Working in the Engine Room of Democratic Change


From the Civic Education Project Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 1, Winter 1996/97

After the furor surrounding the first democratic elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina had died down, the spotlight turned to yet another test for democracy -- the Lithuania General Election. A team of Civic Education Project lecturers and their partners were there, serving as Official International Observers.

Only the third national parliamentary poll for Lithuania's fledgling democracy, the General Election of Sunday, October 20th was no ordinary day for a country still in the throes of transition. It has been five years since full independence, and the jubilance which surrounded the first election day -- rightly called a festival of democracy -- is easy to forget. The hard realities of a depressed economy and media exposure of corruption on all levels of the state can rapidly lead to a decline in faith in the very process of an open society. In Lithuania, evidence of this decline was all too plentiful: pollsters estimating only a 60% turn-out and many citizens concerned about polling system corruption. The government was responding to this malaise by introducing a series of new electoral laws and a different, more complex, system of voting. But novelty breeds mistakes, the electoral "traditions" of the USSR die hard, and confidence was low at time when it was vital to prove the sustainable effectiveness of the newly democratic system. General Election '96 was a test of democracy itself -- could this election be open, fair, and free?

Elizabeth Ryder, CEP Visiting Faculty Fellow in Law, was quick to understand the issues surrounding this election: "It was obvious that Lithuania needed an excellent team of International Observers. All eyes in the West had been turned to the election in Bosnia, but who would provide an independent judgment here?" A week before polling day, she left her lecture room in Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, and joined the representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to become the staff coordinator for the Observers Group. A few e-mails later and a team of CEPers was ready to join in the work. Thus, an alliance between OSCE and CEP was born: Ryder stated, "OSCE rapidly understood the value of CEP in such a project. We have experts in Law, Political Science, Economics and Sociology already on the ground -- an extraordinary reservoir of talent that OSCE could 'tap into'."

The CEP group joined a collection of distinguished observers: leading diplomats from the West; members of parliament from Russia and Poland; other academics who had been flown in for the occasion. CEP lecturers Jeffrey Meyers (Visiting Faculty Fellow in Law), Dr. Craig Heller (Visiting Faculty Fellow in Sociology) and his partner, Dr. Ingrid Martinez-Rico came from Kaunas. Dr. Sophia Howlett, former country director for CEP Ukraine, joined them from Kaliningrad. Drs. Heller and Martinez-Rico were rapidly transferred to the site in the north of Lithuania, but the rest of the group were able to enjoy a welcome from the President of the Lithuanian Parliament at a pre-election briefing and reception in the Seimas.

Election Day itself began both dark and rainy, as the team made a 6:00 a.m. start to catch the sealing of ballot boxes across the country. During the day, CEPers visited cities, towns, and villages across the country. Seals were checked, political observers catalogued, registration processes watched and the number of feet in ballot booths counter to register the level of abidance to the new electoral laws. Back at HQ, Elizabeth Ryder was counting a long week without sleep, cataloguing the 'hotspots' and mishaps. At 9:00 p.m., each member of the group arrived at a random polling station to commerce a long night watching 'the count'. By 8:00 the next morning, the lecturers were beginning to return: Election '96 was over.