Shortly after being elected president of the United States in 2009, Barack Obama met with Eric Cantor, one of the Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, to discuss policy ideas and ways to stop the economy from further ruin. In a posturing gesture that reinforced his astounding victory, and his conviction that he had the upper hand politically, he famously told Cantor: “Elections have consequences and I won.”
It was a crucial moment for the country in the middle of the greatest economic crisis in more than 70 years. But Obama’s comment was timeless in that it addressed the heart of democracy and the choices that people make when they vote. Elections may indeed have major consequences with sweeping historical outcomes, as when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, or when Obama became the first black President of the US. In other instances, elections bring to power political forces that may not necessarily be good for the country. Voters sometimes make perplexing choices when they empower the same people over and over again, despite widespread evidence of political corruption, voter intimidation, shadowy business deals, and nepotism.
Regardless of the end result, at the heart of it, free elections are supposed to validate the judgement of voters. Democracy is rooted in the belief that majorities have the right and the wisdom to hand political control to a number of individuals at any given time. That’s the theory, at least. The operational definition of elections today is to shuffle the levers of control from one political force to another with minimal scrutiny and little change. What the public gets comes in the form of consequences, whatever they may be – consequences that, more often than not, produce paradoxical results, political gridlock, paralysis, apathy, or more of the same.
That is what is happening in Kosovo. The frustration and outright hostility of the public over the election and the formation of government under Isa Mustafa this month is nothing more than validation of an election. Six months ago, Kosovars cast their votes and got what more or less what was expected: a fragmented political landscape with political forces that then coalesced to form coalitions. The country was paralyzed for months, but behind-the-door party haggling and political horse-trading is not unique to Kosovo; they are hallmarks of many multi-party parliamentary systems.
It comes as an interesting development, nonetheless, to see how Kosovars vent their frustration over the latest political deal between Mustafa’s Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, and Hashim Thaci’s Democratic party of Kosovo, PDK, which led to the formation of a government after six months of paralysis.
Somehow, this widespread despondency suggests that the democratic process is broken and that voters are being cheated in this deal. The basic fact remains that the new government is a direct result of the majority vote. Seen from this viewpoint, the political parties that won the largest share of the popular vote in the last election are forming a government and by definition that is political legitimacy, reconfirming the vote of a majority.
Voters are legitimately frustrated with certain political figures reassigned or re-elected into the new government – Thaci down a notch to serve as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, among others – and with their previous failures and widespread corruption. There is nothing wrong with expressing disgust with a group of politicians who keep failing the country and plundering the public purse for private gain. But the outcry over the current political arrangement in government is misdirected and does not solve anything. Some of those elected may be corrupt and are probably the wrong choice for the country, but these politicians have won the elections. They have won the majority of the vote and have agreed to come together and form a government.
Those who reject the formation of this government either had the wrong expectations over the last six months or they confuse their own political differences with a democratic process that didn’t go to their liking. You don’t have to support the current political parties in power in order to accept their political legitimacy. Accepting defeat with grace is a sign of democratic maturity.
Instead, the political frustration should encourage an active political movement, away from the levers of power, which connects with voters at a basic level, explaining to them the fundamentals of why they should not re-elect politicians who have done so much damage to the country. Only by working with voters and winning their trust over matters that are important to them can sweeping changes occur.
For now, however, Kosovars have a government legitimized by their own vote. For better or worse, voters will deal with the consequences of their own vote. It is up to the opposition to take this opportunity to start educating the voters and get them to pay attention next time to better alternatives. This is democracy at work with all its imperfections and pitfalls. The sooner Kosovars get used to it, the sooner they will find alternative methods of electing governments with more public support.