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In a triumphant conclusion to a tumultuous year, reformers concluded their rout of the old order in Yugoslavia. In parliamentary elections held last weekend, an alliance of democratic parties won nearly two-thirds of the vote, crushing former President Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party which took only 13.5 percent of ballots cast. Democrats rule Serbia and what remains of Yugoslavia for the first time in half a century, eliminating a source of instability that has plunged the Balkans into savage conflict for a decade. It is an auspicious end to the century.

The election results give the Democratic Alliance of Serbia, an 18-party coalition, a solid majority of 177 deputies in the 250-seat Serb assembly. Celebrations were muted, however, given the enormity of the tasks faced by the new government. The Yugoslav economy, wracked by war and sanctions, is a mess. GDP has been cut in half since 1980. Corruption and crime are endemic. Managing a coalition of that size will be problematic. Demands by Kosovars and Montenegrins for more autonomy and independence will only compound the difficulties.

The Yugoslav vote caps a very good year for democracy. According to the annual study by Freedom House, more than 40 percent of the world’s population now lives in “free” countries. Over the last decade the list of free countries has increased by 21. If, as Freedom House claims, there is a positive relationship between political freedom and economic prosperity, then the news is even better than it sounds.

Serbia’s parliamentary vote follows the peaceful overthrow of Mr. Milosevic. After trying to steal the September presidential election, Mr. Milosevic was forced from office by massive public protests. The Socialist Party’s continued control of Parliament thwarted the popular will, however. Last weekend’s vote should change all that.

There was a similar victory this year in Peru, when efforts to steal an election for President Alberto Fujimori were also frustrated. Both Mr. Fujimori and his shadowy secret-services chief, Mr. Vladimiro Montesinos, have been forced into exile and Peru is now trying to rebuild its democratic institutions.

In Mexico, Mr. Vicente Fox was elected president, ending 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. He too faces the difficult challenge of ending corruption institutionalized by seven decades of one-party rule. Nonetheless, Mexico celebrates Mr. Fox’s win as a turning point in its history.

In the United States, the democratic process has come under unprecedented strain. The five-week election fiasco exposed U.S. voting practices to scrutiny and ridicule. They held up well under the pressure. Despite seemingly endless uncertainty, at no point was there a crisis. U.S. institutions proved resilient, the people’s faith in their constitution redeemed. Once the situation was resolved and Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared the winner, challenger Al Gore conceded and called for all Americans to rally behind the president-elect.

The transparency of the entire U.S. process, from ballot inspection to court rulings, poses a stark contrast to the backroom dealings that occurred the last time this country had to choose its chief executive. We can only hope that Japanese politicians will learn from the U.S. experience; the maneuvers that crushed Mr. Koichi Kato’s revolt within the Liberal Democratic Party earlier this month offer little encouragement.

Elsewhere in the world, progress remains elusive. In Indonesia, mass protests forced President Suharto from office two years ago, and democratic elections brought President Abdurrahman Wahid to power. Unfortunately, powerful interests opposed to the new administration continue to fight from the shadows, doing their best to frustrate efforts to restore normalcy to the battered country. Earlier this week, they unleashed a series of bomb attacks in churches across the country in an attempt to stir up religious violence and undermine the rightfully elected government of Indonesia. In its study, Freedom House voiced concern over campaigns against dissent in Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

Democrats fight on several fronts; election campaigns are sometimes the easiest battles. The toughest work begins when they take office. Then they must clean up the mess left by their predecessors, which is invariably worse than anyone imagined. At the same time, they face heightened expectations from a public that usually wants results immediately. It is a formula for failure.

Worse, Mr. Fox, Mr. Wahid and Mr. Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s new president, must deal with a slowing global economy that will only add to their difficulties. Yet, they are all courageous and intelligent men, well aware of the challenges ahead. They deserve the support of democrats around the world.

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