Serbia's Elections Revisited

February 4, 2004 Topic: ElectionsPolitics

Serbia's Elections Revisited

In December, Serbia had parliamentary elections which were considered "the most important in the country's recent history.

In December, Serbia had parliamentary elections which were considered "the most important in the country's recent history." In the elections, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), a hard nationalist party, won the biggest share of the vote (27.61 percent). It was a shock to the international community, democratically-oriented parties in the country and the public at large. For many insightful analysts, the results of the elections were not surprising. During the unsuccessful presidential elections in November 2003, Radicals were the most successful. Their leader, Tomislav Nikolic won 1,166,896 votes (46.23 percent), outpacing Professor Dragoljub Micunovic (35.42 percent), a veteran of the democratic movement in Serbia.

Results of the parliamentary elections on December 28, 2003 were generally determined by the unexpected success of the Radical candidate. Therefore, no one should be surprised, for there had been many indications and factors that contributed, directly or indirectly, to the outcome of the parliamentary elections. Three years ago, Serbs unanimously decided to abandon a nationalistic and conservative direction, in order to improve the condition of their lives and pave the way for European integration. This time, they voted for the political party they previously opposed. What were the reasons for that?

For almost three years, no one paid attention to the SRS. There was a strong belief that the DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia, a governing reformist group of the 18 parties) would be the only source for both the government and opposition. In the meantime, Serbia was collapsing both economically and socially. Financial support of the West to the Serbian reformist government hasn't been abundant and sufficient, as promised. The government itself lacked a clear and efficient economic policy. Unemployment increased to over thirty percent while prices soared and the standard of life declined. Furthermore, The Hague International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) for the former Yugoslavia hung as a Damocles' sword over the whole nation. Serbs perceived it as a mere political tool of West, extremely partial towards them. The ICTY lost its impartiality in eyes of the Serbian public because it predominantly accused Serbs and their leaders of violating international humanitarian laws, without taking any considerable steps, beyond making symbolic accusations, to punish people in other Balkan nations who obviously perpetrated crimes against Serbs. For the last three years, promises of economic support came only in exchange for extradition of those indicted. The Serbian government did its best, even extraditing the former president of the state. Unfortunately, the promised support hasn't come. The international community failed to meet the expectations of the reformist Serbian government. In Particular, the behavior of the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY, even for the western-oriented Serbs, was unbearably arrogant and politically prejudiced. At the same time, the West's inability to react to the regular Albanian atrocities perpetrated against the Serb minority in Kosovo and unresolved status of the province put Serbs in a very humiliating position.

In March 2003, Zoran Djindjic, Serbia's Prime Minister and the core person of the reformist movement, was assassinated. Since then, nothing has been the same in the governing DOS coalition. Disputes, mutual accusations and revelation of numerous "affairs of corruption" became a daily practice. It provoked, especially within younger voters, the feeling of desperation and conviction that none of the democratic parties was worth voting for. By fighting over power, these parties rejected voters, and the optimism and good humor that appeared after the fall of the Milosevic regime turned into political apathy and resignation. In addition, Serbia has not had a president for almost 18 months.

These events generated the perfect conditions for the rise of Radicalism. Nevertheless, the SRS made its own contribution to this turn by its unity, accord, precise organization, solid base, loyal followers and demagogical skills that could motivate voters emotionally. The SRS became strong again, primary due to weaknesses of the ruling parties. Tomislav Nikolic presented a new face of Serbian nationalism. He is more tranquil and calmer then the ICTY prisoner Vojislav Seselj, still technically president of the SRS. Seselj is very popular but, as a matter of fact, physically far away. So, disenchanted nationalist oriented voters found in Nikolic the "right" incarnation of their beliefs. During the campaign, Nikolic expressed a moderate intent to cooperate with the international community. He wants to work with the international community but not make any concessions. Nikolic said: "We need western technology and eastern markets. We don't want to be slaves." Nikolic promised that if the SRS gained power, no more Serbs would be extradited to the ICTY. The foreign policy credo of Nikolic is: "We will cooperate with any country in the world with which Serbia would have interest to cooperate, but none will blackmail or humiliate us."  These slogans were Radical "weapons" of mass attraction.

