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More Electoral Machinations In Serbia

While Serbia's opposition is seeking elections at federal, republican and local levels, the most the regime is offering is a municipal poll. Meanwhile, lest voting change anything, new legislation is likely to slash the powers of local government.
By Milenko Vasovic

Opposition deputies plan to demand early elections at federal, republican and local levels when the Serbian parliament meets on October 28.

This move, which is backed by local authorities in 29 opposition municipalities across Serbia, including Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis and Kragujevac, is scheduled to be coordinated with another large-scale street protest. Supporters of the Alliance for Change (SZP) have demonstrated in smaller numbers on a daily basis since September 21.

In response, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has prepared legislation limiting the powers of local government. It is believed that the ruling coalition of Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), his wife Mira Markovic's Yugoslav United Left (JUL) and Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS) intend to adopt the new law on local self-rule at the October 28 parliamentary session.

Under the terms of the new law, Serbia's republican authorities will extend their powers into local government to such an extent that they will be able to dismiss local administrations and rule by decree. In certain circumstances, the republican authorities will even be able to seize the revenues earmarked for local budgets. The law was actually prepared a year ago, but, as a result of the fighting in Kosovo, it was not put to the Serbian parliament.

In addition to preparing the new legislation, Seselj, the deputy prime minister, says that the ruling coalition wishes to hold early municipal elections. Indeed, this too may be announced at the October 28 parliamentary session.

While Serbia's many opposition groups generally find it difficult to agree on substantive issues, they are united in opposition to municipal elections, in the absence of republican and federal polls. Arguing that it is the central government, which has plunged the country into crisis, and not local administrations, opposition parties insist on elections at all levels to give voters a chance to change the regime.

Opposition parties also say that the conditions under which elections are fought must be free and fair and that they must be discussed and agreed with government representatives in advance of any poll. If, therefore, such a round table does not take place, the opposition intends to boycott the elections.

The ruling coalition has not officially responded to the opposition's demand for a round table to discuss electoral conditions. If, however, it announced municipal elections on October 28, it will be indicating that conditions will remain unchanged, in which case the opposition is unlikely to participate.

While Seselj has spoken publicly about municipal elections, representatives of Milosevic's SPS and Markovic's JUL have to date remained silent. Milosevic might intend using the local elections to assess his popularity in the wake of defeat in Kosovo, though, if the opinion polls are accurate, this is likely to be a painful experience.

Many Belgrade political analysts believe that SPS and JUL are opposed to putting their popularity to the test in elections, and that only Seselj is eager that they be called. Moreover, in the event of an opposition boycott, Seselj may be hoping to win more votes than the SPS or JUL and thus improve his position within the ruling coalition.

According to the proposed new law on local self-rule, municipal delegates will be elected according to a first-past-the post, majoritarian system. In this way, the candidate with the most votes will be the winner, regardless of whether a majority of voters have cast ballots. In that way Seselj may extend his local power base beyond the Belgrade municipality of Zemun to include other parts of Serbia.

Control over local government brings with it several obvious benefits. Local authorities have their own budgets, distribute or withhold construction and trading permits, and control state-owned companies and state-owned property in their municipalities.

Local authorities are also responsible for compiling voters' lists. In practice, this has meant that potential opponents of the regime, including opposition party members and supporters, as well as the younger generation, which generally seeks change, have frequently found themselves struck off the lists. As a result, whoever holds local power is likely to do well in republican and federal elections.

Milenko Vasovic is a regular IWPR contributor from Belgrade.

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