Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Radicals Set to Make Big Gains

Vojislav Seselj's party picking up support from increasingly discredited mainstream parties.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Serbia's already shaky political scene could be destabilised further if an extreme right-wing party does well in the forthcoming elections.

Many observers believe that the Serbian Radical Party, SRS - whose founder Vojislav Seselj is currently being detained in The Hague charged with war crimes offences - stands every chance of winning the early parliamentary elections scheduled for December 28.

The party has benefited from the scandals and infighting which eventually destroyed the incumbent Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition. Voters had become increasingly jaded by the schisms within the movement and its failure to implement reforms fully.

The SRS has also succeeded in converting former supporters of former president Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, another group weakened by bitter internal conflicts.

Most local polling agencies say the SRS stands a good chance securing up to a million votes, which would ensure them a quarter of the seats in the Serbian parliament.

Any such success for the party is likely to further destabilise the already tumultuous Serbian political scene, as the right-wingers oppose cooperation with The Hague tribunal - a prerequisite for European integration, which the country so badly needs.

However, analysts say that the SRS will not be able to form a government, as it is highly unlikely to secure the necessary majority to go it alone. And none of the three other election favourites - the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, the Democratic Party, DS, and the reformist G17 Plus party - will be willing to form a coalition with such an extreme right-wing force.

The party has seen a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes in the past year. With Seselj awaiting trial in The Hague, the rise of Tomislav Nikolic to the top of the SRS has increased its appeal to disillusioned mainstream voters.

Nikolic's approach is far from liberal - he opposes diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries such as Croatia and has said that discussing European Union membership is a waste of time at this stage - but it is more tempered and palatable to moderate right-wingers than Seselj's often hysterical nationalism.

And this slightly moderated SRS has found a large pool of potential support amongst former DOS voters.

DOS enjoyed the support of two-thirds of the Serbian electorate following its landslide victory over Milosevic in October 2000. But conflicts between the two main member parties, the DSS and the DS, and between the DS and G17 Plus have caused support for the coalition to gradually crumble.

"DOS has done everything it could have done to push [former federal president and DSS leader Vojislav] Kostunica from power. Should we then be surprised by the strong showing of the radicals on the eve of the early parliamentary elections?" asked public opinion analyst Srbobran Brankovic.

Another analyst, Ognjen Pribicevic, agreed. "Since the radicals are still considered the staunchest opposition to the DOS and the Democratic Party, it is only logical to expect that the majority of those disappointed with what the ruling coalition has done will vote for this ultra-nationalist view," he said.

The benefits of the cabinet infighting for the SRS were illustrated in the presidential election held on November 16 this year. Kostunica and G17 Plus party president Miroljub Labus boycotted the vote, insisting on the need for early parliamentary elections.

Their supporters stayed away from the polls and the SRS's Nikolic secured 1.2 million votes - around 45 per cent of the ballots cast - beating the ruling coalition's presidential hopeful Dragoljub Micunovic by 200,000 votes.

Many observers point out that the success of the SRS in the presidential ballot is bound to boost its campaign in the run-up to assembly elections, despite the fact Nikolic failed to reach the 50 per cent threshold necessary to validate the vote.

Political bickering within DOS has coincided with an economic downturn in Serbia. Industrial production has declined during the coalition's time in power, and unemployment figures have risen to more than one million.

In the face of this economic slump, the SRS's populist policies have found an audience in those citizens who have suffered the most during the transition process - pensioners, farmers, the unemployed, and those who once worked for state-owned corporations.

The party has promised, for instance, to slash the price of bread - even though this would push Serbian bakeries to the brink of ruin.

The fact that Serbia entered the privatisation process without a single true social democratic party to champion the interests of those who find themselves at the bottom of the social ladder has meant that, in the face of such economic trouble, the SRS has managed to impose itself as a vocal advocate of social justice.

Many local analysts, and even some government officials, also blame the international community for the shift in support to the SRS. They argue that western nations are playing into the hands of the radicals by insisting so loudly on a DS-DSS-G17 Plus coalition.

According to Pribicevic, this actually serves to reduce support for the mainstream parties among an electorate who want to see a complete change from the current DOS coalition.

"If the DSS doesn't distance itself from the idea of forming a post-election coalition with the major force behind the current unpopular government [the DS], there is a possibility the radicals might scoop up a significant portion of DSS supporters," he told IWPR.

Analysts argue that increasing public frustration with the international community's demands - particularly relating to the tribunal - have also contributed to the SRS's growing popularity.

In a recent interview with the German media, Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic of the DS accused the West of responsibility for the nationalists comeback, accusing it of being "too rigid" over the EU integration process and membership criteria for the NATO Partnership for Peace programme.

Full cooperation with the war crimes tribunal is a prerequisite for membership of both international bodies, and the SRS has capitalised on popular opposition to The Hague.

Following Nikolic's success in the recent presidential elections, several DOS leaders, including Muslim moderate Rasim Ljajic, pointed to the increasing demands of the tribunal and accused Carla Del Ponte, the Hague's chief prosecutor, of behaving as if she were "a member of the radicals' election campaign staff".

The SRS has also succeeded in mopping up people who have turned away from other nationalist factions, in particular the former president's SPS party. During Milosevic's rule, the SPS was the most influential member of a ruling coalition which also included the SRS.

Following a landslide defeat in the 2000 elections, it sought to transform itself into a modern left-wing party, but Milosevic insisted from his cell in The Hague that it should maintain its anti-western credentials.

The resulting open conflict has driven former supporters away in droves. Surveys indicate that the SPS will meet the five per cent support threshold needed to secure parliamentary seats in the December election - but will struggle to achieve it.

This shift has contributed to a surge in support for the next most credible nationalist option - the SRS.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.