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Serbia on the eve of elections

02 November 2003

Twelve meetings/interviews lasting 1-1 ½ hours were conducted over four days with independent political analysts, expert advisers to the Serbian government, and a Deputy Prime Minister. The research visit took place immediately before Serbia's third unsuccessful attempt to elect a President on 16 November. The invalid result (due the low turnout of 39 percent, below the required 50 per cent) leaves Serbia still without a president. And meanwhile, the government's decision to go for early parliamentary elections on 28 December leaves it without a functioning parliament as well.
The low turnout had been widely predicted, but the relatively strong showing (over 46 per cent of the vote) of the candidate of the extremist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Tomislav Nikolic, was a shock to many. Nikolic, regarded as a much less `charismatic' figure than the party's former leader, Vojislav Seselj (now in custody in the Hague) not only won 350,000 more votes than Micunovic, the candidate of the governing coalition DOS (who won 36 per cent of the vote), but also managed to gain some 100,000 more votes than his predecessor Seselj had at the last unsuccessful presidential election in December 2002. Does this demonstrate a resurgence of unreconstructed nationalist extremism in Serbia? Not necessarily so, as the findings of my research visit to Belgrade suggest.
Public opinion in Serbia is in fact remarkably democratic in orientation. The problem is with the so-called `democratic' parties. This interpretation is confirmed by polls conducted by one of the most highly respected independent pollsters in Belgrade, SMMRI. The performance of these parties simply does not match up to the public's democratic expectations. Intense inter-party infighting in the weeks preceding the election was conducted by means of mutual accusations of corruption and abuse of power - the result of which was that both the accusers (mainly the `civic liberal' party, G17) and the accused (in the governing coalition, DOS) lost popular credibility. Serbian voters, like voters everywhere else, clearly cannot abide personalised mud-slinging and bickering. G17's perceived new `aggressive' tactics played particularly poorly in Vojvodina, a former stronghold of its support, where the traditionally liberal-democratic section of the Serbian population (mainly those with family roots in the region from Habsburg times) and the Hungarian minority, began switching allegiance to democratic alternatives. Further confusion was sown in voters' minds when former antagonists, recognising that they needed each other after all, began to cosy up again notwithstanding the damning charges they had laid at each others' door.
DSS, the party of Vojislav Kostunica, thus gained popularity by standing apart from the fray. But both DSS and G17 chose to boycott the presidential vote, arguing that it was `irrelevant' and merely a delaying tactic on the part of the government to avoid early parliamentary elections. Had Kostunica been a candidate, it seems likely that popular interest in the election would have been much stronger. It is doubtful, however, that the level of abstention at the ballot reflects any strong hold of these parties over voters' behaviour. For the government itself failed to publicise the coming election and their candidate's campaign was low-key at best. SMMRI found that at least 50 per cent of the public were not aware of the coming election just a few weeks before it was to take place; and election posters were only just going up in Belgrade during my visit, with just ten days to go. Yet poll evidence clearly showed that it was the `democratic' parties who stood to lose most from a low turnout, as their potential voters are markedly less ready to exercise their vote under any circumstances than those of the opposition, especially the SRS, which has a more disciplined following.
The rise in the SRS vote reflects has more to do with social protest than resurgent nationalist extremism. That the SRS both came top, and increased the absolute number of its voters, is indeed depressing, not least because of the boost it will give this party at the start of the parliamentary election campaign. Most of the political analysts I spoke to noted the organisational strength of the SRS, which enables it to mobilise voters effectively through its network of party activists across Serbia. At the centre, despite the lacklustre personality of Nikolic, the party has some competent people who pay close attention to opinion polls and adapt the party's strategy and tactics accordingly. In recent months, the party has been shifting its central messages towards more general social grievances, and it is this shift that may have won it more voters across Serbia proper. Nevertheless, its nationalist message still plays well in certain regions (above all, among Serbian voters in Kosovo; and, in Serbia, among displaced persons and refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia). Most analyses suggest that the party's share of the total electorate would peak at about 20 per cent, and its latest performance is consistent with that. If, as the party has recently announced, it fields the Hague indictee Seselj at the head of its list in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, this may lose it some of the votes it recently gained, as Seselj is one of the least popular politicians in the opinion poll ratings.
