Monday, May 7, 2012

Election in Serbia: Failure of Democracy, European Style

Serbia is one of the oldest democracies in the world. The old Serbia, that is. It had one of the first constitutions in Europe and one of the first civil codes, long before Germany or Italy were even countries. But, communism happened and the Serbs had their democratic habits forgotten. The beginning of the 21st century is not the best of times to re-learn them as the latest fiasco of democratic elections has shown on Sunday. No, the election was regular, according to European standards. According to the common sense democratic standards, they were far from it.
Let’s start with the fact that then-President Boris Tadić set the election for May 6, St. George’s day, a major religious holiday, celebrated at home by the more traditional Serb families, those who are generally not prone to voting for him. That was a trick, but that was his prerogative. As a president, one is entitled to manipulations. Hey, in the United States, the Election Day is Tuesday, when most people who are not obscenely rich or welfare recipients actually work.  Not only did he set the parliamentary election for that day, but he then resigned from the position of the Head of State the Serbian people entrusted him with in 2008, making himself available to run in the presidential election he set prematurely on the same day. Tadic called the move “shortening the term,” an unheard-of legal justification. Kosta Čavoški, the leading Serbian constitutional law scholar, condemned such a manipulation as unconstitutional, but who could make the Serbian president obey the Constitution? Namely, Čavoški called the move into question pointing at the misinterpretation of the term limits clause which should have stopped Tadić from running for the third term. Tadić’s justification was that Serbia was not independent and this Constitution was not in effect in 2004, when he was elected to the first term, so the term clause limit adopted with the 2006 Constitution did not apply to him. Tadić won the second term in 2008, the first time under the current Constitution. Čavoški also cited the two constitutionally valid reasons for the president to resign, neither of which made Tadić’s move legal. (The president resigns in case of an acquired physical or mental incapacitation which would prevent him/her from performing the duty; or in case of feeling guilt or political inadequacy due to errors committed during the term that violated the trust the people confide in him/her). Anyway, there being no one with the physical power to stop him, Tadić steamrolled on.
The campaign was what it was, mainly dirty and insulting to the intelligence and the common sense of a common Serb. Tadić and his cohorts acted as if they were the opposition, criticizing the opposition for the horrible state of affairs. Especially outrageous in posing as opposition was Tadić’s former ally Mlađan Dinkić, who held key economic posts in every government from 2000 to 2011, when he was removed by Tadić. Dinkić, the single most responsible individual for Serbia’s economic woes, played dumb, reinvented his image as a leader striving for public accountability, de-partisation and regionalization of Serbia. Meanwhile, he is charged by his numerous critics with re-introducing the practice of job appointment along the party lines, all the way to the lowest levels of the  government apparatus totem pole. He is also notorious for admitting he lied when he promised every Serb a 1000 Euro worth of stock in the Italian auto manufacturer Fiat, which bought a stake in the Serbian failing manufacturer, Zastava. One does not know whom to blame more, Dinkić or those who believed such incredulity.
More factories and infrastructure opened in the two months of the election campaign than in the previous four years, commentators say, to promote the image of a productive government to the electorate. Meanwhile, failure of the economic policies, especially those related to privatization, were glaring, with thousands of workers left out in the cold. The jewel of the early stages of the post-Milosević privatization process, the Smederevo Steel Mill, was dumped back onto Serbia’s shoulders by US Steel, reportedly for $1 and million of dollars in bank debt, although it has become increasingly hard to believe anything coming out of the Democratic Party-controlled media.
Several campaign tactics on the ruling elites’ part stood out, aside from the obvious and brazen count of eligible voters that listed 6.7 million voters in the country of 7.1 million people.
There was a loud call in social media for voters to submit blank ballots, ostensibly to show disappointment with all the political options in some form of a protest. Well, I assume that the disappointed citizenry mainly feels like that as a result of the government ineptitude. So, the ruling party can only benefit from the disappointed citizens not voting. Observing a number of social media activists that promoted this idea, it became clear to me that the “white ballot” ploy originated within the ruling establishment. The effect was an unprecedented 4 percent of invalid votes.
