Serbia in Crisis After Coalition Collapse

Djindjic chooses high-risk strategy in his power struggle with Kostunica.

Serbia in Crisis After Coalition Collapse

Djindjic chooses high-risk strategy in his power struggle with Kostunica.

Serbia is in the grip of its gravest political crisis since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic following the official break-up of its ruling coalition.

The Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, fell apart earlier this week after a parliamentary committee controlled by allies of Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic stripped his arch-rival Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, of its 45 seats in the assembly.

The reformist Djindjic has taken this high-risk strategy to secure his fragile majority and prevent the possibility of early parliamentary elections, which his opponents have been demanding in the hope of ousting him from power.

The prime minister used to be able to rely on a loyal bloc of parties within DOS, but after this week's they no longer seem so supportive. Some deputies have voiced concern over the development, branding it "illegal", while others are calling for the early elections he wants to avoid.

As a result, Djindic's faction may crumble into competing groups. If it does, the nationalistic Kostunica and his conservative DSS party may take advantage of popular dissatisfaction with the government's handling of the economy and force a ballot.

DOS has been in power since Milosevic's fall in October 2000 and ran in the Serbian parliamentary elections that December under the name DOS-Vojislav Kostunica. The DSS leader headed the list of candidates and his party duly won 45 seats, the largest number gained by any single party in parliament.

The DSS withdrew its ministers from Djindjic's government last August following the murder of Momir Gavrilovic, a former senior Serbian state security official. The night before his killing, Gavrilovic had visited Kostunica's office to disclose information on alleged criminal activities by the Serbian authorities. His killer has never been found.

The ruling coalition between the DSS and the other 17 DOS parties continued nonetheless but came under increasing strain, especially after Kostunica's party began to demand early parliamentary elections. The official opposition - which comprises of Milosevic's socialists and Vojislav Seselj's ultra-nationalist radicals - backed the call.

The premier managed to weather the storm by rallying all the reform-minded DOS parties, despite the fact the Kostunica is by far the more popular of the two leaders amongst the public.

But the DSS continued to urge early elections, prompting the other DOS members - which retained a narrow majority in the 250- seat parliament - to vote in May to replace 50 deputies for allegedly failing to attend sessions regularly. Twenty-one were from the DSS. By eliminating them, the reformist coalition parties bolstered their majority in the assembly.

DOS then appointed a new republican election commission that endorsed the decision to strip the deputies of their seats. Sources close to the Serbian authorities have told IWPR that loyalty to Djindjic was the only real criteria used to appoint the commission's members.

Meanwhile, DSS appealed against the ruling in the federal constitutional court, which overturned the decision on July 26, calling it a violation of the law on the election of deputies.

Many legal experts agree that DOS acted illegally, including the Yugoslav constitutional court president, Momcilo Grubac, and the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, CeSID, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections.

Djindjic's allies appear increasingly restless after this week's expulsion of the DSS deputies. The Democratic Centre, led by the speaker of the Yugoslav parliament, Dragoljub Micunovic, and the Vojvodina Reformists, under Miodrag Isakov, both called the move illegal.

They said early parliamentary elections offered the only solution to the current crisis. It was the "only way to solve the problems in the country in a democratic manner", Isakov told Belgrade Radio B92.

Nada Kolundzija of the Democratic Alternative, which is led by Serbian deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic, said she backed the removal of the DSS representatives even though its legality was questionable.

If Djindjic's faction does break up, there could be several consequences. One would be the formation of a new social-democratic bloc, opposing both the president's conservatism and the prime minister's political manoeuvres. It may also lead to struggles at local government level, where power is often divided between the DSS and Djindjic's allies in the rest of the DOS.

Davor Lukac is an editor with the news agency Tanjug in Belgrade.

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