Election REGIME STRATEGY FOR ELECTORAL VICTORY IN SERBIA EXAMPLE FROM LOCAL ELECTION in Lučani

The elections in Lučani took place in the time of an increasingly intense atmosphere in society. The debate between opposition parties and the regime does not exist, yet there is an aggressive exchange in the media. The violence took to the streets when an opposition leader was brutally beaten just before the opposition rally.

Published on balticworlds.com on februari 27, 2019

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Introduction

In Lučani, a small undeveloped municipality in Central Serbia on 16th December 2018 local election was held. Attention paid to this election in Serbia was surprising since this municipality has only around 17.000 voters. However, on a few bases, this election was unique. Above all, opposition declared that these were the last elections in which they participated and that some future election participation would be possible only if the regime fulfills their demands for media freedom and fair elections. Also, this is the first election attended by Alliance for Serbia (SZS) a new opposition coalition that is similar in many aspects to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a coalition that overthrew Slobodan Milošević back in 2000. This election will serve as an example of how the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) achieved fantastic electoral victories.

The elections in Lučani took place in the time of an increasingly intense atmosphere in society. The debate between opposition parties and the regime does not exist, yet there is an aggressive exchange in the media. The violence took to the streets when an opposition leader was brutally beaten just before the opposition rally [1]. This incident started mass antiviolent protests which spread across the country and continue to date. At the same time, Kosovo issue dominates the Serbian international relations agenda. Also, this issue has distracted the attention of the international community from the problem of democratic deficits in the Republic of Serbia.

 

Local elections results

On local election in Lučani, the SNS won an absolute majority of 66,93% votes, SZS won 9,69% of votes, a group of citizens One Team won 7,04% votes, and Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the coalition partner of SNS, won 5,69% votes [2]. Voter turnout had been 70,23% what is far more than average for parliamentary and presidential elections in Serbia. The SNS victory was expected. Back in 2014, SNS won 50,4% of votes [3].

Together with elections in Lučani three other municipalities held elections. On those elections, SNS also won an absolute majority. However, almost all of the opposition parties boycotted those elections, because elections were announced in contradiction to the law [4].

According to observer mission CRTA, local elections were of bad quality, as significant irregularities on 12 from 43 polling stations were noted [5]. Nevertheless, all participants and institutions accepted elections results.

 

The atmosphere in society

A most striking characteristic of Serbian society and the root of all problems is a low standard of living. Regime daily self praises economic success, high economic growth, low unemployment rates, capital investments. Unfortunately behind the fantastic results is just manipulation of statistical data [6] [7] [8]. In reality, life in Serbia is tough. According to statistics, a household with a median income monthly misses 192 euros to cover expenses of average consumer basket.

RSD EUR

(on 31.12.2017)

1 Monthly average wage (net) 47.888 404,22
2 Monthly median national equivalised disposable income for a single person 26.000 219,46
3 Monthly median national equivalised disposable income

for a household with two adults and one child

46.800 395,03
4 Monthly average consumer basket

for a household with two adults and one child

69.522,73 586,83
3 – 4 = -22.722,73 -191,8

Table 1: Comparison of income and consumer basket in the Republic of Serbia in 2017; Source: Ministry of Trade, Tourism, and telecommunications of Republic of Serbia, Statistical Office of Republic of Serbia [9] [10]

 

Media freedom was never well enforced in Serbian society, and since SNS took over power, it is in decline. Independent and investigative journalists face harassment. Also, physical attacks and death threats against journalists take place each year. In 2018, 31 physical attacks, threats and intimidation of journalists were recorded [11].

What is worrisome is the absence of dialogue and the vocabulary used in the public space. For example, this is a paragraph from the official announcement of SNS on election day in Lučani:

The Serbian Progressive Party informs that although leaders of Alliance for rape and hanging announced their convincing victory on the local elections in Lučani for months. Today they realized that there is nothing out of that victory, and now they are trying to apply new tactics to deceive citizens” [12].

The term “Alliance for rape and hanging” is coined after a vulgar tweet posted by a member of SZS [13] and after an interview by another member of SZS [14]. Both attacked Prime minister Ana Brnabić.

Moreover, the regime has a legacy from the Milošević era when acting President Aleksandar Vučić was the minister of information (1998-2000). He remained known for the law that abolished the media freedom [15]. Also, in that period the murder of journalist happened, and it is not resolved to date [16].

In January 2018 Oliver Ivanovic leader of Serbs from Kosovo and Metohija was shot dead in front of his office [17]. This murder is the first political murder in Serbia since the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjić back in 2003. To date, it is still unknown who is the perpetrator and what was the motive. However, one of the suspects wanted by the Kosovo police in connection with the murder, is SNS official who got protection from authorities in Serbia, even from president Vučić himself [18].

