Engineering Legitimacy: The June 2020 Elections in Serbia

Author: Dr. Vujo Ilić, Policy and Research Advisor, CRTA (Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability), Belgrade

UPDATE BY THE EDITOR: A fascinating and impactful boycott, different from both the Serbian election boycott and the earlier boycott of the Montenegrin parliament by the oppositon that then went on to win the 2020 election elections over there, is also under way in Hungary. Unusually, the boycott in Hungary is staged by forces aligned with the authoritarian incumbent, rather than the opoositon, and paralyzes representative body that they lost control of.

The June 21 general elections in Serbia have been the most disputed in the recent past, even long before they were held. The election process has been plagued by the opposition boycott due to long-standing grievances about electoral conditions. For more than a year before the election day, originally scheduled for April 26, the government was trying to create conditions which would entice opposition parties and voters to participate in the elections. But, the process was also affected by the coronavirus pandemic. It was suspended because of the pandemic for almost two months, and election activities continued in May, many argued prematurely. This in turn led to an outburst of dissatisfaction with the way the government handled the pandemic during the campaign, that eventually grew into riots that lasted for almost a week, with magnitude not seen in Serbia for more than a decade.

The election boycott has primarily shaped the key political issues prior to the pandemic. It was expected that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) would win decisively, so the real battleground was the voter turnout and the maintenance of a party plurality in the parliament. Eventually, out of 6.5 million registered voters, 3.2 million went to the polls (48.9%), which was the lowest turnout in the thirty years of multiparty elections. According to the official results, the two lists that made the current ruling coalition received almost three quarters of all valid votes. Serbian Progressive Party won 63%, and their junior partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia 10.7%. Only one more non-minority list entered the parliament: Serbian Patriotic Alliance with 3.9% of the votes, followed by four national minority lists, which did not have to pass the 3% electoral threshold to gain seats.

The elections gave the ruling Progressives a dominant position in the Serbian assembly, with 188 out of 250 seats. This will make the new parliament look a lot like the first one, formed after the only majoritarian 1990 elections, when the Socialist Party, led by President Milošević annihilated the nascent competition. Yet, such a victory is also a serious blowback to the ruling party, especially having in mind that for more than a year, it invested serious efforts into producing electoral conditions acceptable to the opposition, higher turnout, and a more representative parliament. This should be seen in the context of negative attention that democracy in Serbia has been getting for several years, coming not only from the European Commission in annual progress reports, but lately also from other governments and organizations, with Freedom House categorizing Serbia as a hybrid regime for the first time in decades.

Low turnout and unrepresentative parliament did not prevent the ruling party from presenting the results as a huge victory. On Election Day, the Progressives celebrated the results loudly, with the brass band at the party headquarters. Yet, the mood soon soured, the trumpets and tubas, together with hugging and kissing, apparently helped the virus spread, and several government ministers, as well as the President of the Parliament, ended up hospitalized. As the numbers of infected started swiftly rising after the elections, the public started questioning if the “real” numbers were suppressed during the campaign. When on July 7,  only two weeks after the elections, President Vučić announced new tough restrictions on movement of citizens, many felt shortchanged, and protests broke out on the streets of Belgrade. When groups of protesters stormed the Parliament building, the police responded with overwhelming force.

Video report about the July 7 storming of parliament by The Guardian

The frustrations among citizens critical of the government have been accumulating for a while. For the third consecutive cycle, the announcements of election results were followed by waves of protests (2016, 2017, 2020), a worrying regularity that also existed in Serbia under Milošević. The reason is a growing sense of unfairness of the electoral process. Vučić won the 2012 elections with a tough anti-corruption agenda, on a wave of dissatisfaction with the previous Democratic Party government. However, he swiftly consolidated power, and through a sequence of short election cycles (2014, 2016) wiped out the opposition. The ruling party established its dominance on an almost absolute control of media, with only a handful of outlets spreading content critical of the government, and a widespread use of public resources in maintaining clientelistic networks, which buys the loyalty of many followers. The ruling party’s political machine rests on the alleged, almost surreal, and definitely unverifiable 700.000 members, many of which look at the party as a source of secure jobs and incomes.

