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Serbs Head to Polls in Tense Elections

Serbs headed for their local polling stations on Sunday to participate in parliamentary elections, where suspected war criminals and nationalists are expected to give moderates a serious challenge.


An elderly man casts his ballot at a polling station in Belgrade

For close to a year now, Serbia has stumbled from one crisis to the next. It began with the transformation of Yugoslavia to a loose alliance between Serbia and Montenegro. The questions of the relationship between those two republics as well as the status of the province of Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since the NATO air strikes in 1999, continued to simmer in the background. Then, in March, the reform movement’s leading figure, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated by mafia kingpins in Belgrade.

Trouble had been stirring even before Djindjic’s death. Two major parties in the government – the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the G17 Plus party both left the governing Coalition of the Serbian Democratic Opposition (DOS). Djindjic’s own Democratic Party (DS) remained the only strong member of the ruling coalition. But within six months of Djindjic’s death, the incumbent coalition became marred by internal fighting and serious accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

A republic without a leader

Meanwhile, there is still no head of state in place in Serbia because three presidential election attempts in the republic have failed to draw enough voters to create a valid result. The government has been plagued by numerous resignations and firings that have left, in many areas, what could best be described as "emergency staffing." And after a short economic recovery, there are now fears Serbia could fall into recession.

Under growing public pressure, the government coalition called for new elections, almost exactly three years after DOS forced Milosevic out of power.

The Democratic Party’s main candidate is Boris Tadic, who currently serves as Serbia’s Defense Minister. Rather than distancing himself from the infighting within his party, he has made concrete changes to it – successfully ordering the removal of high-ranking DS members with dubious mafia connections from the ballot. But he hasn’t taken steps yet to stop the party’s fighting – instead he has apologized to voters and said he would address the problems after the election. He has also said he will refuse to become part of a coalition with three parties.

"Today we need a government with fewer parties," he recently said. "These parties have to make fundamental order in government’s work possible and they have to be able to find unity in basic policy areas. The first question for most Serbs is jobs. Order is a prerequisite for jobs. The safety of our citizens is the third question. Those are basic questions that Serbs have to deal with."

DSS, G17 and DS?

But the DSS and G17 parties are skeptical of entering into a coalition government with DS – especially DSS, the party of former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.

"It’s hard to work together with the parties that are responsible for these conditions, for the conditions before 2000 and between 2000 and 2003," Kostunica told Deutsche Welle. "Because of them, we also now have problems that affect our cooperation with the DS because between 2000 and 2003, instead of actively working on the expansion of democratic institutions they dismantled them and, in the end, are also responsible for the rampant corruption and crime."

Still, Kostunica hasn’t provided clear solutions to the problems. Kostunica has opposed calls by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for the extradition of suspected war criminals. For that, he’s often been criticized by the European Union and the United States, the most important cash donors to impoverished Serbia.

For its part, the G17 Party is joining the EU’s call for the federal alliance with the Montenegro to be eliminated. Though he participated in the reform of the federation as as Yugoslav vice prime minister, party leader Miroljub Labus is now putting the brakes on Serbia’s path toward Europe. His position on Kosovo is also controversial.

"We want to deal with the problem of Kosovo independently from that of Montenegro because that’s the desire of Montenegro’s politicians," Labus told Deutsche Welle. "We’re planning to create a Kosovo ministry rather than the current coordination center, so that the government takes over responsibility for dialogue and Kosovo policy. But the time for new initiatives won’t come until after the new government has been created."

Threat of civil war?

In the event that the province, which has a majority Albanian population, declares its independence, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) has threatened to go to war. SRS served as an important and loyal partner to Milosevic during his rule in the 1990s. In January, the party’s chief, Vojislave Seselj, surrendered to international war crimes tribunal in The Hague on charges of war crimes. Despite that fact, he’s still his party’s main candidate.

"We won’t extradite anyone to The Hague," SRS deputy leader Tomislav Nikolic told Deutsche Welle. "SRS will work with the Hague Tribunal to insure the legal protection of the Serbs detained there. But if the Hague considers all Serbs to be criminals, then all of NATO’s soldiers and police are also criminals."

But most observers are skeptical as to whether the ultra nationalist SRS could create a working governing coalition. Still, polls show the party could win as much as 25 percent of the seats in parliament, which would give it the most votes of any party in parliament.

Other parties are also seeking a piece of the pie, including the Socialist Party of Serbia, which has named Milosevic as its leading candidate with the hope of clearing the five percent hurdle for representation in parliament. Finally, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) - New Serbia (NS) coalition, one of the leading opposition parties during the 1990s, also stands a chance of entering parliament.

Despite the dizzying array of parties, most observers believe the conservative DSS, the liberal G17 and the social democratic DS will each gain 15 to 20 percent of the vote, giving them the stable majority necessary to create a new democratic government. The remaining parties, from a group totaling 19, will unlikely clear the three percent minimum required to enter parliament.

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  • Date 28.12.2003
  • Author Filip Slavkovic (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4UUX
  • Date 28.12.2003
  • Author Filip Slavkovic (dsl)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4UUX