Comment: Serbian Democracy Still Has Life

Contrary to most media reports, Serbia’s hard-line nationalist parties have not made big inroads among the voters over the last three years.

Comment: Serbian Democracy Still Has Life

Contrary to most media reports, Serbia’s hard-line nationalist parties have not made big inroads among the voters over the last three years.

While western media reports have trumpeted an ultra-nationalist surge in Serbia since the December 28 elections, this is far from the truth.

The gains of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, are far smaller than they appear, while a close view of the results reveals few changes among the electorate since the December 2000 poll.

The voting bloc supporting democratic reform has, in fact, held firm.

Since December 2000, the anti-Milosevic electorate has not disintegrated, but rather consolidated. By September 2002 it had stabilised at around 2.1 million votes. This was the number Miroljub Labus, leader of the reformist G17 group and Vojislav Kostunica, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, won in the September 2002 presidential ballot.

This tally barely changed in December 2003, when the former members of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition parties, together with the G17 Plus and Otpor, collectively scooped 2 million votes.

Serbia is no more or less divided now than before between roughly equal nationalist and democratic forces.

Throughout the Nineties, Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, and the SRS, the two parties that underpinned the former regime, won about 2.4 million votes, which was the figure they achieved in the December 1992 poll.

In September 2000, as Milosevic began to lose power, the parties of the former regime won 1.9 million votes.

The democratic opposition, which finally overthrew Milosevic in 2000, was fragmented throughout this period. Disunited, they failed to top more than 1.7 million votes in December 1992, dropping to 1.4 million a year later.

But when they finally united in September 2000, DOS won almost 2 million votes, while its presidential candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, took around 2.4 million.

In that poll, pro-democracy parties registered an increase of a million votes compared to 1993. Both sides stabilised in December 2000, the former at 2 million votes and the nationalists at 1.1 million.

These figures have changed slightly since then. By December 2003 supporters of the old regime had put on 300,000 supporters, while DOS lost about the same number.

The Radicals’ candidate again won the same number of votes in the presidential elections of November 2003, while former regime parties garnered 1.4 million votes in December.

But that was only 300,000 votes more than they won in December 2000, when the old regime was on its knees.

So, the balance of forces was more or less the same in 2003 as it was in December 2000. In fact, it was not the number of votes but their distribution that had changed.

The reformists suffered under the electoral law of October 2000, which set a 5 per cent threshold on parties entering parliament. Had the bar been set at 2 per cent, more small reformist parties would have gained seats, benefiting the moderate camp.

The fact that DOS had broken up into nine forces, meanwhile, benefited the Radicals. If DOS had stood united in the last election, the reformists would have a clear majority in parliament.

This does not mean that Serbian democracy is safe.

Macroeconomic analysis suggests only states with an average GDP per capita of more than 6,000 US dollars survive as consolidated democracies, while states with less than 1,000 dollars per capita in general often slip back to authoritarian government. In 2002, the figure in Serbia was 2,000-2,200 dollars.

Economic growth started to decline after the first year of reforms and reached a low point in 2003, when it was negative. The chances of democracy consolidating in Serbia will become clearer if growth bounces back in 2004 to 4 per cent, as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development forecasts.

Even with a low per capita income, democracy stands a good chance of surviving if the annual growth rate exceeds 5 per cent. So, Serbia’s political health hangs on the country achieving a relatively high growth rate over the next few years.

The nationalist upsurge is directly linked to the economy’s teething troubles. Coupled with this are additional issues of Kosovo, Montenegro, regionalisation (the status of Vojvodina, Sandzak and southern Serbia) and the thorny question of relations with the Hague tribunal.

Collectively, these problems united to fuel the extreme nationalism that dominated Serbia in the Milosevic era, and from which the former regime parties still benefit.

If these problems are not resolved by the end of the second post-Milosevic government, the former regime parties, in the shape of the SRS or some other party, may gain a convincing majority and overturn the rough balance of forces that has prevailed since 2000.

Dusan Pavlovic is a policy analyst at the Jefferson Institute in Belgrade.

Serbia, Kosovo
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