 

The opposition and elections

Since SNS came to power on the general election in 2012, they called for a snap parliamentary election in 2014 and 2016. In both cases, SNS won a majority of seats, yet opted for majority surplus government in coalition with SPS [19] [20]. Besides that, Aleksandar Vučić, president of the party, won the presidential election in the 1st round in 2017 [21] and SNS also won Belgrade City Assembly election in 2018 [22].

SNS (coalition or candidate)
Parliamentary election 2012 24,05%
Parliamentary election 2014 48,35%
Parliamentary election 2016 48.25%
Presidential election 2017 55.06% (1st round)
Belgrade City Assembly election 2018 44.99%
Local elections in Lučani 2018 66,93%

Table 2: Comparison SNS election results (2012-2018)

 

One of the reasons for the convincing victories of the SNS is weak opposition. Soon after the loss of the 2012 elections, the once dominant Democratic Party (DS) split into several parties and many defectors. At last parliamentary elections in 2016 DS won only 6% of votes. After convincing election losses, it has become clear that opposition needs to unite to increase chances to win. So was formed opposition bloc Alliance for Serbia in September 2018 by nine parties, movements, and unions [23]. Among others, members are Dragan Djilas, ex-major of Belgrade who proved to be the strongest candidate on Belgrade local election in 2018; Democratic Party; Peoples Party of Vuk Jeremić a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of the United Nations General Assembly.

On 14th December 2018 parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties signed a document on common conditions for the conduct of free and fair elections [24]. In short, the opposition demands access to the media, the prohibition of the use of public resources for party purposes, and misuse of the electoral register [24]. SNS in their defense points out that election laws passed the previous regime. Also, elections in 2012 and elections before had many deficiencies [25], however, since SNS came to power quality of the electoral process is in decline.

Figure 1: Clean elections index (1997-200); To what extent are elections free and fair? (Clarification: Free and fair connotes an absence of registration fraud, systematic irregularities, government intimidation of the opposition, vote buying, and election violence) Source: V-Dem [26]

United opposition demand for fair elections happened after the SNS found a way to filibuster debate in the parliament. Namely, the SNS MPs submit hundreds of meaningless amendments to drafts of laws. In this way, they slash the predicted time for discussion, so the opposition does not have enough time to present their revisions. In the end, SNS MPs withdraw or do not vote for their amendments [27][28]. For most of the opposition parties, debate during parliament sessions was a rare opportunity to appear on a live broadcast in front of a large auditorium.

 

Bypassing the law as a strategy for elections

Messages to voters in the election campaign were not decisive for the victory of SNS. More important is the strategy that rests on several points that are not following the law:

  • misuse of administrative resources,
  • media dominance
  • pressure and threats to the voters,
  • institutions that do not enforce the law

 

Misuse of administrative resources

Constant misuse of administrative resources characterized SNS campaigns. Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR understand administrative resources as

…human, financial, material, in natural and other immaterial resources enjoyed by both incumbents and civil servants in elections, deriving from their control over public sector staff, finances and allocations, access to public facilities as well as resources enjoyed in the form of prestige or public presence that stem from their position as elected or public officers and which may turn into political endorsements or other forms of support [29].

Misuse of administrative resources for political promotion is prohibited by Law On The Anti-Corruption Agency and Criminal Law of the Republic of Serbia [30][31]. Misuse of the resources is not characteristic only of these elections. OSCE noted these developments in their reports on previous elections in Serbia [32][33].

Misuse of administrative resources for political promotion has three dominant forms in Serbia. First, it is combining the role of official and the role of a party member in election campaign. Ministers, managers of public companies and the president himself took part in the election campaign. Furthermore, SNS named electoral list after Aleksandar Vučić. Thus, the president and five ministers visited Lučani before the elections. However, the previous regime of president Boris Tadić equally combined official roll and election campaigning [34].

The second form is increased activities of local and government officials prior elections [35] [34]. Just before elections the authorities are laying new plans, starting repairs, asphalting the roads, developing social programs, and organizing free activities. Also, public companies, with politically appointed managers, are involved in the campaign. For example, the public company started repairing roads in mid-November when weather conditions are not favorable for work [36]. Another illustrative example, the local authority organized a free concert of famous Serbian singer as the present to people of Lučani. During the concert, the singer himself explained to the audience to vote for the regime party [37]. Analysis of previous elections in Serbia showed an increase of 848% in activities in the period before the elections compared to a year earlier [34]. Also, there is a sharp decline in activities immediately after elections are over [34].