The Decision of the Chief Prosecutor of the Hague Tribunal to accuse Seselj was, doubtless, made with the intention to cut off the head of the SRS, but the effect was completely contrary to the one desired.  Seselj's trial raised his popularity. The SRS has never been stronger than with Seselj in his cell in The Hague. In this case, it is shown for the thousandth time that the West doesn't know and doesn't understand the psychology and mentality of Serbs. The SRS knew how to turn the negative atmosphere to its own benefit, offering a "revival of the national dignity to the humiliated Serbian people." Radicals have offered the people two things they had needed: economic recovery and national dignity. But, the basic reason to vote for the SRS was economic, more than nationalist. Voters opted against the existing government, not for the "brilliant" programs of the SRS. Many people voted out of spite, one of the core characteristics of the Serbian mentality. Radicals knew how to spearhead the public discontent. Consequently, the SRS advanced from the 322,000 votes during the parliamentary elections in December 2000 to 1,056,256 in the elections of December 2003.

Despite the excellent election results, the SRS can't count on a majority in the parliament. The main four democratic groups won 49.42% of the votes, or 146 seats out of the total 256 seats in the Serbian Assembly, enough to prevent the SRS from dominating. Despite the success of the Radicals, it is not entirely correct to speak about the right-wing direction of Serbia. One must keep in mind that the democratic block won about 2.5 million votes, and Radicals and likeminded parties about 1.5 million. On the other hand, the SRS won fewer votes on  December 28,  then on the presidential elections on November 16. This is quite significant, and it can even be viewed as a decrease in voter support.

As a consequence of their Pyrrhic victory, the four democratic groups have to carry out long and hard talks to form the new Serbian government. The positive effect of the situation is that joint fear of the SRS will likely bring together all the democratic parties in Serbia and force them to reestablish cooperation on behalf of the democratic and prosperous course of the country. Nonetheless, having in mind the quarrels of the recent past, a new governing coalition of the democratic parties would be a miracle. They are aware that, without a fast formed democratic government, new elections would be scheduled. But, new elections would increase opportunities for the SRS to enhance its influence and, moreover, to win more than 50% of the vote. The example of the Germany's ill-fated Weimar Republic demonstrated that shortly reiterated elections, in a politically unstable situation, increases the share of extreme votes.

Another positive consequence is that the political scene in Serbia has been simplified, thanks to the reduction in the number of parties in the parliament, a cleaner look and fewer actors.

Last, but no least, is the fact that elections on December 28 were truly free, democratic and fair, for the first time in Serbian history. The day after the elections, the U.S. Department of State emphasized that they "were conducted freely and fairly."

It is important to conclude that the advances of the SRS won't destabilize the region, and induce the further rise of extreme political forces in neighboring countries. This is not 1990 or 1991.

What is the necessary agenda to preserve the democratic and reformist direction that Serbia took after the fall of Milosevic in 2000?

First of all, all personal animosities, leaders' vanities, conceptual differences and particular interests in the democratic block should be put aside in order to form an efficient and decisive government, which is focused on economic and social recovery, legal reforms and the growth of democracy in Serbia. The paramount task for the future reformist government is to present effective and realistic economic programs. This is the solution to the Radical problem because Radicals won, primarily, on a wave of social discontent and not ideology. Strength of the SRS is in reverse proportion to economic prosperity and level of integration with European and Euro-Atlantic discourses.

The international community has its own share of responsibility for SRS success in elections. It's also a moment to reinvestigate the role of the leading US and European politicians in the last three years. Further development of the situation in Serbia will be the test for cooperation between the US and EU, and whether they are ready to enact more successful policies in the Balkans. Serbia needs help and attention from the West, regardless of the strategic focus on the War on Terrorism.  The US and EU have a substantial role to play in fostering Serbian democracy. Productive relations cannot be established according to imperial or colonial attitudes of conditioning, but rather on a true partnership. It is undeniable that the demand for extradition of four military and police generals on the eve of the December elections significantly contributed to SRS success. Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal should be established on a legal basis, without harming democratic institutions in Serbia and vital national interests. The historical fact, clearly outlined in Churchill's memoirs, that the Weimar Republic collapsed mainly due to external pressure, should be taken into deep consideration now. For some, it's easier to criticize Serbia for the high percentage of Radical votes than to make the decisive effort to foster a viable, democratic system and reduce the reasons that led to this point, taking into account all the idiosyncratic features of the people and substantial national interests of Serbia.