SERBIA
“Fateful elections” in Serbia?

From the engine room of an election observation mission 2021/22
Vukosava Crnjanski
Vukosava Crnjanski © CRTA

Interview with Vukosava Crnjanski, Director of the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA).

Election observation missions at national and local level have been at the centre of the activities of the independent Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) for several years. The focus is not only on the day of the election itself. Months beforehand, the Centre observes and analyses whether democratic standards are in place and whether political competitors are being treated fairly and given sufficient coverage and mention in the media, for example.

In April 2022, three elections will take place on the same day, 3 April: presidential and parliamentary elections, and local elections in Belgrade.

We spoke with CRTA Director Vukosava Crnjanski about her expectations regarding the upcoming elections and her experiences from previous years.

“Minimal Standards Fulfilled - Democracy Endangered”! This was the headline of a CRTA election report after the parliamentary elections in June 2020. You referred to that election day and the preceding weeks, as the "worst of the elections observed so far". Irregularities and incidents were registered in a range of 8-10 per cent of polling stations, twice as many as in 2016 and 2017. What do you expect from the upcoming elections next year?

I’m afraid I have to say that our fears are greater than our hopes. Unfortunately, not much has been done in the meantime regarding the electoral conditions, although two parallel interparty dialogues have been conducted this year, one of which was mediated by representatives of the European Parliament, while the other included the opposition parties which did not want to negotiate “internal issues in the presence of foreigners”. 

The course of both processes was mostly hidden from the public eye and their outcomes can’t significantly improve the quality of elections because the essential problems – such as unequal media treatment, pressure on voters, and abuse of public office and public resources – are hardly even addressed in the final inter-party agreements.

What we got instead was another major change of electoral rules set to take place on the eve of the election campaign, which is in strict contravention of international standards for free and fair elections. It is hard to comprehend the motivation for introducing a new level of electoral administration in a rush, risking a deterioration in the protection of voters’ rights and the legal uncertainty of the election process because of insufficient time allowed to implement such a structural shift. There was a similar situation last year when the electoral threshold was lowered from 5% to 3% just before the elections were called; only in that case, it was an obvious attempt by the ruling party to control any potential damage caused by the announced boycott.

Unlike 2020, there is no boycott planned by the opposition parties so far. They obviously want to contest the election. To what do you attribute this? Are they assuming fairer conditions this time or have they recognised that a new boycott is a "blunt sword" with which they can hardly hurt the government in office and its actors?

Aside from the pathetically homogeneous composition of the Parliament, which was functioning in utter submission to the executive branch, the only tangible result of the boycott was a decision (made by the President of Serbia immediately after the elections, although it shouldn’t have been up to him to decide) to shorten both the Parliament’s and the Government’s mandate, so as to have the new parliamentary elections in 2022.

The boycotting opposition parties did claim that the boycott campaign was successful, but now, less than four months before the next elections, I can’t see that any goals were achieved in terms of fairer electoral conditions or, generally, a more open, and more democratic political climate in our society. It seems as though the opposition lacked either the strategy or the means to capitalise on the boycott’s effects.

Besides CRTA, the OSCE will again conduct an election observation mission (ODIHR). Do you coordinate your activities or do the missions run completely separately?

ODIHR and CRTA have separate and independent missions. While there is a high probability that the ODIHR will deploy the observation mission in April next year, CRTA –  as a domestic observer – has already started with the long-term observation of the media, election administration, and activities of political actors on the ground. CRTA regularly meets with the ODIHR and OSCE and exchanges findings and analyses of the electoral state of play in Serbia. 

Last year the head of the OSCE election observation mission, Urszula Gazek, stated at a press conference that the deployment of the State President, who was also the party leader, had violated the boundary between official duties and election campaigning and was thus a violation of the obligation to respect the separation between the state and the parties. What do you expect in the coming year, when the President will be the central figure for three elections at the same time?

The abuse of public office, as I’ve already said, is one of the practices that cause the most harm to the quality of the electoral process in Serbia, and CRTA persistently argues against it and offers solutions on how to resolve the problem of the blurring of the line between the state and political parties. The nominally independent institutions, such as the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACAS) and Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM), which should be monitoring and sanctioning such a mishmash of behaviour of public officials, too often turn a blind eye to it, allowing political profit to prevail over the public interest.

It is difficult to illustrate precisely enough how much power is concentrated in the hands of Aleksandar Vučić, never mind the fact that, according to the Serbian Constitution, the President of the Republic is not a particularly “strong” position. For instance, his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is not even mentioned in the official title of its parliamentary group which says “Aleksandar Vučić – For Our Children”. It seems as if many Vučić’s supporters perceive the Parliament, the Government, and other institutions as unnecessary “intermediaries” between the President and themselves, and one can’t deny that he often gives them reason to see things this way.

It is usually on his “kind request” that the Government promptly changes its decrees, and the Parliament urgently votes down the laws it had adopted just the days before. The Prime Minister calls him “boss” in public, and the Members of Parliament (elected on the proportional system, with the whole of Serbia as one electoral unit) spend an enormous amount of time not on legislative discussion, but on praising the President.

With overpowering media machinery presenting him as the nation’s saviour, Vučić is by far the strongest asset of his party, and the SNS will surely take as much advantage from that asset as it can (and as it always does) in the elections on all levels. Unfortunately, it was an illusory expectation that the Serbian Progressive Party would accept demands not to hold the presidential, the parliamentary, and the Belgrade municipal elections all at the same time.  

In your election observation in 2021/22, will there actually be a methodical division between presidential, parliamentary and local elections? Do you have separate teams working here?

It is really hard to divide these three elections, as the campaign, activities, even the electoral administration will be the same. Therefore, CRTA will observe the activities of candidates on all three electoral levels, including the electoral administration. On the day of the election, CRTA will deploy a boosted number of short-term observers in Belgrade, so that we will be able to report on the quality of performance, turnout, and results not only for parliamentary and presidential elections at national level, but also for the Belgrade elections. Due to the number of elections on different levels, the 2022 CRTA Observation mission will be the biggest so far and will include more than 3100 observers and an observation of six months in continuity.

Against the background of the upcoming “triple election” in 2022, would you speak of “fateful elections” for the country?

What scares me is the political apathy and the growing number of citizens who no longer perceive elections as the main platform for change but as an empty ritual that serves to preserve the status quo. What alternative is there to elections? – that is a disturbing query.

If we could have more competitive and less predictable elections, if we could see more diversity in the programmes offered to the voters, and eventually some pluralism and substantial debate brought back to Parliament and the media, that would be a big step forward. It seems now that the Belgrade elections might be a sort of a suspense, but we need to wait and see what the campaign will look like.