“Our trade unions, unfortunately, with some exceptions, are generally considered as “yellow unions”, or as organizations that do not perform their main work, that is, do not advocate for workers and for maintaining workers’ rights, but simply cooperate with authorities and company owners! And that is why no one has much trust in them”, says professor Branimir Jovanovic, expert on social policy, in a statement for CIVIL Media.
CIVIL Media: Are the socially disadvantaged categories in Macedonia abused in a political or electoral context? What are your realizations and analysis?
Jovanovic: They are definitely abused! The most frequent type of abuse is that the assistance they should receive from the state is conditioned with them having to satisfy certain party needs, and it is mostly present in the pre-election period and concerns electoral needs. For example, people are told that in order to receive social assistance or any other type of assistance they need to vote for the party. Or, that they will be deprived of the assistance if they do not vote for the party, or that the other party will cancel it, and so forth. However, in my opinion, the most serious type of abuse of socially disadvantaged people and, in general, in regards to social welfare, is that poverty is generally kept at a high level, precisely with the intention – for those people to be abused for such needs! Poverty in this country is at such a high rate for such a long period of time precisely because of this – for those people who are affected or who are poor, to be abused because of clientelistic motives. When you have poverty, the people who are poor “sell” themselves for a bag of flour. And exactly because of this, the government, or parties that have been in power in this country in the past 25 years, and especially the ruling government, do not want to reduce poverty, because they are abusing the poor people for party purposes. They increase their social assistance, they give them small benefits in the pre-election period and by this, buy their votes.
CIVIL Media: Which promises for social justice are realistic, and which promises are a kind of political corruption, or are playing with the expectations of the voters?
JOVANOVIC: All those promises that if we come to power, after several years, the average salary will be 500 euros or 1000 euros, or that there will be no unemployment, they are all unrealistic. They are promises in regards to outcomes that are not under the direct control of the government and the state. On the other hand, promises in regards to matters that are under the direct control of the government – are easy to achieve. For example, the amount of social assistance or the increase in the minimum salary. Such promises are realistic. The problem here is that many parties in the pre-election period give such unrealistic promises, with the purpose of gaining minor political points. For example, if we come to power – the average salary will be 500 euros. Or, if we come to power – we will make the minimum salary 300 euros. This was also said by another party. These are all good things, though difficult to achieve. Perhaps the one with the minimum salary could be realistic, because the Government, by law, can prescribe the minimum salary to be 300 euros, or 18,000 denars. However, the problem is that 60 to 70 percent of those employed in this country, have a salary that is lower than 300 euros. Hence, if you set the minimum wage at such a high level, many of those employed will remain on the street, they will not be able to employ them and to pay them such salaries. Therefore, one should be very careful when giving such promises. That is why it is harmful when political parties cast such promises.
CIVIL Media: What are the social and political consequences from abusing the issues in the area of social justice?
JOVANOVIC: I would say there are two negative consequences. The first one is that a situation is created in which people no longer believe in any of the promises. If you are constantly making promises, giving unrealistic promises, which remain unrealized, then citizens can no longer evaluate which of the promises made by a certain political party are actually realistic. If you constantly have political parties saying – we will make the salary 1,000 euros – and other similar promises, and then when some party comes along with a real program, with measures that are realistic, which that party wants to achieve, the citizens will perceive that as yet another promise, as a lie from the politicians. You know that trust in the political parties is very low in this country. This is due to the fact that political parties make unrealistic promises. So, what is the first problem? It is the situation that is created in which citizens no longer believe anything they hear. The second problem, as I mentioned previously, is the maintaining of a situation of poverty and social injustice, which is abused for clientelistic motives. Political elites are deliberately tolerating social injustice, because they can make a profit in a pre-election period in such a situation.
CIVIL Media: What can and what should the institutions, political parties, unions and civil society do in order to prevent the abuse of socially disadvantaged categories, and overall the topics in the area of social justice in the political and electoral context?
JOVANOVIC: I would like to discuss each of these groups. I will start with the trade unions. Our trade unions, unfortunately, with some exceptions, are generally considered as “yellow unions”, or as organizations that do not perform their main work, that is, they do not advocate for workers and for maintaining workers’ rights, but simply cooperate with authorities and company owners! And that is why no one has much trust in them. I think that the unions cannot do much in this respect, since they are perceived as something in which there is no trust in.
The political parties are in a similar situation. According to some research, citizens in this country have the least trust in political parties. They have less trust in political parties then they do, for example, in the judiciary or in NGOs...And this is precisely because of the unrealistic promises they are making. Partly because of this, and also because they have only one bad experience with political parties, more specifically, when political parties come to power, they do not realize the policies they had promised, but do other things. I do not believe that the political parties can do much in this respect, simply because the citizens do not believe them. They are supposed to give realistic promises, and not unrealistic.
I think that the role of civil society organizations is crucial, because they are a corrective to the government and can have a real influence. Trust in them is significantly higher than trust in political parties, for example. Civil society organizations can give criticism on policies or on recommendations and measures given by political parties. For example, if a given political party presents measures for a minimum salary of 300 euros, then civil society organizations can give criticism to such measures. Criticism, of course, can be positive or negative. To say why a certain thing is good or bad. In this manner, to be able to give a real picture on a certain measure, and for the citizens to have a real image on whether that measure is realistic, or, is just promoted as a result of populistic motives. Therefore, I think that the role of civil society organizations in this domain is crucial, and that they need to work much more, because NGOs here, lately, have been somehow running away from the topic of social justice, they are avoiding social topics. It might be that in the past year this has changed a bit, but overall, the general conclusion is that in the past ten-fifteen years, at least as far as I have been following the situation, other topics have been much more in the focus of NGOs. Social topics have somehow been left aside. I believe that NGOs need to focus more on these topics. And especially focus on giving real assessments on certain policies. Not for them to be blinded by ideological motives. For example, if you have an NGO that is mostly left-oriented, then its assessment on a certain policy cannot be blinded by its ideology. It needs to try to be more or less objective. So, let me repeat, I think that the role of civil society organizations is crucial in this sphere. And I also think that civil society organizations have to work much more on these issues. And, of course, they have to try to be as much as possible more objective, that is, not to allow for them to be blinded by their ideology.
CIVIL – Center for Freedom is implementing the pilot project “Promises and Abuses”, which deals with abuse of social justice for political and electoral purposes. The goal of the project is to contribute to the strengthening of public awareness on abuses in the sphere of social justice in the electoral context, as well as to prevent manipulative practices of the political centers of power. The project is implemented in cooperation with the Heinrich Bὅll Foundation – Office in Sarajevo.