The second dubious tactic was related to the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija. The Serbs in North Kosovo municipalities have felt the stepmother love of Tadić in the past months of turbulence, when their destiny was all but handed over to the Kosovo Albanian separatist authorities. These Serbs, radicalized by virtue of having to fight for their very existence, became ardent opponents of the Tadić government that left them to vultures. It was not clear until a week or so before the election how and if the voting would take place in North Kosovo. Finally, it was decided that the voting will be organized by OSCE and that the vote count will, out of security concerns, happen not in the polling places, but the ballots will be transported north of the administrative line, in Raška. Well, if there were no security concerns in having the polls open the entire day, what exactly was so frightening about counting the votes for another half hour? The result of such an outsourced “count” was the lowly turnout of 32 percent, compared to 58 percent nationally. As far as my familiarity with the turnout dynamics goes, the more people are concerned with political issues, the more they turn out to vote. Not in the ethnic ghettoes of North Kosovo, I guess. Whatever ballots were counted gave the overwhelming victory to the opposition nationalist parties, mainly Vojislav Koštunica’s DSS.
Third, reports from various Serb communities in  the Diaspora show another rampant occurrence: many expatriates simply had nowhere to vote as numerous designated polling stations at Serbian embassies were closed.
Breaking the pre-election silence was symptomatic of the general political culture and was not specific to any one party. In other words, compared to these other violations, no big deal. Buying of the votes before the voting and at the polling places was, however, widespread. One vote went for as low as 2,500 Serbian dinars (about $30). There are reports of towns in Vojvodina, overwhelmingly populated by the exiled Krajina and Bosnian Serbs, known to be very nationalist, won by the anti-Serbian separatist LSV and a local Roma party. Don’t ask me how. First you impoverish the people and then you buy them for peanuts.
I won’t go any further with these examples. In the coming days, a lot more reports will surface, I’m sure. Of course, the fraud allegations will be abundant by the time it is all said and done. The mainstream media has reported it all to have been fine and dandy, but the political culture of the ruling party leaves a lot of room and reason for speculations and accusations to be accepted as justified. Tadić’s party fell short of a victory and about 30 percent short of the 2008 score, despite the electoral manipulations, but it can still form the cabinet with its allies and Tadić himself still has the run-off on May 20 to win the presidency. Dveri, the most dominant social media and grassroots activist movement, have already held press conferences accusing the government of electoral fraud that kept them below the 5 percent parliamentary threshold. Although a novice on the Serbian political scene, their compelling message and the well-executed grassroots campaign rallied an unexpected support with Serbs from all walks of life, renowned intellectuals and academics, professionals, expatriates and especially the disenfranchised youth. While not having much of the access to the mainstream media, their voice was heard through vigorous campaigning via alternative media outlets, especially online. Their representatives dominated the rare televised debates. Yet, they complain, they were prevented from winning a parliamentary seat by electoral malpractice.
In all likeliness, the election outcome came down to which parties could control the polling places in areas they expected to dominate.  It was a matter of bodies as well as funds to pay for those bodies. Whichever party could ensure its support wouldn’t diminish by virtue of electoral fraud, it could hope for a reasonable electoral success. Those less fortunate or powerful could only stand, watch and feel betrayed by democracy.
This is your EU-promoted democracy, Serbian style. These kinds of corrupt practices are exercised to ensure the victory of pro-EU forces within Serbia. The Smederevo Steel Mill workers, deprived of job security and of sound economic prospects, are still waiting for someone to buy them. The farmers, impoverished, disenfranchised and prevented from participating in the free market, will come out to block the highways probably as soon as the new cabinet is pieced together. The retirees will keep rummaging through trash bins instead of cashing their hard-earned pension checks. A desperate father will look to send one or both of his educated children abroad to serve a foreign master and long for Serbia from a Chicago studio apartment. Dveri will keep filing complaints and summoning strength for the oncoming four years. And Serbia will continue to sink under the weight of its own political masochism. One cannot help but wonder where the people that gave birth to one of the first European democracies have gone.

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