331. An Analysis of the Recent Serbian Elections: Will the Path to Democracy and European Integration Prevail?

By
Robert A. Hand

Robert A. Hand is the Staff Advisor at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on February 15, 2007. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 331.

I would like to start with a few comments about the conduct of the Serbian parliamentary elections. While post-election politics and the formation of a government are of greater interest one month later (especially given the impact of Martti Ahtisaari's status proposal for Kosovo), I believe it is important to recall some aspects of how the citizens of Serbia choose their leaders. It reveals some insights on the commitment to building democratic institutions in Serbia as well as on how these institutions influence Serbian politics in turn.

On the day after the January 21 parliamentary elections in Serbia, the election observation mission deployed by the OSCE decided on the clearest language possible, rarely used, declaring them to be "free and fair." While I was one of a few hundred internationals deployed as short-term observers, I did have a unique opportunity to review the statement as a draft for comment, and I frankly saw no need to change a word.

Still, the elections warranted observation. They were the first since the dissolution of the state-union with Montenegro and the subsequent adoption of a new Serbian Constitution. Indeed, there have been serious claims of irregularities regarding the October referendum—particularly in some regions of Serbia, which were designed to ensure a 50 percent turnout—which raised new questions about voting in Serbia. With the proposal regarding Kosovo imminent, however, perhaps the greatest attraction for observers was the desire to have a closer look at Serbia at a particularly sensitive time in its history.

In many respects, Serbia went out of its way to make the conduct of these elections a success. For example, the lowering of thresholds for political parties or coalitions representing ethnic minorities both to get on the ballot and to gain a seat in Parliament was a particularly positive gesture that, some would argue, a state is not obligated to make. Of course, ethnic minority voters still have the option to vote for a mainstream Serbian party to represent a deeper interest and understanding of integration, as Rasim Ljajic's joining the Democratic Party's list demonstrated. The voters also had the option of having more than one party claiming to represent their minority's interests, although differences centered more often on clashing personalities than on political platforms. Perhaps the exception to this latter point was in southern Serbia where a larger split was evident, with two Albanian parties participating together in a coalition while the other decided to boycott the elections. While this demonstrates that there are still factors for potential instability in southern Serbia, the important point here is that Serbia made the positive gesture to be more inclusive and some Albanians responded for the first time in years.

The campaign was noted for its calmness and focus not only on issues, but primarily focused on issues other than Kosovo. Those who actually monitored the campaign period closely were very positive on the balance of coverage in the broadcast media. (The print media was little less balanced, but also considered much less relevant in reaching the prospective voter.) I have some concerns regarding this overly neutral stance. I am certainly not an advocate of negative campaigning, but the way in which the media covered the campaign was so overtly neutral that party leaders were not sufficiently called to account for their statements, such as explaining how one can advocate Serbia's integration into Europe on the one hand, while on the other hand opposing some of the conditions for integration, such as cooperation with the ICTY. Maybe there are ways to reconcile those positions, but I did not sense much of an effort to do so. I also concluded that this made the focus on issues, rather than personalities, a bit less than natural, since the focus on party leaders or candidates and their conduct was largely precluded by the rule similar to that which states: if you can't say something nice, say nothing at all.

This is perhaps my greatest concern in Serbia's political development—not so much an inability to build a democracy but rather the avoidance of some of the realities that are the legacy of the Milosevic era. Those who helped to topple Slobodan Milosevic's regime nevertheless hedge in presenting the implications of this legacy squarely and honestly to the people of Serbia. I will return to this issue a bit later.

I have two final comments on the elections before turning to the results and post-election developments. First, Serbia, again in a gesture of democratic openness, allowed political parties and coalitions on the ballot two representatives on the electoral board at each of the more than 8,000 polling stations. Given that there were 20 parties and coalitions participating in the elections, when their representatives were combined with the six officials designated by the Republican Election Committee, the potential for overcrowding and confusion was certainly there. While I did not hear of any polling stations where all 46 potential members were present, the polling boards I saw were the largest I have ever seen in more than 30 election observations. It was amazing how professionally the polling and counting of ballots was conducted, given the large number of people. Nevertheless, in future elections, it would be better to designate them as the domestic, partisan observers they really are, rather than include them in the electoral boards.

Second, there was some criticism of how parliamentarians are selected. Voters select parties or coalitions of parties through a proportional system. Each of the 20 parties or coalitions on the ballot submits a list of up to 250 persons, but their ordered appearance may have no bearing upon who actually gets a seat, which is ultimately determined by the party or coalition leadership within ten days of the election result announcement. That decision is clearly geared towards maintaining strict party discipline. Of course, Serbia has the right to select its parliamentarians this way. But even Europeans more comfortable than Americans with the proportional system felt that this method distanced candidates and their qualifications from voters and concentrated power in party and coalition leaders. Many of the political party representatives I encountered acknowledged this shortcoming, and hopefully more serious consideration will be given to connecting parliamentarians, not just party leaders, with the electorate. This would probably strengthen Serbian democracy.

I admit that these criticisms are somewhat marginal and do not detract greatly from the quality of the elections. The conduct of the elections is not, however, a minor issue. It is important to remember that holding elections that meet international norms has been a major hurdle for many countries in their bids for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, and some countries in the Balkans continue to encounter difficulties in this regard. The fact that Serbia was able to jump this hurdle with relative ease speaks well of its potential. If I recall, the reports from short-term observers on election day indicated either good or very good performance something like 97 percent of the time, including ballot counting, which can often be problematic. Only a handful of polling stations had significant problems, and proper corrective action was taken in those cases. This does not erase concerns raised about the constitutional referendum, and the presidential elections likely to occur later this year are more like the referendum in that the winner takes all, rather than parties each getting a fairly predictable piece of the political pie. Still, Serbia can move toward future elections with this recent very positive experience as precedent.

