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 ( 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.


Elections in Serbia: Leaving it up to you

The big news from the elections in Serbia is that there is not much news. The ruling Democratic Party (DS) has lost a lot of support since forming the government in 2008 (down from 39% to 22.3%), but not enough to push it out of the top rank of parties. The opposition Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) stood for the first time since it was formed as a breakaway taking most of the members and leaders from the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), and outdid DS (at 24%). But they will not be forming the government. Smaller parties did more or less as expected, with the Čedomir Jovanović vehicle (this time around a coalition called „Preokret,“ or „turnaround“), the Mladjan Dinkić vehicle (he used to claim to represent economic expertise, but now he claims to represent regions) and the Vojislav Koštunica vehicle (he’s still driving his old ZIL-41047 called DSS) scraping into the parliament. They will occupy the seats together with some minority parties which are guaranteed representation and one columnist’s bizarre ego-trip masquerading as a minority party (about which more a little bit later).

As expected, no candidate won in the first round of the presidential contest, so the second round will be a rematch of the 2004 and 2008 elections, pitting the DS leader Boris Tadić against SNS leader (previously acting leader of SRS, pending the conviction in the Hague of its president Vojislav Šešelj)  Tomislav Nikolić for the third time. When they face one another in two weeks, not many people will be surprised if Tadić just barely defeats Nikolić once again.

So not much there. The new president is likely to be the person who has been president since 2004, doing his third term. The new government is likely to look a lot like the old government. In a year that is seeing changes of political alignment in elections across Europe, Serbia is in all likelihood keeping what it’s got.

Still, there are a few interesting developments out there worth following.

The resistible rise of SPS: Socialist Party of Serbia head Ivica Dačić played an impressive hand with the 7.58% his party got in the 2008 elections. The former Milošević spokesman demanded as the price for giving DS the majority it needed to form a government a deputy premiership and the interior ministry for himself, the education and infrastructure ministries for his party, and the presiding position of the parliament for one of his deputies. The infrastructure and interior combination was especially crucial, as few businesspeople could resist joining up with a party that controlled construction and engineering contracts on the one hand and law enforcement on the other. SPS doubled its result to 14.7% in this year’s election, meaning that it will not even have to pretend that the presidency depends on its endorsement and the governing coalition on its membership. His success is testament to the complete absence of memory of the dictatorship in which Dačić began his career, and to the absolutely central role of patronage in every single profitable thing that happens in Serbia.

The sounds of slamming doors and doors and doors: Remember the big bad SRS, whose dominance was raised as a threat any time anybody thought of offering a criticism of or – heaven forbid! – failing to vote for one of the series of disappointing, corrupt post-Milošević coalitions? They will not be a part of the next parliament, having failed to meet the 5% threshold (with 4.6%). This also cuts off the funding for their gravy train, so they will not be in any subsequent parliaments either. This despite the fact that Mr Tadić’s government bent over backward to be solicitous to them, figuring that a good showing for their leader Vojislav Šešelj (represented by his apparently perfectly pleasant and unobjectionable wife in this election) would cut into support for Nikolić. The far-right weirdness flowered further with the appearance of a new party, Dveri (the Doors), growing out of a clerical-fascist youth club. They put up a lot of posters and declined to say anything more about that their positions beyond the claim that they liked families, but they also failed to make the threshold at 4.4%. For people who like their DB-sponsored parties in fake-left rather than loony-right flavour, the “Movement of Workers and Peasants” also failed to get in with 1.5%. In fact the only (openly) anti-European party in the parliament will be former PM Koštunica’s DSS. The strength of the far right was not enough to dilute SNS votes. Despite all the loud concern about marauding fascist hordes in Serbia, these parties are small, without credibility, without members, and without support. They’ll sleep in each other’s mattresses like maggots in despair.

None of less than zero: Even before the elections were declared a campaign had begun to punish politicians by refusing to vote, or by casting blank or spoiled ballots as a display of dissatisfaction with political parties that came increasingly to be seen as representing not citizens but themselves. None of the initiatives to include a “none of the above” option as a regular part of the ballot have succeeded (this option does exist in a few countries: Greece, Ukraine, Spain, Colombia and Bangladesh, and Russia until 2006). But a local fraudster decided that he could give the impression that such an option existed, and so Nikola Tulimirović founded the party “None of the answers offered” (Nijedan od ponuđenih odgovora, or NOPO). To give the impression that this was a voting option rather than a political party, he engineered that the party occupy the last position on the ballot. And to assure that a small number of deceived voters could produce a much larger hoodwinked public, he registered the party as a minority party representing Vlachs in Serbia (long story short: it has as much to do with Vlachs as I have to do with Venusians), freeing it from both the registration fee and the 5% threshold for representation. This would all be good dishonest fun if politics had not entered the game in the form of Djordje Vukadinović, a newspaper columnist and co-editor of an online magazine that attracts people to read articles covering the spectrum from righter than centre-right to hard-right. Vukadinović jumped in to head the list, and offered a “programme to save Serbia,” a silly assemblage of repressive ideas from a copy of Turkey’s infamous image-of-the-state law (points #3 and #4) to drug tests for all public employees (point #5), purging women from the public sector (point #9) and “banning homosexual propaganda (point #18). In short it was the kind of programme that the people you avoid at the pub could very easily have composed around their table in the fifteen minutes when you were very happy to be looking somewhere else. With a whopping 0.6% of the vote (less than the 0.8% received by a fellow with the completely unfamiliar name Josip Broz), deception made Vukadinović a member of parliament, which can be expected to be impressed with none of the answers he offers.

The blank ballots slogan, cartoon art and celebrity trivia movement: Under the slogan “zero for the zeroes,” there was a small movement to punish the political parties and make a show of alienation by taking a ballot paper but leaving it blank or spoiling it, to produce a result that would undermine the credibility of the election and artificially raise the threshold for representation. It is probably worth observing that this was a move that was likely to end up helping the three largest parties by making the process more difficult for smaller ones. Also it was mostly intended to punish two nominally liberal parties that many former supporters saw as having betrayed their supporters: the ruling DS, which by forming a coalition with SPS and by adopting much of the agenda of the right was regarded as having shifted from a party of principle to a party of patronage, and the smaller Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which by its extreme caution in grooming itself for membership in a future coalition was regarded as having emptied itself of ideas. How effective was the campaign for demonstrative abstention? It produced some very entertaining ballots, and 4.6% of ballots cast were not credited to any party (in contrast with 2.17% in the previous election in 2008). So the best can be said that it produced an observable display of symbolic dissatisfaction, and effects on the election mostly at the local level – in Belgrade, for example, it probably altered the count enough to keep LDP just short of the threshold for joining the city council. Debate is ongoing as to whether the “white ballot” campaign had a positive or negative effect. Probably it made the point of warning parties not to treat their presumptive supporters as property, but probably also it was not large or organised enough to express too much more than ambient dissatisfaction.

So what do we get at the end of the cycle? Assuming that Tadić defeats Nikolić by his usual narrow margin in two weeks, a government that looks a lot like the previous one, only less stable and more corrupt, and lots of signs that there is a good number of angry people in a system that remains pretty lopsided and pretty dysfunctional. No signs that things will get much better, but happily no signs that they will get a whole lot worse.