Power Struggle Strangles Serbia

The vital reform process seems doomed after second presidential ballot is declared invalid.

Power Struggle Strangles Serbia

The vital reform process seems doomed after second presidential ballot is declared invalid.

The failure of the latest round of presidential elections in Serbia threatens to jeopardise the country's political institutions and paralyse the reform process.

Three weeks before the start of what most analysts believe will be a decisive year for reforms, Serbia has no new president. It also has a parliament in which none of the opposing political options enjoys a strong majority, and a government that has been putting its own survival ahead of necessary change for months.

The election failure and resulting crisis is the consequence of a desperate, year-long power struggle between the leaders who ousted Slobodan Milosevic two years ago - Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica.

The conflict - which has held up the introduction of reforms necessary for the improvement of living conditions - has spawned widespread voter apathy, culminating in the first failure to elect a president on September 29, and again on December 8, when the ballot was repeated.

Serbia's electoral laws stipulate that 50 per cent of registered voters must cast their ballots for the result to stand. As the number of votes in both ballots failed to reach this figure, they were annulled.

In the latest poll, Kostunica again won the most ballots - 1.7 million - which is 57.6 per cent of those who voted and 36 per cent of the electorate as a whole.

The two runners up were both ultra-nationalists. The first was Milosevic's old ally Vojislav Seselj, the Radical Party leader, who took slightly more than a million votes. Borislav Pelevic followed with around 10,000. Pelevic is leader of the Party of Serbian Unity, SSJ, founded by Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic - the paramilitary commander accused of war crimes by The Hague tribunal.

While the rivalry between Djindjic and Kostunica undoubtedly played its part in the annulled polls, there were other factors.

One was the failure of the Serbian premier's bloc to put up a candidate in the latest round of the election to challenge the popular federal president. This narrowed the options to a choice between the moderate and the radical right, leaving centrist and left wing voters with no one to represent them.

The electoral rolls are also to blame. They have not been updated since the Milosevic era and analysts believe they contain up to 600,000 deceased or displaced persons, thereby inflating the size of the electorate by just enough for the vote to fail.

This electoral stumbling block is expected to fuel a yet more desperate struggle between Kostunica and Djindjic, which will deepen the present constitutional crisis.

The federal president has refused to accept the results of the election, accusing Djindjic of boycotting the poll, and blaming the out-of date electoral rolls. Kostunica lodged a complaint with the Serbian supreme court, but this was rejected on December 9.

Djindjic has rebuffed Kostunica's accusations and has blamed the president for failing to discuss an electoral pact.

While the Serbian prime minister had offered his support before the vote, the gesture was dismissed by the Yugoslav president, who had built his campaign upon attacking Djindjic's government and feared losing the support of its critics.

Serbia's current president, Milan Milutinovic, who has been accused of war crimes by The Hague tribunal, vacates his office on January 5, 2003. His duties are expected to pass to Natasa Micic, parliamentary speaker and a Djindjic loyalist.

The constitution requires her to call new elections within 60 days - but opinion is divided on the strength of this obligation.

While Kostunica's camp insists she is obliged to announce a new poll, Djindjic's supporters suggest she is no entitled to do so. Micic herself said on Tuesday, December 9 that she did not feel obliged to call a new vote until a wider "consensus" had been reached. "This will not be decided by one person," she said.

The crisis is bound to affect the work of the Serbian parliament, where no bloc can count on a stable majority. In addition, Kostunica had vowed to bring the government down if the December elections were declared void.

In reality, he lacks the necessary majority of 126 deputies, as the seven small parties in the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition that supported him in the presidential poll are not ready to pass a no-confidence vote in the government.

On the other hand, Djindjic also lacks a stable majority. This became clear on December 6, just before the election, when parliament refused to approve the proposed budget for 2003 after Kostunica's supports outvoted the prime minister's bloc.

The next few months will probably be dominated by Kostunica's attempts to force early elections next year. If he succeeds, he will finally have the chance to take power in Serbia.

On the other hand, the increasingly unpopular Djindjic wants to avoid elections at any cost until 2004, when his government's term in office expires. For this reason, he will want a president who has been elected by parliament - and preferably someone loyal to himself.

In the meantime, the reform process has stalled and this has worried the international community.

EU diplomacy chiefs this week invited all sides "to reach a democratic solution" while the President of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, Peter Schieder, urged political leaders "to act in very responsible and measured way".

Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor of the Belgrade weekly Blic News.

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