On the other hand is the opposition, hopelessly fragmented, and entangled in long-standing feuds. The opposition has also been a constant target of smear-campaigns by government-friendly media, and it cannot secure funding in the economy tightly controlled by the ruling party. In these circumstances the polls in Serbia have flat-lined since 2014: the Progressives have consistently had the support of around 50% of voters. The Socialist voters are perhaps the most predictable, this party, the only one that was in each parliament since 1990, has a very stable base of around 10% of voters. The remaining minority is usually divided between a myriad of opposition parties and movements, some of them “constructive” towards the government, that were emerging and dissolving during these years. So, with the announced boycott of most opposition parties in 2020, there were no surprises when opinion polls mostly correctly projected that only three non-minority lists would enter the parliament (e.g. NSPM poll, June 13-16).

Deutsche Well report about 2019 protests in Serbia.
For a more comprehensive BBC report see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/embed/p07bxn1c/53107011

The boycott strategy emerged following a wave of protests that started after the physical attack on one of the opposition leaders in late 2018. A group of opposition parties first left the Parliament, and later announced the boycott of the coming elections in early 2019, if the electoral conditions remain unchanged. A series of talks between the representatives of the ruling parties and the opposition, moderated first by the civil society organizations, and later by the EU Parliament representatives, focused on improving electoral fairness. The talks were held under Chatham House rules and they were intended as a forum in which the opposing sides could openly talk about the changes in the conduct of elections. The main grievances about the uneven playing field were channeled into a series of discussions about campaign finance, media access and media regulation, voters’ registry and electoral administration, and securing equal voting rights to all citizens, using recommendations by the civil society organizations as a basis. By the end of the year, some concessions were made by the ruling party, such as changes to the law regulating campaign finance, and the composition of the board of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media. But these were too little and too late, and did not change the resolve to boycott the 2020 elections among the core opposition parties.

Nevertheless, in order to further incentivize participation in the elections, the ruling majority made unexpected changes in an otherwise very static electoral system. In February 2020, just months before the planned election day, the electoral threshold – set at 5% when the proportional system was introduced in 1992 – was reduced to 3%. The gender quota rule, which required the less represented gender to occupy at least 30% of the list in order to be accepted by the electoral commission, was increased to 40% (i.e., at least two out of every five candidates on the list must come from either sex). Finally, even though the national minority lists were exempted from the electoral threshold altogether, lowering of the electoral threshold was expected to increase the number of lists participating in seat allocation, and thus reduce the number of seats going to minority parties. Therefore, the largest national minority party, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, which has been a coalition partner of the Progressives at the national level since 2016, initiated another change to the system, with the national minority lists’ quotients in the d’Hondt seat allocation increased by 35%. This latest change, together with differential turnout, helped the four national minorities lists gain 19 seats in the assembly, almost doubling their 2016 share with 10 seats.

These changes to the rules that changed the way votes are transformed into seats have had a partial success. Even though some opposition parties continued the boycott, it was still an unusually high number of participating lists on the ballot (21). The interruption of the election campaign by the State of Emergency caused some of the opposition parties to reevaluate their positions on the boycott. The opposition block was eventually almost evenly split between the parties that stuck to the boycott, and the parties that participated in elections. Next, the ruling majority again changed the law, now during the campaign, to allow the parties to collect the voters’ signatures of support for the lists in municipal offices, beyond courts and public notaries. This move made the process less transparent, and the opposition parties accused each other of being assisted by the state administration in the collection of required 10,000 verified voters’ signatures, which presented a logistical challenge for some of the minor political organizations that had decided to run.

The pandemic has affected the elections in more than one way. The ruling parties presence in the media, and the misuse of public resources in the campaign, has skyrocketed during the State of Emergency. The one-off direct financial assistance to all citizens was timed only weeks before the Election Day. The ruling party campaign was almost completely centered on president Vučić’s personality and his accomplishments before and during the pandemic. The campaign started resembling a presidential race, with party leaders, Vučić being the most prominent, occupying the most space, and policies and candidates for the assembly were in their shadow.

Even though official data showed surprisingly low numbers of infections and deaths in the weeks before the elections, there was still fear among the voters. Voter turnout was a matter of political contestation in the months before the elections, with the ruling party aiming for at least half of the voters showing up at the polling stations. The pandemic made this goal difficult to reach, thus another round of urgent electoral engineering ensued.

