The Serbian presidential elections - facts and figures

Two attempts to elect a new Serbian president have failed. How ripe is the democray in Serbia? Srdjan Bogosavljevic paints the background and analyses the results.

How it all began

Serbia is finally finished with Milosevic. As of December 29 2002, Milan Milutinovic, Milosevic’s “employee” is no longer president of Serbia. However, the invisible president will not be succeeded by an elected president of Serbia, simply because a president has not been elected under the current legislation. Although there is almost no need to argue that the legislation is no good, it is still unclear to me why both the election legislation and Milosevic’s president have seen the end of his mandate: Surely, the voters are not busy with election analyses, nor do they have the energy and the will to establish a connection between all the messages and metaphors that government officials try to deliver, but they do know their interests and are glad when they can make sense of the situation.

The fall of Milosevic is a good case in point. The situation was untenable and they voted for the first united opposition coalition and the first candidate of a united opposition who emerged as such. Fortunately for the process of change, the association formed to remove Milosevic, by displaying a stage full of leaders, managed to convince the citizens that it was them who represented that long awaited and wished for united opposition – I’d say ever since 1996 -, even though the then most powerful opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) was not part of that coalition. At that time, it was Milosevic who was the most trusted politician, followed by Draskovic and Seselj. All the leaders of the soon to be formed Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) combined, did not have the high ratings that the first-ranked Milosevic did.

However, in the event of an election, the polling showed, the candidate of the opposition – a united opposition – could count on 37.6 per cent of the votes in June, a projected total of 2.2 million, while the regime’s candidate had 30.9 per cent or 1.8 million. Based on other factors, like name recognition and the number of positive and negative ratings, it was clear in June 2000 that Kostunica, if he ran, could win over 50 per cent, and Milosevic would barely get over 30 per cent of the vote. Another candidate of a united opposition could also have fared well, because the basic motivation behind the vote was against and not for something or someone. However, Kostunica, who was reasonably familiar and who had not been targeted by extreme negative campaigns in the past (his negative ratings were only 26 per cent in June), was an ideal candidate who managed to become a unifying force of all the negative feelings harbored towards Milosevic even in the absence of efforts to promote him as such. From the moment his candidacy was announced, his ratings went dramatically up and rose steadily, in the pre-election as well as the post-election period.

Where it went from there

In that election, Kostunica won more votes than DOS did, but in December 2000, at the parliamentary elections, DOS managed to reach that number. Both DOS and Kostunica saw their ratings grow regardless of the results, and since the second quarter of 2001, their ratings dropped, again regardless of the results. The thing was, both DOS and Kostunica had come to power and by doing that they fulfilled the basic pre-election promise and met the expectation – that they would “overthrow” Milosevic. All that followed in the relationship between the government and the people was a novelty. The government, it seems, thought it would be able to solve three other great problems the country was facing and people thought that the regime change marked an immediate beginning of a better life.

Serbia after Milosevic is a country with no identity; Kosovo most of all, but also Montenegro and even the Republic of Srpska have been contributing to the confusion about where the territory of the state actually extends to; the soccer fans boo the anthem and wave many different banners while cheering for the national team; only 3 per cent of the interviewees knew what the dates for the Serbian and Yugoslav Days of Statehood were, and these are two national holidays that are supposed to symbolize history. That is why the constitutional arrangements seemed to be an obvious priority. A poor economic situation, a gray economy as the basic social buffer, a growing number of people who cannot be sure they will keep their income – all these indicators pointed to the need for economic reform, and the new constitution would have helped in that area as well. This was the second priority. Finally, a disgraced and isolated Serbia had to rejoin Europe and the world in what was seemingly a third priority.

Most successes were achieved in this third area. Much, but still not enough, has been done in the second and almost nothing has been done in the first area. Instead of agreeing on a new constitution, attention has been focused on the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro as well as on the status of Kosovo. Reforms have been sacrificed to the highly charged relations between the onetime partners in the ruling coalition, and the reintegration into world affairs has come to a halt after initial successes – especially ever since the issue of cooperation with The Hague tribunal reemerged.

