The original version of the Serbia elections article for Open Democracy

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Eric Gordy

Elections in Serbia: Tadić out, nobody in

Tomislav Nikolić, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has been elected the next president of Serbia. The estimate by the observer group CeSID (www.cesid.org) is that Nikolić has received 49.7%, exceeding the 47% received by Tadić, who has been president since 2004.

Nikolić has thereby defeated the general expectation that Tadić would once again achieve a narrow victory and go on to a third term in office. The third term was expected to be marked by major progress on accession to the European Union, a possible agreement with Kosovo over status, and the consolidation of the power of Tadić’s Democratic Party (DS) and Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS – its name notwithstanding, the party once led by Slobodan Milošević) over all institutions and all patronage in the state.

Apprehension over the latest consolidation of power by DS-SPS bloc, ruling since 2008, was already apparent before the first round. SPS, controlling the ministries responsible for law enforcement, education and public works, had cemented itself in power considerably and in many ways deputy premier Dačić was behaving like he was prime minister. DS hardly opposed them, maintaining an unprofitable hard line in foreign policy and attempting to cultivate a constituency among the far right, bringing in a commander of a unit associated with war crimes in Kosovo as chief of military staff, and appointing Ratko Mladić’s associate Zoran Stanković as minister of defence and subsequently as minister of health. DS tried to expand its credibility among hardline nationalists by declining to rein in the provocative local councils in the north of Kosovo and by initiating a campaign to rehabilitate (and to find and exhume!) the World War II fascist collaborator Draža Mihailović.

In the meantime, the arguments that in two previous elections had persuaded voters who had reservations about the unresponsive and corrupt DS to swallow their priorities and vote to prevent Nikolić from taking power became progressively weaker. Nikolić left the Milošević satellite party where he was a vice president (Vojislav Šešelj, currently in the Hague awaiting his verdict on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, is the president), forming a new party and taking most of the membership and leadership of the old one with him. The new party is declaratively pro-EU, as is every party in the new parliament with the exception of Vojislav Koštunica’s DSS.

But the main factor that made Nikolić a more palatable option was not that he moved toward DS but rather that DS began doing the things people had been warned SNS might do. Bring the parties of the old regime back to power? Done. Rehabilitate and glorify war criminals? Done. Escalate tensions with neighbouring states? Done. Undermine democratic institutions and the independence of the judiciary and civil service from political parties? Done. All the harm people had been warned to expect from Nikolić had already been carried out by Tadić.

Every move Tadić made, from the coalition with SPS that became a relationship of dependency, to the public political shift to the hard right, served to alienate voters who formed the core of DS support. These were voters who held together the bulk of opposition to the Milošević regime, who supported the murdered prime minister Zoran Djindjić’s efforts to push through a radical reorientation of the state and society over conservative and nationalist resistance, and who maintained a transregional understanding of the society’s interests that conflicted with Tadić’s endorsement of confrontation with Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina (and occasionally with Croatia).

People in this group did not generally shift their support to Nikolić (the small number of prominent exceptions, including former politician Vesna Pešić and poet-publisher Dejan Ilić, spoke in strategic terms). The rest were left with a feeling that no party deserved their support – which accounts for the relatively low turnout in both rounds, and for the campaign that resulted in a relatively high number (4.6% in the first round, probably about 3.5% in the second) of spoilt ballots.

Consequently the result might be viewed less as a victory for Nikolić than it is a defeat for Tadić. Tadić lost because he took for granted the support of voters on the left who ceased to think that he deserved it, and made a play for voters on the right who were never inclined to give it. It is also a mixed result: Nikolić will take the presidency, but the majority in parliament will most likely be a coalition of DS, SPS, and some smaller parties including representatives of ethnic minorities.

The rebellion of urban, cosmopolitan and social democratic voters against DS has opened up a polemic over the last several weeks. Tadić’s debacle (as well as the swift decline in fortunes for the antinationalist Liberal Democrat Party [LDP], which lost its lucrative seats on the Belgrade city council) is widely attributed to the large-enough number of people who decided to withhold their support. Not a few voices are accusing them of betraying both the general interest and their own with an excessive gesture to punish their friends.

For their part the boycotters are unrepentant, and point to policies and coalitions for which they did not vote and to the authoritarian structures of the parties that claim their support. They respond to the charge of punishing their friends in the spirit of Joan Jett: you don’t lose when you lose fake friends.

The disagreement is unlikely to be settled, at least before the behaviour of SNS in power either confirms fears of a resurgent national polarization or affirms the perception that the convergence between parties has been so complete that the difference between them is meaningless.

Meanwhile, DS and SPS have been prevented from consolidating a shared monopoly of power. In the long run this may be good for democracy, but in the short run it is likely to mean that a weak president will face a discredited but determined parliamentary majority made up primarily by his opponents. The period immediately after the election will probably see repeated confrontation and evident instability. It may, however, last a short time, as the new president will have a strong motivation to call new elections as soon as he sees an opportune moment to get a more compliant government, and the parliamentary majority will do all it can to undermine the president. The new constellation of power will be unstable, unpredictable and contradictory – but it will be replaceable, which could turn out to be an improvement.

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