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Comment 30 Mar 17

Serbia’s Presidential Race Was Loaded From the Start

From media bias to a suspiciously large electoral roll and issues over voting in Kosovo, the presidential election in Serbia has been marred by glaring irregularities.

Milenko Vasovic
BIRN
Belgrade
Serbian presidential elections are set for April 2. Photo: Beta

An unscrupulous election campaign for the next president of Serbia - whose tone has been set by the coalition backing Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic - will see its finale in the hours after the election.

If the number of votes that Vucic wins on polling day, on April 2, suits him, the tone will be amicable enough.

But if the result points to the need for a second round, we could witness something very different.

Irregularities have accompanied this election since it began in early March. They start from the fact that the majority of members of the state election commission, REC, belong to parties that back Vucic, which is not in line with the law.

They also include the REC’s unconstitutional decision that votes from Kosovo will be transferred to Serbia for counting.

Another deeply problematic issue is the electoral roll, which seems to contain far more voters than it logically should.

Finally, there is the lack of effective monitoring. Serbia’s Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media, REM, has already announced it will not be monitoring the media coverage of the campaign despite being obliged by law to do so.

Composition of election commission breaks law

The REC will also be in charge of ruling on potential irregularities during the elections.
As an institution with an important task, it ought to command respect for its unbiased decision-making. Instead, it has been turned into an apparatus of the ruling coalition.

Of the 17 members of the fully assembled REC, no less than 12 come from parties supporting Vucic’s candidacy.

This violates the Law on the Election of Members of Parliament, which says no party or coalition may hold more than half the seats on the REC.

It is disputable whether the REC in its current composition, not in line with the law, can make legal decisions.

The REC has already angered most of the other presidential candidates with its decision about the organisation of the elections in Kosovo.

On March 23, the REC issued instructions for the elections in Kosovo by literally copying the instructions from previous years, which Serbia’s Constitutional Court deemed illegal in June 2016.

According to the REC, only three members of the electoral committee need be present during the voting in polling stations in Kosovo, which means that most of the 11 candidates will have no REC representatives at the polling stations.

As soon as the vote in Kosovo is completed, the ballots will be sent to Raska and Vranje in Serbia for counting. REC coordinators will be in charge of transporting the votes to these locations.

The security and regularity of the vote in Kosovo will be ensured by the Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.

What is less clear is who will guarantee that the sacks of votes are not interfered with, as they are transferred to Raska and Vranje.

As the REC coordinators will probably come from the ruling majority, opposition candidates have said it is like “allowing a goat to keep the cabbage safe”.

It will not be possible to object to the announcement of the vote from Kosovo, either, because it will be made available only after the deadline for submitting objections expires.

The list of Serbian voters in Kosovo numbers about 106,000 names of which 47,449 voted in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Vucic’s Progressive Party won the great majority, 67 per cent, of those votes.

Meanwhile, no one can predict with certainty how Serbia generally will vote.

Polls that say Vucic will win outright in the first round should not be accepted without reservations.

Not only is the research behind these polls far from an ideal, but many people suspect that the answers made to such polls are “recorded”, so they will say they support Vucic even when privately they think differently.

It cannot be ruled out that the election result is decided by a couple of tens of thousands of votes.

This is why it is so important who counts the votes from the diaspora and from the prisons. In last year’s elections, they supplied just over 16,000 votes.

These reasons explain why the composition of the REC is so vital.

Had the speaker of parliament, Maja Gojkovic, not declared that parliament would go into recess during the election campaign, on March 1, the composition of the REC could have been changed and aligned better with the law.

No legal monitoring of media bias

The lack of a response from the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media, REM, which has decided to exclude itself from its own field of duty, has perhaps had the biggest impact on the regularity of the election.

Before the campaign started, the REM said it would not be monitoring the election campaign this year. It will not, therefore, be doing what it was tasked to do and what the taxpayers pay it to do.

Based on the Law on Electronic Media, the REM is obliged to control the work of the electronic media in order to prevent unbalanced reporting on candidates and check whether individuals may be abusing their functions.

The decision of the REM not to monitor the presidential campaign is illegal; such a decision can only be made by its Council, which has not had a president for over a year and has not met during this time.

Anyone watching the TV can meanwhile see the vast amount of airtime being given to Vucic and hear the stream of insults of the other candidates coming off TV stations affiliated with the regime. This abuse of the media does not seem relevant for the REM, however.

Of course, the members of REM that have been appointed based on their party affiliations do not have the courage or the desire to say this out loud, let alone prevent it.

The REM has also yet to publish its report on the supervision of electronic media during the elections following the 2016 parliamentary elections – although publication is a legal obligation under the Law on Electronic Media.

Not only has the public not seen a report, it is unclear if it was even written. Such a report might well reveal all the things the ruling team is doing this year as well.

Electoral roll is suspiciously large

The list of voters is also under a question mark. As BIRN previously reported, the OSCE pre-election assessment report this month expressed concern about “the accuracy of the voter register” and about that the list is not publicly available.

“Several OSCE/ODIHR NAM interlocutors expressed concerns regarding the accuracy of voter lists noting various issues affecting its currentness; specific reference concerned the inclusion of deceased persons, as well as a lack of sufficiently precise data on persons residing on the territory of Kosovo, members of the Roma community, and voters living abroad,” the report said.

If the number of inhabitants of Serbia is compared to the list of voters, a surplus of about a million voters emerges.

According to the last census, from 2011, the population of Serbia was 7,186,862. Yet the number of voters for the presidential elections, according to the REC, is 6,724,172.

This information is disputable: over this six-year period, the number of people in Serbia ought to have dropped because of the negative annual population growth rate and high rate of emigration.

But even if the population had remained the same, Serbia still could not have more than 5.8 to 6 million voters because people under 18, who cannot vote, make up about 18 to 20 per cent of the population.

No one knows where this surplus comes from. These are not only the “departed” that also still roam the voter lists.

Vucic will clearly face the opening of the polling stations with a large number of “sure” votes.
These also include members of his Progressive Party and its coalition partners but also the votes of those employed in public companies.

The same OSCE report stated that while the parties had confirmed their ability to campaign freely, “many stakeholders expressed concerns about and expect potential pressure on voters, particularly civil servants, misuse of administrative resources, abuse of office and vote-buying”.

Some presidential candidates have said that civil servants have told them that they were being blackmailed to vote for Vucic if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Milenko Vasovic is a renowned Serbian journalist and an editor at daily Danas.

The opinions expressed in the comments section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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