How it stopped, and where

There are constitutional problems aplenty, but the public shows little interest in them. Borders and symbols, however, are a problem of considerable concern for the citizens.

Still, the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro has not been a dominant public issue. Some unwise political messages have contributed to the build-up of negative feelings towards Montenegro in the Serbian public opinion – people blame it for the stalling and failures of official politics. Emotions excluded, there are not too many real interests Serbia has vested in Montenegro, and few people are likely to make the connection between the survival of the joint state and the status of Kosovo. The status of Kosovo is a real, tangible problem, and one that easily stirs people’s feelings. Their feelings would especially be stirred if a map of Kosovo were to appear, instead of a list of towns, a map which would show that the highest peak of the Kopaonik mountain is not in Serbia if Kosovo is not a part of Serbia. Just as it would be difficult to define the Serbian Constitution without having first resolved the status of Serbia’s relations with Montenegro, it is also difficult to come up with a draft without some idea of the status of Kosovo. If nothing else, the preamble of the Constitution will have to read: “Kosovo is currently part of Serbia…” “Part of Serbia” would provoke strong reactions from Kosovo Albanians and thus usher another crises in our international relations. On the other hand, the very word “currently” and the necessary implication of Kosovo’s final status as separate from Serbia would lead to an outrage directed at the author(s) of the draft.

Reforms are underway, but they are slow – slower than expected and slower than desirable in the view of the public. DOS, with its many “heads” and well-known leaders of little-known political parties, often does not have an unanimous view of what the priorities are. Neither with DSS nor without it has DOS had clear and resolute pro-reform messages, and the attacks mounted against “reforms” are often just a facade for attacks on the government or a vehicle for self-promotion. With time, the optimism has worn out – and the summer of 2002 saw the support for the government-led reforms dwindle to the lowest point since the changes of 2000.

The cooperation with the world has also been stalled after the initial visible successes. From the point of view of the rest of the world, the cooperation with The Hague Tribunal is a major obstacle. From the viewpoint of the citizens in Serbia, it is a subject that as a rule does not get mentioned as important, but once brought up in opinion polls incites strong emotions. For our citizens, it’s about “The Hague” – they rarely make the distinction between the court and the chief prosecutor’s office. Opinions about The Hague are consistent over time. All the other views and opinions change and develop over time, but the opinion that regards The Hague as a site of injustice and anti-Serbian sentiment, persists. In addition to these feelings, some citizens also believe “The Hague” is “jeopardizing” Serbian interests (supporters of all now opposition parties agree on this one), and another (less popular) belief is that “Milosevic is defending us.”

How we went into the election cycles

The cycles to elect a Serbian president began with the old legislation still in place, and with Milutinovic in that position. That situation made it clear that it is of little relevance, who the president is, or how he is elected. Not even the long drawn-out game of who will run for that office could stir excitement among the citizens. Finally, the signals coming from the international community did not work either, maybe because we have seen Austria penalized for its election choices when the results did not please the European countries’ administrations. What would have happened to us, had we elected Pelevic or Seselj for president?

Kostunica, Labus and Seselj were singled out as the most serious candidates for the office of President of Serbia. At first, while Kostunica was having second thoughts about whether to run or not, Labus was in the lead. Then, Kostunica was in the lead most of the time, except for a brief moment two weeks before the election. Knowing that Seselj has more supporters than is ever shown in public opinion polls made it clear that there will for sure be a second round in the first September-October cycle of the election. And in the second round everyone seemed to think Kostunica was sure to win. But what was not so apparent was that there would be a turnout large enough to make that victory possible or legitimate. Between the two of them, these candidates who brought DOS to power did not even manage to win all the votes that Kostunica or DOS had won in the 2000 election. And finally, when they went into the second round with two million voters (combined), it was hard to imagine how all those people who voted for Seselj, Draskovic, Pelevic, Zivojinovic would want to make a choice between these two men who have together overthrown the Milosevic-Seselj government, without reaching an agreement prior to that with Draskovic. This is exactly what happened – the turnout in the second round was under 50 per cent. Notwithstanding the more sophisticated analyses of reasons and effects of different active or passive boycott campaigns, the lowest voter turnout in a first round of a national election was a clear signal that something was wrong.

