Serbia’s political carousel

Eric Gordy
12 May 2008

Serbian voters sent another mixed message to their political parties in the general election of 11 May 2008. The result was not as bad as many feared, not as good as some might think, and not as clear as some might imagine.

Eric Gordy is senior lecturer in southeast politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. He was previously associate professor of sociology at Clark University, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (Penn State University Press, 1999), and writes for the blog East Ethnia Also by Eric Gordy in openDemocracy:

"The Milosevic account" (17 March 2006)

"Serbia's elections: less of the same" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

"Serbia's presidential election: the best-laid plans..." (21 January 2008)

"Serbia chooses a future, just" (5 February 2008)

At first glance the results do not appear to be as dire as many people expected. Many pre-election surveys registered a roughly even share of the vote between the Democratic Party (DS)-led coalition (For a European Serbia) and the ultra-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS). But the initial post-voting projections from the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) indicated that (on a 61% turnout) the European coalition had a wide lead of around 10% over the SRS. The figures revealed on the evening of the poll and confirmed on 12 May have the European coalition at 38.7% (with the expectation of 102 of the 250 seats in Serbia's parliament) and the Radicals at 29.1% (giving them 77 seats).

Behind them trail the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) - the party of the current prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica - which received 11.3% (and a likely 30 seats); and the SRS's former coalition partners, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which got 7.9% (giving it 20 seats).

The voting market

This is ostensibly an encouraging outcome for those seeking to place Serbia firmly on the path to membership of the European Union, and away from the "eastern" and hardline nationalist option represented by the Radicals. But as is often the case, in Serbia perhaps more than most countries, the key political processes begin rather than end with the election result itself. For neither of the larger political forces will be able by itself to control the 126 seats necessary to form a government.

This is where the next phase of Serbian politics starts: with cross-party coalition-building that can secure a majority of votes in parliament to form a government. An obvious place where the DS can look for coalition partners is the three parties representing minority populations within Serbia that are expected to obtain seats in the parliament. The Hungarian Coalition is expected to have four seats, the Bosnjak list for a European Sandzak two, and the Coalition of Albanians from the Presevo valley one. But even the support of all seven of these seats would still leave the DS short of a majority. This leaves the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) with its 14 seats; in return for its support, the LDP would try to push DS to the left (a pressure the DS would resist). If some accommodation were found here also, the resulting DS-led coalition in parliament would control a maximum 122 seats.

The victory of the DS, then, may initially appear impressive, but it does not produce a done deal. Enter the losers.

Belgrade's rough trade

The SRS, with its 77 seats, would seem to be in a weak position. But it will be able to negotiate with the DSS with its bank of 30 seats, and the SPS with its 20. A coalition of these three would be able to form a government with 127 seats.

Thus a coalition of the "losers" could, in strict numerical terms, emerge as "winners". But it is not clear that these three parties can form a coalition. Kostunica has been moving closer to SRS for the past year, and has all but said that he would happy to preside over a government that it dominated. But it is less clear that the DSS and the SPS could function together in a coalition. The SPS may be less than pleased to accept Kostunica as a figurehead, and the DSS may regard SPS as too strong a competitor (and a more experienced one, given its years of domination of the state machine under Slobodan Milosevic's leadership) for control of the security services and patronage. And although there is little evidence that Kostunica is precious about his reputation, it would be damaged further if he were to take on a role as both the vanquisher and the restorer of the Milosevic regime.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Serbian politics in the region:

Vesna Goldsworthy, "Au revoir, Montenegro?" (23 May 2006)

Timothy William Waters, "Kosovo: the day after" (18 February 2008)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Neven Andjelic, "Serbia and Eurovision: whose victory?" (25 May 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, "The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

Dejan Djokic, "Desimir Tosic (1920-2008): in memoriam" (20 February 2008) The hesitancy of DSS might, then, prevent the formation of a new ultra-right government dominated by the parties that were in power until the "regime change" of October 2000 that led to the fall of Milosevic and the election of Kostunica as president. But there are two other sources of pressure on the DSS to do the right - and not-so-right - thing: European governments (which would object strongly to a government led by the SRS) and most Serbian voters (who in their majority voted against the restoration of the old regime). Both of these forces will have strong support from Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, who advocates closer relations with Europe. For a while at least, Tadic - who also heads the DS - will have the power to obstruct a "forward-to-the-past" government.

What's your price?

The implication of these calculations and likely manoeuvres is that the May-August 2008 period will see an effort to cobble together a DS government. There are three ways that this can be accomplished:

* shifting either the DSS or the SPS from its current positions. The chance of the former depends on whether Kostunica has made a permanent break from the "democratic bloc" and proves immovable, or simply demands too high a price to shift his loyalties once again. The latter option would probably be easier done than said - its leadership contains enough technocrats or patronage-addicts to to be satisfied merely by the promise of power. Such a deal, however, would alienate most of the people who voted for the DS, and seriously compromise any government that could be formed

* forming a minority government. This possibility only works if the SRS, the SPS and the DSS are unable to reach a coalition agreement, but that one of them is then willing to be a "silent partner". A minority government, however, would be unstable. Silent partners are often noisy in demanding favours, and quick to change sides

* boring from within. The strategy of enticing individual deputies (or groups of them) to create a temporary majority has a long and distinguished history in Serbian politics. There are certainly enough centrist-leaning DSS members or opportunistic SPS members who could make appealing targets. The DS will be strongly tempted to try this tactic: the party has adequate time, the approach would infuriate its opponents, would provide it with a stable of backbenchers who have nowhere else to turn.

Any one of these strategies could just as easily fail as succeed, and the people celebrating victory on 11 May 2008 might yet after all find themselves dismayed in September to see a Radical-led government inaugurated. In that worst-case scenario, the best that could be said might be that such a government would be weak; will have been explicitly rejected in advance by most of the people who voted; and be led by an SRS party that is no longer the largest group in the parliament.

The morning after the night before, it may be that - contradictory to the more-or-less uniform assessments of a pro-European victory - everybody has something to celebrate after the results. The DS has scored a victory over the SRS; the SRS has gained a chance to form a government; the SPS has the opportunity to control the formation of a government; and the LDP and the minority parties have greater leverage than they had a week ago. European governments are also likely to be pleased that their approach to Serbia has not been entirely and overwhelmingly rejected. But the people who have the most to celebrate are the professional politicians: the horsetrading that will take place over the next three months could prove to be very lucrative for some of them.

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