Serbia: the election that wasn’t

Katerina Bezgachina
22 October 2002

The first free and fair presidential elections in Serbia after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 have produced a unique result. The situation can be best described by the phrase: the treatment has been successful, but the patient died.

Vojislav Kostunica, the current Yugoslav president, won the popular vote on 13 October by scoring 66.7% as opposed to the 30.8% of liberal economist Miroljub Labus. However, he did not succeed Milan Milutinovic as the new president of Serbia. The Central Elections Commission declared the results of the ballot invalid, since the turnout was 45.6%, thus falling below the 50% minimum required by law to render the result valid.

Zeljko Cvijanovic, the editor of the Belgrade magazine Blic News wrote before the election that Zoran Djindjic - Serbia’s prime minister, who gave his full support during the election to Miroljub Labus - had wanted to avoid elections and, if they went ahead, to minimise the turnout:

"But even if Djindjic staves off a ballot, he could be undone by disenchanted members of his ruling Democratic Party of Serbia (DOS) coalition who may join Kostunica's rival alliance and support his demand for an early poll. Many in DOS are known to be unhappy with Djindjic's growing monopoly on power and feel they could have more influence in a Kostunica government, as parties currently allied to the Yugoslav president lack political experience and expertise.

DOS members Nebojsa Covic, Dragoljub Micunovic and Miodrag Isakov, leaders of the Democratic Alternative, the Democratic Center and the Vojvodina Reformists respectively, have already broken ranks and backed Kostunica's bid for the Serbian presidency."

After the shock of the low turnout, President Kostunica called Serbia’s electoral legislation ‘outdated and non-European’ and rushed to accuse Djindjic of bringing the country to the verge of a constitutional crisis.

‘If Zoran Djinjdic and the parliament were doing their job properly and changed the relevant laws, we would have had a quite different outcome in the second round of the presidential race,’ said Kostunica at the press conference announcing the official election results.

Kostunica also argued that the outcome of the popular vote was a sort of referendum on the best method of economic reform in the country. His leading position in the election suggested that most Serbs give their support to the economic programme guided by his own cautious, moderate nationalism, rather than the speedy, radical reforms proposed both by Djindjic and Labus.

The election law’s flaws

Faults in Serbian election law were cited as the primary cause of this void election. The current law, adopted during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic in 1990 and 1992, provided for a 50%-plus-one voter turnout for the first and second round of presidential elections. If the stipulated conditions were not fulfilled, the elections were to be called anew.

The clause was a pure propaganda stunt, employed by Milosevic to show to the world community that more than half of the electorate stood behind the former Yugoslav president. It is well known that Milosevic ruthlessly manipulated the results of the vote, and thus had no problem with the 50% turnout.

The first elections after the fall of the old regime show that the old law cannot function in the new Serbia; otherwise, the country could be trapped in a sort of perpetual election process. After all, even more advanced democracies have increasing problems in achieving high turnout; in US presidential elections, for example, recent turnouts have hovered around the 50% mark. Most Serbian political experts have called for immediate changes in the electoral legislation.

Anomalies in the electoral lists have also presented problems. It is no secret that Milosevic often added non-existent or dead people to the lists to ensure his own victory. After October 2000 these lists remained unamended. The Democratic Party of Serbia is currently disputing around 630,000 non-existent voters on the list.

Meanwhile, along with the controversy over the election annulment, another political controversy was sharpening over the removal of Kostunica’s DSS alliance from the DOS coalition. Dragan Stojkovic comments in Balkan Reconstruction Report :

“After a lengthy debate, the Yugoslav Constitutional Court on 16 October overruled the June decision made by the DOS majority to take over 45 parliamentary seats belonging to the DSS. The DOS claimed that the DSS had failed to obey coalition statutes.

The Serbian government, presided over by Prime Minister Djindjic, an adversary of Kostunica, immediately responded by refusing to recognize the court’s decision, saying that the earlier decision made by the administrative board of the Serbian parliament was legitimate.

Djindjic’s DOS also accused the federal Yugoslav Constitutional Court of favoring Kostunica and working under his patronage. Kostunica called the accusations false.”

What next?

Behind these bitter political and personal rivalries, the question persists: why the low turnout? Legal hiccups and rainy weather alone do not explain why more than 50% of the adult population declined to take part in the poll, when over 70% voted in the 2000 election which led to Milosevic’s ousting?

The simplest explanation is people’s living standards. The government constantly bombards people with information about success in economic reform, low inflation, the decline in unemployment and the rise of wages; yet, according to recent statistics, more than two-thirds of the country live below the poverty line. Serbs are not at all happy with their current standard of living, nor with the pace of economic reform. As a result, they are simply fed up with politics.

‘Perhaps Serbs did not see any likely prospects of change for the better in any of the candidates,’ said Sreco Mihailovic of the Institute of Political Studies.

Although the government and other state institutions continue to function normally, the political effect of the non-election remains unclear. Milan Milutinovic’s current presidential term expires on 5 January 2003, and the country should decide on its new president before then.

The date of the new round of elections is also uncertain. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia called on all parties and fractions in the parliament to join together in pushing through quick changes in the election law, removing the mandatory 50% turnout.

Miroljub Labus announced plans to take a short break, and only then decide on his next career move. Vojislav Kostunica declared that the solid support he received in the last round of elections is an endorsement of his programme and that he is determined to pursue the presidential post to the finish.

Some political analysts called on Labus to step out of the race, thereby consolidating all support for the democratic opposition around its leading candidate from the democratic opposition, in this case Vojislav Kostunica. Otherwise, they warned, there is the real threat that the radical nationalist, Vojislav Seselj – who won 23% of the vote in the first round – might well secure a real chance of power during the new campaign.

Others among Serbia’s hard-bitten political observers regard plans to hold renewed presidential elections in Serbia as a step forward, signalling a step towards normal democratic development. Whatever the outcome of the current impasse, once again Serbia has proved that there are no easy, hard and fast solutions in the Balkans.

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