Serbia elects amid democratic crisis –

Two years later, the officially declared reasons for the extraordinary elections in Serbia prove that the parties that boycotted the 2020 elections were right, writes Aleksandra Tomanić.

Aleksandra Tomanić is the Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans.

On April 3, Serbia will hold presidential elections and several regular municipal and local elections. On that day, Serbia will also have early parliamentary elections.

Early elections are not uncommon in the history of post-socialist parliamentarism in Serbia. Over the past 30 years, there have been more off-schedule elections than regular elections.

This is a clear indicator of the problems the country is facing with the functioning of political institutions and the consolidation of democracy. However, this time there are two worrying aspects – firstly, these elections follow a protracted crisis of democracy and secondly, the early poll was announced even before the current government took office.

President Aleksandar Vučić announced that there would be new general elections in the fall of 2020. He did so after a meeting of the party presidency in his capacity as chairman of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

y (SNS), which holds an overwhelming coalition majority in parliament (243 seats out of 250). However, Article 115 of the Serbian constitution does not provide any secondary employment for the president of the country. The dual-hatted president even put the future government on a sort of probation, giving them 18 months to “prove their ability”.

This is an openly new level of retention of people in interim positions, already applied throughout the administration, where, according to the latest EC national report for Serbia, 62% of managerial positions filled were occupied on an interim basis.

At the end of 2018, while even the EC observed “clear elements of state capture” in the region, the crisis of democracy in Serbia deepened and received international recognition thanks to the opening of a cross-party dialogue led by the European Parliament.

As there was no observable improvement and massive irregularities were expected, most opposition parties decided to boycott the June 2020 elections.

But the hopes of the boycotting parties to show the real challenges of democracy in Serbia have not been realized. The international community congratulated the winner, carried on business as usual and even openly disapproved of the boycott. The potential illegitimacy of parliament and government has not been questioned at any time.

But two years later, the officially stated reasons for extraordinary elections prove that the boycotting parties are right. A new set of electoral, campaign finance and anti-corruption laws were passed by parliament in early February, technically setting the stage for calling snap elections at the government’s request.

This time, the entire opposition will take part in the elections, despite the remaining shortcomings. The continued distrust of a regular election day can be seen in the huge effort opposition parties are making to prepare their own election monitors.

Worryingly, the snap elections were taken for granted after they were announced at the end of 2020, there was no public debate or session in Parliament to discuss this important decision.

Furthermore, the government’s official proposal to the president explaining the need for early elections is not even publicly available but shared upon request with some journalists and IOs.

Besides the fact that the conditions are now met for all political actors to participate in the elections, it is interesting to note that the expectations of the government with regard to these elections also cover the ´reduction of the tensions created between the options confronted in society, rejection of exclusivity and hate speech and affirmation of the right to freely express opinions and points of view on certain political, economic and other issues

The government does not seem to see its own responsibility in these tensions rightly observed in society. Especially bearing in mind that hate speech is prevalent against political opponents, civil society representatives and journalists in parliament, and that smear campaigns are carried out by government-controlled media and tabloids.

Attacks in public spaces against activists and political opponents are common throughout the country. The most shocking example is the attack on protesting citizens last year in the town of Sabac, where hooligans were driven with sticks and hammers into official cars.

The question now is: if even the government admits that there were all these huge loopholes which are now improved to some degree legitimizing early elections, what happens to all the decisions made by a government and a parliament who took up their duties under previous conditions? How legit are they?

Meanwhile, media freedom is shrinking further. Freedom House lists unchanged Serbia as a “partly free” country and notes that it is experiencing one of the biggest declines in democracy scores in the past 10 years worldwide.

The current monthly inflation rate is above 8%, the highest since 2014, public debt has almost doubled over the past decade, the trade balance deficit is growing, military spending rose sharply in 2019, while that budgetary allocations for health, education and social protection have fallen .

Corruption, money laundering and organized crime cases are part of the regular political content. Regional stability is fragile and could even get worse, as Serbia is the only country in the region (and outside of Belarus in Europe) that has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The pandemic is still causing dozens of deaths a day, although the actual numbers have been found to be several times higher. Serbia had access to vaccines as one of the first countries, but vaccination rates have still not reached 50%, which says a lot about trust in institutions. Interestingly, this rate is close to the average participation rate, usually just above 50%.

An average Serbian voter does not have access to this and many other information and gets a different and positive image through controlled mainstream media.

It is high time that the issue of political criteria finally received at least the same attention as alignment with the CFSP. Compliance with the political criteria would lead to higher rates of alignment with the CFSP.

Nowadays, the forgotten sweet power enlargement of which the EU was rightly so proud, receive a sad and terrible reminder.

Democratic values ​​matter. Their importance can only be minimized by someone who has direct benefits from not having them or by someone who has never lived without them. Exchanging them for other expected favors is shortsighted and highly detrimental.

In previous years, the EC has helped itself to add “enough” to fulfilling the political criteria in its reports. If these elections were to be free, fair and with an informed electorate, Serbian voters could say enough is enough for them too.

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