In a sharp contrast to the previous decades, when the total number of registered voters was usually rising between electoral cycles, the state administration reduced the total number of registered voters by 2 percentage points. The outdated voter registry is a common problem in most countries of former Yugoslavia and has existed for decades. As citizens were migrating abroad, they were still maintaining their formal residence in their home country, which was usually the administrative link to their voting record. However, the census takers were registering them as migrants, which led to inflated registries compared to the adult population of the country. The problem of the voter registry, as long as voting verification procedures are followed at the polling stations, is mostly a problem of trust. Citizens are suspicious of possible manipulation with these hundreds of thousands of “nonexistent voters”. The governments are mostly unwilling or unable to disentangle these decade-long accumulations of errors. So even though the registry desperately needed to be updated, it was done in an untransparent manner, and the timing only served the ruling party, which merely wanted turnout to look higher (and, incidentally, more realistic than reported in previous elections, when artificially deflated figures were produced by the inaccurate registries).

In addition, the number of polling stations in Bosnia and Kosovo was increased multiple times. During the early weeks of the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Serbian citizens living abroad were returning to their home country, and they were blamed by the government for bringing the virus from the European hotspots. This created a bad atmosphere among many voters in diaspora, who were already in general more inclined to vote oppositional. As voters outside of the country can only vote at designated diplomatic and consular missions, in order to prevent the aggregate diaspora votes from plummeting, new polling stations, never opened in this magnitude, were opened in Bosnia, where many ruling party supporters with dual citizenships could now vote more easily than ever before.

The fears of the virus have been directly tackled too, voting from homes was encouraged, and new rules made this process easier for the voters. The polling station commission can send proxies to homes of older or voters with health problems, when they request it on Election day. This year, however, voters could apply two days in advance, and this possibility was additionally advertised, most likely to encourage voters that were concerned or self-isolated due to the pandemic to nevertheless participate in the elections.

And yet, this meticulous construction of legitimacy did not really work out that well for the ruling party. As much as such processes can be gamed, an extent of unpredictability always exists and presents a risk for the ruling party. The turnout was lower than expected, caused partially by the calls for the boycott, and also by the fear of the virus. The incentivization of parties to participate backfired, as a small pool of votes were split between too many options. The lower threshold barely brought to the parliament the Serbian Patriotic Alliance, a right wing party led by the New Belgrade mayor, who showed willingness to cooperate with the ruling majority. The only party strongly opposed to the ruling majority that will be represented in the Parliament is one of the three Bosniak national minority parties, with three seats.

Even though the ruling coalition once again consisted of a range of parties and associations, all but Vućić’s Progressive Party are minor political actors that have no political weight, not even at the local level. The super-alliances that Serbian Progressive Party has been creating in the last four election cycles can be explained by the well-established views of authoritarian elections in the literature, as a tool used to co-opt elites, party members, or groups within society. They also create an impression of hyper-representative “grand” or “national” alliances. In addition, as Pavlović recently pointed out, controlling minor parties also gives the dominant party extra votes in the electoral administration bodies, and reduces the time for debate in the parliament for the opposition.

The Election Day itself was marred with irregularities, most serious being pressures on voters and vote buying. The southern city of Vranje serves as a bizarre illustration of deeply entrenched clientelistic practices. Even though the last census registered only six Hungarians among the 80,000 people living there, the Hungarian national minority list, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, won 1400 votes, ending up second in several polling stations, behind only the ruling Progressives. Apparently, many voters in Vranje were “instructed” to vote for the list number four in the local elections, the nationalist “Serbian Right”, which did not participate on the national level. Following the instructions a little too diligently, some of them made the mistake of voting for the fourth list in the parliamentary elections too, which happened to be the Hungarian minority list. The public reacted with countless jokes, Vranje was quickly renamed to Vranyé and the bypass around the city to Hungaroring. However, the incident pointed to an obvious outcome of still insufficiently researched but serious and widespread clientelistic mechanisms of influencing voter behavior.