Popular disaffection from the governing coalition has more to do with politics than with economics. Dire as the economic situation certainly is for the majority of the population, their voting behaviour seems mainly to have been driven by perceptions of elite corruption, abuse of power, association with organised crime, ineffectual government performance and the inexplicably bitter divisions between the `democratic' parties (given the high level of substantive agreement between them on basic policies). While the state of the economy and unemployment regularly come top of the list of popular worries, opinion polls reveal little opposition to privatisation and economic reform per se. In practice, Serbian society has hidden sources of resilience developed over decades of `getting by' despite successive governments' egregious mismanagement of the official economy.
SMMRI estimates that of the 1 mn officially registered unemployed, 500-700,000 are engaged in unregistered earning activity. The grey economy may more than double the official average personal income of $1,300 per annum to about $3,000. It is symptomatic that people's assessments of their personal economic well-being varies in direct relationship to their perception of government performance. Thus, in March and April 2003 (under the widely-approved state of emergency following the assassination of Djindjic) the proportion of those who claimed their standard of living had gone up since 2000 leapt by 15 percentage points. The perception of government effectiveness also seems to have increased hopes for the future: in April, 42 per cent expected their living standard to rise in the next 6 months, 40 per cent expected no change, and only 12 per cent foresaw a decline. But by the summer, these hopes had begun to evaporate, and those expecting a decline had risen to 30 per cent. Voter disaffection thus has much more to do with perceived government performance than objective economic indicators.
Democratic parties will do better in December, but political instability will persist for some time to come. The recent election fiasco has served as a salutary warning to the outgoing governing coalition. The DS has moved swiftly to present a joint ticket with three smaller parties. In a clear bid to regain popular credibility, it has nominated Boris Tadic (the effective and respected Minister of Defence of the Serbia-Montenegro Union) to head the list, and has excluded the extremely unpopular Deputy Prime Minister, Cedomir Jovanovic. The list also includes trusted figures such as Foreign Minister Svilanovic and Finance Minister Djelic. Many of the numerous small, or barely existing, parties whose leaders have been so troublesome for the unity of the DOS coalition now face political extinction unless they are offered the option of merging with one of the three large democratic parties (DS, G17, DSS). There seems to be no doubt that these three parties together should achieve a comfortable dominance of parliamentary seats. However, the key questions are which of the three will come out on top, and how far the leading party will be able to form a workable coalition with either or both of the other two. There seems no chance that any one of them will win a majority of seats, but neither may any two of them together.
The international community should resist advocating a `Grand Coalition' - Serbia needs a democratic opposition as well as a functioning democratic government. The SRS is likely to repeat its relatively strong showing in the December election, but the international community should not overreact to this by urging the formation of a tripartite coalition of the major democratic parties. This would be very unstable and would delay the consolidation of a democratic party system, offering voters clear alternatives among parties that share basic democratic values. In particular, a Grand Coalition of these parties would hand the SRS all the political advantages of being the main party of opposition. A succession of weak governments and repeat elections seems to be an inevitable prospect in the short term, while the party system develops. The international community should focus on providing the external anchors for Serbia's democratic transition, in particular, accelerating its integration into NATO's PfP and the EU.
There is room for an optimistic scenario. The contours of democratic development over the medium term are already becoming apparent. It is possible to envisage DSS and DS consolidating their positions as the two dominant poles of a political spectrum not unlike that of, for example, Hungary: with one strong, right-of-centre, conservative party (DSS), drawing on `traditional' values and a more-or-less constrained nationalist rhetoric, facing another strong, centrist party of pragmatic opportunists (DS), espousing the rhetoric of `modernisation' and `Europeanisation'. There would still be room for a smaller party of `civic liberals' (G17) potentially allying with either of these two. This could effectively marginalise `anti-system' extreme nationalist and social-protest parties. The EU might do well to consider carefully how its own actions may help or hinder such an outcome.