processes.
Moldova: are we there yet?
In Moldova, the journey toward political trust and citizen engagement still faces significant hurdles, as highlighted by various reports and assessments. According to the SCORE Moldova 2022 report, civic engagement remains at a persistently low level, showing minimal improvement since 2017. To bridge this gap, both local and central authorities must commit to outreach efforts aimed at enhancing the sense of representation felt by the population. This approach can bolster civic engagement and foster greater openness among different segments of society. Engaging with groups who perceive low levels of representation and involving them in dialogue and decision-making processes can serve to strengthen their commitment to civic life in Moldova.
Although Moldova's path to political trust and citizen engagement may be marked by considerable challenges, it's worth noting that trust in local public authorities remains comparatively robust. As Promo-Lex reports, over the period from 2019 to 2023, these local authorities have garnered higher levels of trust from citizens than their central counterparts. This resilience in trust represents a potential foundation upon which Moldova can build as it endeavors to progress towards a more engaged and trusting democratic society.
Yet, the Council of Europe's handbook on citizen participation further emphasizes that Moldova is faced with essential concerns, notably transparency, accountability, citizen engagement, and citizens' trust in their government. The country has witnessed a stark decline in trust in authorities since the grand theft of US 1 billion from three banks in 2014. Corruption, as a major challenge, continues to undermine democratic principles and the rule of law, resulting in decisions and resource allocations that often do not align with the public's interests and consolidating political power within a select few. Consequently, political leaders and institutions have lost legitimacy and public trust, diminishing their capacity to effectively govern.
At the same time, the Global State of Democracy report has consistently underscored the corrosive impact of corruption on Moldova's transition to democracy, which originated from its post-Soviet era. In a parallel assessment, Freedom House has shone a light on the pervasive nature of corruption, the close ties between influential political figures and powerful economic interests, and the substantial deficiencies within the justice sector and the rule of law. Evidence in this report states that influential and wealthy business figures, commonly referred to as oligarchs, exert significant control over the nation's politics at both the national and local levels. This influence poses a substantial challenge to political accountability to the electorate. Notably, the Russian government has faced accusations of interference in Moldovan affairs, often through its connections with oligarchs like Vladimir Plahotniuc and Ilan Șor. Furthermore, various segments of Moldova's media industry are largely dominated by outlets affiliated with political parties and oligarchs.
These dynamics underscore the complexity and challenges associated with Moldova's political landscape, where political, economic, and media influences intersect and impact the country's democratic processes and accountability mechanisms. The roots of these concerning trends in Moldova are intricate and multifaceted, interwoven with the country’s historical legacies, economic underdevelopment, and the influence of external factors, notably exemplified by Russia's war in Ukraine. And while electoral practices may be transferred from external sources, democracy itself cannot be simply imported – it demands daily cultivation and must be wholeheartedly embraced by all.
IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.