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

Serbia: All Eyes on DS Battle

New government's chances hang on Democrats' leadership struggle.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Pro-democracy parties in Serbia are struggling to form a minority government against a background of internal fighting within the Democratic Party, DS, which will have to support the new administration if it is to survive.

If the centrist parties cannot hatch a deal with the DS, most observers agree that Serbia is headed for fresh elections, which may bring new gains to the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS.

Vojislav Kostunica, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, called on January 14 for the formation of a four-party minority government comprising the DSS, the reformist G17 Plus party, the monarchist Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, and New Serbia - which are currently in coalition.

As this grouping cannot command a parliamentary majority, the proposed government would have to rely on the tacit support of the DS to pass any legislation.

In the last parliamentary election on December 28, the hard-line Radicals won the most votes, but not enough seats to form a government on their own.

As a result, the centrist parties were expected to form a new administration between them, until the latest outbreak of internal warfare within the DS contributed to the DSS’ decision to opt for the formation of a minority government without them.

Whether Serbia has to go through a new round of elections now depends on the DS's decision to grant - or withhold - support for the latter. A resolution one way or the other is expected at the party’s main board meeting on January 18.

The air of uncertainty is heightened by the fact that the three powerful vice-presidents of the DS all hold different views on the virtues of cooperation with Kostunica.

Boris Tadic, Zoran Zivkovic and Cedomir Jovanovic, Serbia and Montenegro defence minister, prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively, are locked in a leadership struggle that threatens to destabilise not merely their own party but the whole pro-democracy bloc in Serbia.

Tadic, nominated in December to head the DS election list, holds the most flexible views and has pledged to back a DSS-led administration if its programme is acceptable.

Zivkovic is less inclined towards cooperation and more likely to place pre-conditions on his support, by demanding concessions.

DS sources say support for a Kostunica-led government hangs on the ability of Zivkovic and Tadic, nominated by their party to negotiate on the make-up of the new government, to reach a compromise.

Jovanovic, the third vice-president, opposes supporting the DSS and wants his party to remain in opposition, even though that might force Kostunica to reconsider the possibility of forming a government with the ultra-nationalist Radicals.

At the last DS main board meeting on January 11, Jovanovic delivered a passionate speech attacking cooperation with Kostunica and the G 17 Plus leader Miroljub Labus, accusing them of having brought down the last government.

Although DS sources insisted Tadic would still win the leadership battle, his victory looks less certain than it did last week. At the DS main board meeting, Tadic scored a victory over Zivkovic and Jovanovic, who blamed him for what they said was the DS's poor showing in the December election.

Although the party board rejected this accusation, insisting the DS did well by taking 37 seats in the 250-seat Serbian parliament, Tadic experienced a setback when Zivkovic’s candidate was appointed head of the party's organising committee for the party general assembly on February 21, which will select a new party president.

The post is crucial, as this official will be well placed to lobby the delegates at the party general assembly over the choice of Djindjic’s successor. So far, only Zivkovic’s nomination has been confirmed.

The pro-democracy parties still had their reservations about the DS, even after Tadic was placed at the top of his party’s election list. But he is by far the most palatable prospective political partner for Kostunica and Labus, as well as for Vuk Draskovic and Velimir Ilic, leaders of the SPO and New Serbia.

If Tadic is defeated in the DS leadership battle, the leaders of other democratic parties may prove reluctant to join forces with Zivkovic or Jovanovic, thus making it almost impossible to sustain a minority government.

At a press conference on January 14 in Belgrade, Kostunica confirmed that if his minority government failed to command support in parliament, fresh elections would have to be called.

The worry in the democratic camp is that Serbian voters might use new elections to punish the pro-democracy parties even more, by increasing support for the ultra-nationalists.

Political analyst Dusan Janjic warned of the consequences in the Belgrade daily Politika on January 13. Janjic said that the ongoing crisis inside the DS was creating "a crisis within the democratic bloc, destabilising the political scene in Serbia".

Zeljko Cvijanovic is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.