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.


The owl of Minerva screeches too much

People make comments, things happen, then things don’t happen.

This time the comment was made by Čedomir Jovanović, at the congress of the political party he heads. He wanted to make clear some unpopular facts about Serbia’s foreign policy in the region, and especially its failure to build a constructive relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jovanović and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) see the country’s closeness to Republika Srpska and confrontation with the central government as a losing game, built on denial of a difficult reality. So Jovanović decided to give it to them straight: don’t pretend their history is better than it is, don’t take their medals, don’t bless them, don’t pretend that the interest of the people is what folks were told it was in 1992. “Republika Srpska was built on genocide committed in Srebrenica, the largest committed since the Second World War,” he told his party members.

Recognition where it is due: the comment was courageous and truthful, and in the context of the whole speech offered a vision of how much better life could be in the region if politicians in the country would take an honest look at the recent past and what the national interest genuinely involves. But reality check 1: the politicians will never do that. And reality check 2: a bunch of people got angry. One group of people announced their intention to a file a lawsuit, saying that Jovanović had “offended all the Serbian victims” of something they got the neat idea (Freud much?) of calling the “Defensive-Fatherland war.” Not to be outdone by some verbally creative extremists, RS president Milorad Dodik said that Jovanović was “attributing collective responsibility to a whole people” and accepted a challenge to a public debate that was organised by the Tanjug news agency today.

Dodik’s main purpose was to repeat points that he had tried to establish ceremonially at the “twentieth anniversary” of RS (which was recognized as one of the two legal entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina shy of seventeen years ago, not twenty – that is, after the war and not before it): that RS was not founded on crime, that it was the victim of aggression, that there was no genocide in Srebrenica. He played a bit with numbers too, escalating the number of victims from the Serb villages around Srebrenica. There are 119 victims documented by IDC, at one point RS began claiming there were 600, then the late Milivoje Ivanišević doubled it to 1200, and in his TV appearance Dodik raised it to 3500. On the question of genocide, he spun an unusual historical web, in which he said that he “recognised” (konstatovao) that ICTY and ICJ had found that genocide occurred, but that he had never “recognised” (priznao) that the finding of fact was factual. As they say, ko razume shvatiće.

The moderator tried to give Jovanović the opportunity to find a common ground with Dodik, suggesting that his comment had been “taken out of context,” that it was “not directed against Republika Srpska as a collective but against the relation between Belgrade and Republika Srpska.” No dice, Jovanović said: “That sentence has a certain weight, and I do not intend to try to reduce that weight.” That made for a promising beginning. He gave himself a big job to do, to explicate the weight of history and what it has to do with political conflicts today. It would be hard to say that they got far past that beginning, though.

So why did the discussion not get so far? A lot of people will say that it because of the limitations of the participants. They would not be wrong, but there is more at stake here than a couple of public personalities who some people like and some people do not like.

How to describe the exchange? You don’t need to trust my description.  There is a video of it here and there is a partial transcript at LDP’s site, but they sadly seem to have decided to post the remarks of only one participant. So check it out and judge for yourselves. My impression is that once the two participants set out their initial positions the discussion deteriorated.

Partly this was the fault of Dodik. Although he is very wealthy and quite powerful, his populist inclination leads him to adopt speech and behaviour patterns that are just barely this side of rustic and abrupt, a style more suited to the birtija than the conference table. Considering that a good part of the viewing public was probably inclined to agree with him, it’s a great style for TV: walk away from content, offend people, and justify it with the standard line about not being “politically correct.” The broadcast went on for about 80 minutes, and as it went on Dodik resorted more to personal insults and repeating slogans. He snorted and smirked and interrupted. Did he leave Jovanović’s mother out of it? Silly question, what kind of Dodik would do that?

So does this mean that Jovanović emerged a hero? My impression is that he did not help himself a lot. He has a tendency to wander from topic to topic in the space between the beginning and ending of his sentences. He has a tendency to shout. He falls into unfortunate rhetorical constructions that result in unintentionally insulting exaggerations (“Bosnia is not a state, it is a cooking pot!” Uh huh, great.). He waves his arms when he gets excited. He confuses his own stature and reputation with the issue under discussion. All these things amount to mortal televisual sins in a context where at least half of the audience dislikes him to begin with and the point he needs to make is more important than he is.

So what did we find out? We found a lot about Dodik, as if we wanted to know: he makes claims and comparisons he knows are false, he dislikes both Belgrade and Sarajevo, he strangely has a thing about people who enjoy good ćevapi. He thinks that “Karadžić has his mistakes,” and that this is a meaningful admission. We also found out, as if we did not already know, that an effective answer to the kind of rhetoric Dodik uses is not more rhetoric of the same type. Jovanović got in a good one when he asked “Where has your politics led? To a war against Angelina Jolie!,” but the answer to misrepresentations is still facts rather than one liners. It seemed like the good guy’s shouting did less for the audience than the bad guy’s muttering.

It would be possible to take this analysis in a personal direction, to trace the problem to Čedomir Jovanović and the imbalance between his good impulses and courage on the one hand as his deficiencies as a spokesman for the position he advocates on the other. But that is a little bit pointless; however well or badly he is doing it, and whether he is the right person to be doing it, he is doing the good work. There is just not a lot of choice here.

The problem is more in the background fact that made it so painful to watch the shouty gesticulating guy take on the lying lummoxy guy. The issue is not about two personalities, or two political parties, or any kind of boxing match or duel. Any discussion of who won or lost – and there are lots of them on both sides, all of them claiming that one of them “smashed” or “tore apart” the other – misses the point that what is happening is not a fight or sports match. It is a misfired response to the need for people to know and understand what happened in the recent past, which still exerts a very strong influence on their life in the present. The shouting and insulting that political leaders do only show that political institutions do not have the capacity to meet that need.

Weak institutions are one thing, but when you see this kind of failed exchange at the top of institutional structures it has effects further down the structures. Because the people defending and hiding and relativising and trivialising crimes have a standard answer to the people who want them brought into the open – that the other folks are traitors, self-haters and mercenaries. And the people who want to bring out the facts have a standard answer to the people who are determined not to listen to them – that the other folks are criminals, immoral, deficient in education and civilisation. It can all be sort of fun up to a point, because you get all kinds of inventive names for people to use against one another. Missionary intelligentsia! The Forest Reich! There’s more. Hey, I come in as an outside observer and the diagnoses just write themselves, you know? But on the public level what it does is scare people off. Keep away from this side if you are afraid of being thought of as immoral! Keep away from this side if you are afraid of being thought of as a traitor! In fact, keep away from public life and the effort to understand your situation altogether. Have a nice glass of tennis matches and reality shows.

Milorad Dodik never wanted to free people from that burden. Čedomir Jovanović quite possibly would, but for a whole complex of reasons is not able. Together, they just make it heavier.