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Comment: Far-Right President No Threat to Serbia

The possible election of an ultra-nationalist as head of state would not reverse Serbia's reforms.
By Slobodan Vucetic

While western policy-makers may fret about the outcome of Serbia's presidential election in June, fearing the victory of the far-right Serbian Radical Party, SRS, the reality is that the republic is likely to continue on the reform path whoever wins.


The principal reason for this is that the constitution places fairly firm limits on the powers of the Serbian president.


The most important prerogatives of state, such as those concerning foreign relations and command of the armed forces, are determined by Serbia- Montenegro.


If war was about to be declared the Serbian president might promulgate decrees, but would still have to submit them for parliamentary approval.


The head of state can also impose some restrictions on civic freedoms and rights. But again, this applies only when the country is at war, about to go to war, or when parliament cannot assemble.


It should in addition be noted that the authority to declare war - or the immediate threat of war - does not lie with the Serbian president but with the parliament of Serbia-Montenegro.


Furthermore, the Serbian president's remaining "strong" constitutional powers, such as the right to declare a state of emergency and dissolve the Serbian parliament, are not his exclusively. They have to be executed in concert with the Serbian government.


Nor does the president have much of a hand in selecting that government - only being able to rubber-stamp the parliamentary majority's prime minister nomination.


Concerning the armed forces, the Serbian president is a member of Serbia-Montenegro's Supreme Defence Council, which has authority over the use of the Army of Serbia and Montenegro.


Other members are the president of the state union and the Montenegrin head of state and all decisions must be reached on the basis of consensus.


The Serbian president has little constitutional room to obstruct the work of parliament. If he or she deems a law unconstitutional, then it can only be sent back to the assembly for reconsideration. The head of state may also request that the government make public its views on certain issues under its jurisdiction.


When the president leads or belongs to a party with a majority in parliament - which was the case in the 1990s when Slobodan Milosevic led the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS - his or her powers may appear very extensive.


But this will not be the case if SRS's presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic is elected because the democratic parties have a majority in parliament.


Moreover, it is not inevitable that the ultra-nationalists will triumph in the leadership race.


If the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, the Democratic Party, DS, and other reformist political parties such as G17 Plus and the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, back one presidential candidate, they may win a convincing victory over the Radicals.


In the event that the democratic parties fail to reach such an agreement, they will themselves be directly responsible for the election of an extreme right-wing president.


While this is unlikely to obstruct Serbia's reform process, it will nonetheless damage the republic's reputation abroad.


Slobodan Vucetic is the president of the Serbian constitutional court.


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