In addition, the number of spoilt ballots this year was 6,000 higher than in 2016, around 118.000. Due to the lower turnout that was almost 4% of all ballots. This can partially be explained by several initiatives to intentionally spoil the ballot. Some oppositional political actors decided to participate only at the local level, calling their supporters to invalidate their vote at the national level. There were also initiatives to spoil the vote in order to keep the extreme right group that also participated in the elections below the threshold. However, even though technically this initiative was correct, as the threshold is counted relative to all votes, including invalid, the potential reach of this initiative was limited.

In the final act of engineering of the electoral process, the Republic Electoral Commission annulled the results in an unprecedented 3% of all polling stations, not because of substantial irregularities, but for procedural failings. A revote was organized in a haste, on July 1, a working day, which was again never the case before. To make things worse, many of the affected polling stations were in the municipalities experiencing a new outbreak of the pandemic. As expected, turnout was much lower, and the seat allocation has not changed, but the revote was organized so that the ruling party could argue that all the failings were dealt with and the electoral process was indeed “immaculate.”

In spite of the overwhelming victory, and all the work put in ensuring these outcomes, it is difficult to say that the ruling coalition is the real winner of these elections. The process was too heavy-handedly engineered, and the democratic legitimacy of the new Parliament is stained by the low turnout, and the inadequate representativeness. The opposition parties that participated in the elections, and failed to win seats had had their reputation severely damaged, if not destroyed. So is there any winner at all?

The opposition parties that called for the boycott of the elections, gathered around the Alliance for Serbia (SZS) could be to some extent vindicated by these electoral outcomes. But,the boycott had harsh effects on many Alliance members. Out of twenty political actors that were at some point in the last year and a half a part of the opposition boycott bloc, nine eventually changed their minds and decided to go to the polls. Several parties went through internal splits, and only days after the elections, new fissions appeared between the members. The former ruling Democratic Party, as well as ex-president Boris Tadić’s parties high ranking MPs defected and participated in the elections for the National Assembly. Parties that boycotted the elections, right-wing Dveri and Narodna stranka also went through internal splits during this period. If it was a victory for the boycotting opposition, the cost was high.

Al Jazeera video report about election night

The opposition parties will surely continue to challenge the legitimacy of the new Parliament, and the ruling majority will be pressed to offer new political concessions and call snap elections. Even though the EU integration of Serbia was completely sidelined in the campaign, just as it was in the last couple of years by the government, in order to stay on the track, the new government will have to present a much stronger case that it is still committed to democracy and rule of law. Vučić’s misuse of democratic institutions and concentration of power was condoned by the West for years, primarily because of his willingness to keep the possibility of the Serbia-Kosovo deal open. However, as years passed, and different options were discussed and abandoned, including the talks about the exchange of territories, Serbian government was left with very little room for maneuver.

The response to the election outcome was unsympathetic in most of the EU. Congratulations came mostly from the regional political allies: Orban was the first to congratulate, followed by Kurz of Austria and Janša of Slovenia, as well as EU Enlargement Commissioner Varhelyi and EPP president Donald Tusk. But the absence of praise for the “outstanding results” from the centers of power, from Berlin to Paris, in the first days after the elections, must have echoed through the corridors of the Presidency. On the other hand, the opposition is not able to capitalize on these external concerns with the developments in Serbia. While most opposition parties are pressing Vučić on the Kosovo issue, it also puts them at odds with potential allies in the EU. This is one of the strategic quagmires that Serbian opposition parties have not been able to resolve so far: how to present themselves as a more appealing option both to the majority of voters and to foreign allies in the EU.

Considering the outcomes of these elections, and the big developments that are expecting Serbia in the coming years, new elections might actually be called earlier than expected. They might be organized together with the presidential, and always significant Belgrade city elections, which are scheduled for 2022. However, there are also one or perhaps two referenda to be expected in the years ahead, related to constitutional changes of the judiciary, or in the case of a binding agreement, the constitutional position of Kosovo. These processes all mean Serbia will be heading to the ballot boxes again sooner rather than later. Hopefully without the pandemic hanging over the heads of the voters, and with better choices to make than this year.

Cover photo: Protest group Don’t Let Belgrade Drown placed a giant inflatable duck outside parliament with a call to boycott the election. Source: AFP.

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