The third form of misuse of public resources is the use of civil servants and even whole public institutions in the political campaign. It happened that the civil servants from geographically distant municipalities led the SNS campaign on the local election in Lučani [38]. Observer mission CRTA filed criminal charges against responsible persons in eleven public institutions and companies whose vehicles were present in Lučani on election day [39]. For example vehicle of a public utility company from Novi Sad, city 245km far from Lučani, was in Lučani on election day Sunday, a non-working day. Furthermore, SZS accused the regime of using the police in the campaign [35]. During election day police detained for questioning SZS members, while they did not react to complaints from SZS. There was a loud debate at the police station Lučani. Namely, one of the leaders of the SZS with a group of people went to the police station and demanded an explanation of why police detained only their members. It turned out that at the police station there was Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a member of SNS [40]. The opposition claimed she commanded the police for the benefit of SNS. Minister of Interior denied those claims and responded that he sent state secretary to calm the tense situation [41][42][43][44].

 

Media dominance

A side effect of misuse of administrative resources is extensive media coverage at no cost. Media are covering everything that is official doing but not distinguishing the promotion program from official activities. Ever since SNS came to power, they built an absolute dominance in the media.

On Serbian media landscape television is the most influential media. Most popular TV channels Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) and private Pink [45] public perceives as biased and uncritical. Moreover, at the end of 2018 SNS indirectly took control over 2 TV stations that have national coverage [46]. Nonetheless, there is more freedom on the internet, but only 68% of households have access to the internet [47].

 

 

Figure 2: Government censorship effort – Media (1990-2017); Does the government directly or indirectly attempt to censor the print or broadcast media? (0: Attempts to censor are direct and routine; 4: The government rarely attempts to censor major media in any way) Source: V-Dem [26]

Figure 3: Media bias (1990-2017); Is there a media bias against opposition parties or candidates? (0: The print and broadcast media cover only the official party or candidates; 4: The print and broadcast media cover all newsworthy parties and candidates) Source: V-Dem. [26]

Pressure on voters

The most troubling in SNS strategy is pressure on voters. SNS exploits economic insecurity in society and put pressure on voters.  People who are employed get threats to be fired if they do not vote for SNS [4][35]. Also, SNS demands from people secure votes for SNS from their families and friends. This practice is called a capillary vote system [35].

On the other hand, those who are not employed are promised to get help with the job finding. The public perceives the ruling party as an employment agency. It is known that the job is much easier to find if someone is a member of the party. Then again, clientelistic behavior this is not a specialty of SNS, pretty every ruling party in Serbia behaved like that.

Also, voters were offered money [48] and a modest food basket in exchange for a vote [4]. Again, voter buying was recorded in the previous regime as well [49][50].

Figure 4: Party linkages (1990-2017) with confidence rating; Among the major parties, what is the main or most common form of linkage to their constituents? (0: Clientelistic; 4: Programmatic) Source: V-Dem [26]

Simultaneously, people who are supporting opposition are threatened. According to the observation mission of CRTA, the local election commission submitted to the SNS activists information on people who supported the opposition with instructions that these persons should be threatened [4]. It is an indicative example when the director of Security Information Agency of Republic Serbia, visited government owned and at the biggest company in Lučani [4]. According to Alliance for Serbia on this occasion workers were prohibited from participating in opposition rallies, giving signatures for opposition electoral lists or running for local councilors on these lists [35]. According to the electoral commission, one candidate of opposition had withdrawn her candidacy [51].

The strongest pressure on voters is on the election day. During election day cars without license plates cruising the city and causes safety concerns among citizens [35]. Then SNS has people in the front of every polling station with the lists of voters who are noting who voted. During the day they call people and ask them if they have already voted. Also, SZS claims that SNS had a list of individuals who receive social benefits or other subsidies and they put pressure on them to vote for SNS [35].

SNS has leverage over voters because of a terrible economic situation in the country and the fact that they as the ruling party have most power and resources available. This simple truth is evident to every citizen of Serbia. So it is not surprising that most of the population subordinate their democratic rights to existential issues.

 

Institutions that do not enforce the law

The rule of law in Serbia is jeopardized. The ruling party can effectively control or sabotage most of the institutions that should supervise executive power. Sabotage of institutions provides the possibility of violating or circumventing laws without sanctions. Regarding elections most important is control of Anti-Corruption Agency and Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM). These are indeed not isolated examples.

According to the Law On The Anti-Corruption Agency of the Republic of Serbia, Article 29, paragraph 3, an official is prohibited to use public resources to promote political party [30]. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned this happens quite often. From 2012 till 2018 Anti-Corruption Agency had only one proceeding based on article 29 [52].

In addition to this, the work of the agency is not continuous. Agency had no director in a period when there had been a parliamentary and presidential election. However, as soon as the new director took office in September 2016, she submitted an irrevocable resignation in November same year [53]. Political pressure had been too high. The new director who took office in January 2018 is close to SNS [54].