The election was preceded by very lively, aggressive and often inappropriate campaigns of the candidates. Many irregularities that occurred in the first round were made possible by the absence of a democratic tradition, but more immediately by the absence of a code of conduct that would regulate the behavior of candidates and media and of legislation that would regulate campaign finances and presentations of presidential platforms.

The snapshots of public opinion between the two rounds of the first election cycle have shown that the voters of candidates who scored low in the first round were flocking to Kostunica in large numbers, but also that Kostunica’s voters were likely to express support for Labus’s program. In the first survey, done after the first round, the public opinion gave the “thumbs down” to Labus’ s campaign.

The second cycle of elections in December was organized under the same legislation with only minor changes adopted hastily between the two cycles. Milutinovic was still quietly waiting for the end of his term. There were only three candidates and all three also ran in the previous cycle. None of them launched any new messages, and they kept a low profile in their campaign and media activities, partly because the campaign teams estimated that the euphoria of the first cycle was counterproductive, and partly because everyone – the teams, the citizens and the media – had already tired of the elections.

The first polls offered a clear picture of the level of support the candidates could count on. Even before any announcements of candidacy were made, the public identified only three candidates – and again it was Kostunica, Labus and Seselj.

According to these polls, Kostunica would make an ideal president for the majority of people over 30, and for an even greater majority of those aged over 50. Labus was seen as equally desirable by the youngest age groups, and he also fared well among the middle-aged. However, the older age groups found Seselj to be more desirable a president than Labus. Kostunica had a strong lead in Central Serbia, and did almost as well in Belgrade. In Vojvodina, it was Labus and Seselj who were seen as more desirable for the position of president than Kostunica.

What was the problem

The insight gathered from polling analyses – that Kostunica would win (most votes) but that the turnout will not be large enough – was confirmed on election day. Of course, almost immediately, the issues that have been neglected in the past two years were brought out to the fore now, and not in a most fortunate order. The law was forgotten, and people started talking about the voters’ lists and the size of our voting population.

Not enough attention was paid to distinguishing between the data from the population census (conducted last year), the lists of personal (unique) ID numbers and the list of registered voters, adding to that mix the issue of “absent” voters – those who are registered to vote but effectively cannot vote (most of them living and/or working abroad), and who are not polled either. The situation is further aggravated by the situation in Kosovo. Officially (according to the constitution), Kosovo is a part of Serbia, so the Kosovo population must be included in Serbia’s voting population. The Albanians had boycotted Serbian elections even when Kosovo was effectively controlled by the Serbian government, and it was now impossible to organize voting throughout Kosovo, just as it was very unlikely that Albanians would vote. So what was opted for is certainly not legally valid but was the most acceptable of all solutions: voters from those constituencies in Kosovo where it was possible to organize voting were included in the voting population. That was an addition of just over a hundred thousand voters.

But let us start at the beginning. The population census aims to identify everyone residing in Serbia at the time, regardless of their citizenship. The census usually takes into consideration those who live (have moved) abroad, when their family or relatives provide data. Approximately 1 per cent of the population is usually not reached by the census, although we could speculate that the number may have been higher in this case – up to 2 per cent.

The Republic Bureau of Statistics has announced data of the population census. The number of permanent residents was 7,479,437 in April 2002. To that number we should add those who were not reached by the census. Out of the total population, 19 per cent are below voting age (18 years).

Refugees were also included in the census as permanent residents, whether or not they became citizens. We can assume there are 130,000 such persons, of which a 100,000 are over 18. They are not eligible to vote. The internally displaced persons from Kosovo are not entered into the census data, and other surveys tell us that there were 187,000 of them in 2000, out of that 140,000 of them over 18.

