SERBIA: Parliamentary Elections Fail to Ease Uncertainty
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

January 12, 2004

Serbia`s major political formations are again locked in a valiant struggle for the leadership of the country after the December 28 parliamentary elections failed to produce a decisive winner. The parliamentary ballot was anxiously awaited, given the failure of the presidential elections the previous month, when less than the required 50 percent of the electorate tuned out to vote for a head of state. As a result, a dizzying array of political forces is currently jostling for a position in a coalition government that is unlikely to bring much needed stability to the embattled Balkan state.

As in the November presidential elections, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) gained the greatest support, winning 27 percent of the vote and securing some 82 mandates in the 250-seat parliament. The Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) headed by former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica placed second with 10 percent fewer votes then the SRS and 53 seats, followed by the outgoing ruling block of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which ended with 37 seats. Miroljub Labus"s G-17 Plus party won 34 seats, while a coalition of Vuk Draskovic`s Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and Velimir Ilic"s New Serbia party got 22 seats. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) also won 22 seats, rounding up the list of political forces to clear the five percent entry hurdle.

As the long list of parties in the new parliament predicates, the task of forming a stable government is an ominous one, especially given the history of tensions between the various leaderships that have overshadowed in the past political platforms. A case in point is the well-publicized acrimonious relationship between Vojislav Kostunica, Vuk Draskovic, and the late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, although the situation is not much better among the other parties and their leaders. To further complicate matters, Vojislav Seselj and Slobodan Milosevic, the heads of the SRS and SPS respectively, are both on trial at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and thus remain a stumbling block for relations between their parties and reformist forces such as the DOS.

In an effort to break the deadlock, Vojislav Kostunica proposed the formation of a grand coalition comprised of all the political forces represented in the new parliament. The idea, however, was firmly rejected by the DOS, whose leadership is strongly opposed to working with anyone associated with the Milosevic regime, as well as by the European Union (EU) and the U.S. For its part, the SRS offered to enter a coalition solely with the DSS, but that idea was also met with an unusually vocal opposition from the international community. In fact, the foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was quoted on January 7 by German media stating that Germany and the EU would not support a Serbian government made of parties whose leaders are indicted by the tribunal in The Hague. The head of the EU-led Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe has also gone on record in doubting that a democratic and Western-leaning coalition could be formed in Serbia given the results of this parliamentary ballot.

The source of the apparently prevalent internal and external skepticism for the fortunes of the future government, regardless of the outcome of the coalition negotiations, can be traced in the less than promising recent history of under-performing Serbian leaderships. The DOS, which toppled the Milosevic regime in the fall of 2000 on a wave of popular support, is widely perceived to have failed in its efforts to pull the Serbian nation out of the social and economic morass left after a decade of regional conflicts and international sanctions that impoverished much of the population. A recent report by U.N. and Serbian experts concluded that some 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Hence, it is not surprising that a majority of those who bothered to vote cast their ballots for the ultra-nationalists, given that all other major political forces had their chance to make promises only to fail in delivering tangible results. This can also be said for Kostunica, arguably the most popular Serbian politician, who replaced Milosevic as Yugoslav president until it was replaced with the combined state of Serbia and Montenegro. Kostunica"s history of less than favorable attitude toward the tribunal is a factor that is fueling particular skepticism among the international community in light of the possibility of him leading the new cabinet. Yet, a new government headed by a SRS leader appears an altogether unacceptable prospect for the foreign powers upon whom Serbia would inevitably have rely for economic support and international legitimacy.

The outstanding issue of the final status regarding the U.N.-administered and Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo also is likely to provide a continuous source of contention between the international community and whatever government coalition is formed in Belgrade. The SRS won nearly half and by far the largest percentage of the Serbian vote in Kosovo, and Kostunica, who is considered a moderate nationalist, is unlikely to waver from Belgrade"s long held position that the province should not be allowed to breakaway. Meanwhile, officials in Montenegro are anxiously watching the developments in Serbia, and despite initial conciliatory remarks by the local leadership, calls for cessation are likely to sharply intensify should the ultranationalists get the upper hand in Belgrade.

In retrospect, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current political developments in Serbia is that the main political groups have not been able to agree on a workable solution to the country"s dire economic situation, which is certain to be the key for the viability of any future government. This is largely the case even among the presumably progressive forces. For example, the DOS prefers sticking to a strict reformist agenda, while the DSS favors poverty relief. The ultra-nationalists and the socialists are perceived to lack any particularly constructive ideas with regard to economic program contributions. In such an environment, the new government is certain to be faced with the challenge of not only maintaining a fractious coalition, but assuring stability given the disillusioned populace.

Vladimir Beron is a Senior Risk Analyst with the international risk management group, Sentigence.