It has been noted that television is the most important media in Serbia. REM is a body obligated by the Law on Electronic Media to monitor the work of the broadcasters. By Article 47 of Law, broadcasters are obliged to provide free, truthful, objective, full and timely information [55] and during the pre-election campaign to ensure that the registered political parties, coalitions, and candidates are represented without discrimination [55]. These two provisions of the law are systematically disrespected in varying degrees by all television channels with national coverage. Nonetheless, REM avoids using its legal means to sanction violations and stopped publishing reports on the representation of candidates in the election campaign [56].

 

International factor

There is one significant difference in SNS strategy when it comes to the parliamentary or presidential election. In these cases, the party presents to the public as an option with international support, both from the west and from Russia. For example, during the presidential election campaign, at that time prime minister Aleksandar Vučić had meetings with German Chancellor Angel Merkel [57] and Russian president Vladimir Putin [58]. That is an example of misuse of administrative resources.

The Kosovo issue has entirely captured the attention of the international community, especially of EU when it comes to Serbia. Serbia is the candidate for EU membership since 2012. Although the EU commission reports note what are the problems in Serbia [59], these few paragraphs in the report do not weight as much as when Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, or other EU officials publicly praise Aleksandar Vučić [60].

 

Conclusion

SNS strategy for a convincing victory in the elections encompasses misuse of administrative resources, media dominance, pressure on the voters, sabotage of institutions and support from the international community. The most critical step is control and subversion of institutions. The fact that institutions do not supervise executive allows impunity to SNS to carry out other abuses. Then, it is an entirely different question of how SNS managed to control and sabotage institutions.

The united opposition and mass protests represent a challenge for the SNS, yet mass protests and opposition do not have the power to force the regime to fulfill requests for fair elections. Nonetheless, the fact that protests still take place and that the opposition has begun to boycott parliament is something that the international community can no longer ignore. International community certainly has leverage over the regime in Serbia. That is why SZS wants to take advantage of the moment, and to draw the attention of the international community to the problem of authoritarian rule of the SNS.

 

Timetable & contest

23.11.2018 – Brutal beating of Borko Stefanović, leader of party Serbian Left and member of Alliance for Serbia. On the same evening at a press conference, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić told that police arrested attackers.

01.12.2018 – Anti-violent protests started in Kruševac with the slogan “Stop to bloody shirts” insipid by photos of Borko Stefanovic shirt after beating. The opposition accused authorities of inciting the attack on the opposition leader.

06.12.2018 – Parliamentary opposition parties protested inside the building of parliament because regime MPs filibustered debate on the budget [61]

08.12.2018 – Second anti-violent protest Stop to bloody shirts was held in Belgrade

12.12.2018 – Corruption journalist Milan Jovanović attacked with Molotov cocktail [62]

14.12.2018. – Parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties in Serbia signed a document on common conditions for the conduct of free and fair elections [24].

15.12.2018 – Third anti-violent protest was held in Belgrade. Protestors started using the new slogan “1 of 5 million” inspired by president Aleksandar Vučić comment on protest “Walk around as much as you want to, I will not meet any of the demands. Even if there was five million of you” [63]

16.12.2018 – Local election in 4 municipalities in Serbia

22.12.2018 – Fourth anti-violent protest was held in Belgrade

29.12.2018 – Fifth anti-violent protest was held in Belgrade

31.12.2018 – Second attack on corruption journalist Milan Jovanović [64]

05.01.2019 – Sixth anti-violent protest was held in Belgrade

12.01.2019 – Seventh anti-violent protest was held in Belgrade

16.01.2019 – Protest for the anniversary of Olivera Ivanovic’s murder

17.01.2019 – Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Serbia. The government took advantage of this opportunity to organize a large gathering in the Belgrade

18.01.2019 – Protests started in other cities in Serbia

19.01.2019 – Eighth anti-violent protests were held in Belgrade and other cities

22.01.2019 – President Aleksandar Vučić was one of the speakers on panel Media Freedom in Crisis at World Economic Freedom in Davos [65]

23.01.2019 – Police arrested person who ordered the attack on local journalist Milan Jovanovic. The arrest happened a day after president Aleksandar Vučić spoke about this case on World Economic Forum Davos. Arrested is SNS official [66]

26.01.2019 – Ninth anti-violent protests were held in Belgrade and other cities

28.01.2019 – Most of the parliamentary opposition parties started a boycott of parliamentary sessions

05.02.2019 – Freedom House published Freedom in World report where Serbia’s status declined from Free to Partly Free [67]

 

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  • Election coverage

    Baltic Worlds is commenting on the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in countries around the Baltic Sea region and in Eastern Europe. The comments and analyses present the parties, the candidates and the main issues of the election, as well as analyze the implications of the results.

    Sofie Bedford, member of the scientific advisory board, is since 2015 arranging the election coverage.

    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se