Finally, some 97,000 voters are registered in the Kosovo constituencies where voting was organized.

So, there are 6,250,000 resident voters in Serbia. Probably there’s another 50,000 who were not reached by the census, but also at least 50,000 of those who were entered only because their families thought it better to conceal the fact that they live abroad – so those two even out. It’s also likely that a sizeable number of refugees actually have dual citizenship, so they are not particularly interested in coming to Serbia in election times. Then there are people who are registered in the voters’ lists, but they are sick or infirm so they cannot go out and vote at their polling stations.

There are two possible conclusions to be made from this. Firstly, if there are 6,250,000 permanent residents in Serbia and the current comprehensive voters’ list contains over 6.5 million names, then there are another 270,000 people who live abroad or we have more registered voters than there are people actually able to vote in Serbia. It is hard to offer any estimates, but there are probably more people who have emigrated than that census “mistake” of 50,000 since as we know, young people have fled this country in large numbers over the past 10 -15 years. On the other hand, when polls are conducted, sick people, prisoners, and conscripts serving in the army are not included in the sample, so what is projected is actually the behavior of 6 million real voters.

The register of personal unique ID numbers is an excellent (but inconsistently executed) method of tracking the population in a country, which not only provides data of its citizens to the state, but makes it easier for citizens themselves to deal with administrative and bureaucratic matters. It would be fair and most precise to say that the framework for the use of this method is set up well, but it has not been completely “fleshed out” and in consequence cannot serve as an authoritative source to determine the exact population count or to put together a comprehensive voters’ list.

The voters’ lists themselves are the third source of information. They are compiled and updated by local, municipal governments and administrations, and the Republic Electoral Commission gives the final approval that makes them official and valid. The way municipalities keep these lists is not consistent throughout Serbia. It is quite possible that the mistakes occurring in the register of personal ID numbers produce many more mistakes, as this data needs to be written down to be processed several times, just as it is quite possible that the names of people who have acquired the citizenship of another state, or who have died, have not been stricken out from the list.

How to proceed

After examining all the above information, it is realistic to say that we have between 6,000,000 and 6,250,000 voters in Serbia. Also, there may be as many as 200,000 voters living abroad. The law does not provide for people who live abroad, or are sick and bed-ridden to vote in a special procedure tailored to their specific needs. However, it would be difficult to say – as has been said only after the event – that they were stripped of their right to vote, since at least some of them could have come to Serbia to vote in the election.

Although all parties participating in elections were well aware of all the deficiencies of the voters’ lists, they are also right when they say the lists are faulty – it is not difficult to back that argument. What is difficult to prove is that a person who is on the voters’ list and whose personal ID number is incorrectly entered for example, did not vote. In other words, it is difficult to determine the size of the voting population retroactively, without questioning the results of all previous recent elections. Annulling the results of this set of presidential elections would have no effect, as the elections have failed anyway, but it would perhaps create a momentum for the efforts to bring the population information up to date.

On the other hand, the president of Serbia has not been elected yet. Having in mind the existing distribution of power, the condition of the voters’ lists and the current legislation, a new election can hardly be successful. Although more attention has been paid to voters’ lists than to the legislation regulating the election of a president, it is obvious that the solution lies in lowering or eliminating the 50 per cent turnout requirement for the first round, or even in the constitutional redefinition of the status and office of the president – and not in the much needed updating of the voters’ lists.

As far as the citizens are concerned, they favor – by a large majority – to elect the president directly (76 per cent in December 2002) as well as repeating the election again soon (58 per cent), but they also believe, by a large majority, that presidential elections should be called for, once the new constitution is passed and new parliamentary elections are also called. This is perhaps not very logical, but it comes as no surprise and proves that citizens are preoccupied with other issues and that they will not, or cannot, or do not want to, become political analysts whose answers are always consistent

Published 11 February 2003
Original in Serbian
Translated by Nevena Ivanovic

© Srdjan Bogosavljevic / Rec/ Eurozine

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