Now I would like to move from the conduct of the elections to the results and what they may mean for Serbia's future development, internally and as part of Europe. I believe that Serbia's future hurdles to European or Euro-Atlantic integration are found less in its development of democratic institutions than in its politics. Indeed, if things go awry, the politics may also act as a break on further democratic development.

There were several positive developments evident in the election results. First, there was a good turnout. Despite my concern about the gap between the electorate and the elected, the over 60 percent turnout indicated strong citizen interest, rather than alienation. In addition, the minorities did get into parliament, including the Albanians despite a boycott effort and the Romani communities despite their vulnerability to division and manipulation. The Serbian Radical Party is, of course, the big concern. The first press reports I saw reported, with some sense of alarm, that the Radicals came out on top, albeit without an absolute majority. Later reports, with greater understanding of the situation and putting the results in a proper context, noted that the Radicals made no gains in absolute numbers and that, unlike the situation a year ago, there is little fear that the Radicals will end up in the ruling coalition. In that sense, the results represented a small but definite step forward. By contrast, the Democratic Party did better than ever, and the outspoken Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition also passed the threshold, which likely will keep other parties with democratic leanings from abandoning certain principles in order to placate nationalist sentiments.

That said, looking at this from greater distance, it must be acknowledged that such a strong showing by a party as extreme as the Radicals would be viewed with great concern in any county, and cannot be considered truly normal for Serbia as it seeks integration into Europe. The Radicals' success demonstrates an unwillingness to break completely from the Milosevic era, and a failure to understand that it cannot succeed in holding on to that legacy so strongly and at the same time become an integrated part of Europe. Even if much of the Radicals' support came from a protest vote or from the disadvantaged or active-yet-alienated parts of Serbian society, it still represents a disturbingly big chunk of Serbian society that has found little advantage in recent economic growth. Ultimately, while the Radicals may not push very hard to be in a government coalition, they remain poised to manipulate it. They might also concentrate their efforts on the upcoming presidential election or entrench themselves at the municipal level. Either way, some analysts have expressed concern about what the Radicals might do, less so because of their nationalism than from their lack of commitment to democratic norms. Some feel that a lot of what has been accomplished in Serbia's democratic development would be threatened if the Radicals ever take power.

Most attention for the moment, however, is focused on the efforts of the Democratic Party (DS) led by President Boris Tadic and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to find common ground leading to a coalition government likely to include at least G17-Plus led by Mladjan Dinkic. I continue to hope a coalition can be formed, but two issues—the position of prime minister and the status of Kosovo—may prolong the process of reaching agreement. On the prime minister position, despite opposing candidates from the DS and the DSS, I think the main hurdle is that Kostunica is prime minister now. On the one hand, he wants to maintain his position as prime minister, but on the other hand, he also wants to remain detached until the blame for what happens with Kosovo falls on others. As time goes on, it will be interesting to see if not only G17-Plus but even the New Serbia Party of Velimir Ilic (which was in an electoral coalition with the DSS) might distance themselves or even break from a recalcitrant Kostunica in some new political constellation. It is with some relief that the DSS seems intent on avoiding any deals with the Radical Party. At the same time, it is disconcerting to see how close the DSS has come to embracing the Radicals' nationalist positions. Meanwhile, while the DS is on the rise, it must look over its shoulder at the new LDP. The DS has true believers in a democratic, western course for Serbia, and they may keep the party from abandoning such a course just to reach a compromise with the DSS.

Despite the relative quiet regarding Kosovo during the campaign, we now see that Serbian politics is again preoccupied with Kosovo. I know the prospect of losing Kosovo is difficult for Serbia to accept, and the truly unfortunate fact is that such a prospect is placed on a Serbia that, despite its problems, is not the one that existed under Milosevic. The international community did give Serbia a break by delaying Ahtisaari's presentation of a proposal on status until after the elections. It is, in my view, wise that a further delay was not given until a new government is formed. The delay for the new parliament to form was, of course, reasonable. Kosovo complicates Serbian politics enormously. The sooner Serbia's leaders contend with it seriously, the better it will be for Serbia's democratic development, for its chances at integration and for the situation in Kosovo itself. For these reasons, I hope that the alternative to the above coalition—the formation of a minority government in Serbia—could be avoided, one that would be destined to fall as the dust settles regarding the Kosovo status proposal.

Meanwhile, I worry that while Milosevic's legacy is slowly weakening in Serbia, the efforts by the EU and United States to help democratic forces in Serbian society actually undermine them by placating nationalist sentiments instead. I believe, for example, that weakening insistence on full cooperation with the ICTY, including the apprehension of Mladic, as a condition for integration is ultimately a win for nationalism, not democracy. It also has regional implications, given Bosnia's rightful sense of victimization, Croatia's decisions ultimately to cooperate and the need for Kosovo's leaders to overcome their hostilities toward Serbia and acknowledge and deal with their own nationalist leanings. In short, just as I do not support raising the goal posts for Serbia, I also believe it is a mistake to lower them, which only perpetuates Belgrade's reliance on stalling and denial.

In conclusion, I believe that the elections have shown that Serbia is on the democratic path and that path is leading it eventually to European integration. While more democratic, Serbian politics nevertheless reveals some trends that are clearly keeping it from moving along as quickly as it really should. The policies of the international community should support Serbia as it moves forward, but delaying or sidelining difficult questions and issues can do more harm than good in that regard.
 

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