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

Serbia: Democrats Ascendant

Republic’s main centrist party has benefited from declining interest in “national” questions.
By Dusan Pavlovic

Serbia’s local elections in September have provided another boost for the opposition Democratic Party, DS, which led the government from 2001 to 2003.


The party leader, Boris Tadic, elected president in June, has vowed not demand early elections, however, but to continue cooperating with the government on adopting a new constitution.


The Serbian Radical Party, SRS, on the other hand, the hard-line nationalist allies of Slobodan Milosevic in the Nineties, scored worse than expected, and is no longer Serbia’s most popular party.


The result of the September 19 election will force all the various parties to continue reforming their platforms and leadership. But although the government has emerged weakened by the poor showing of its coalition partners, it is likely to remain together until a new constitution is adopted.


What the voters have demonstrated is that they want the government to remain on the reform path – even if the low turnout points to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the electorate that may jeopardise reforms later on.


The latest result confirms an upward trend among the Democrats, which has been visible since 2003. In the elections in December 2003, they won only 12.6 per cent of the vote. Less than seven months later, their presidential candidate, Tadic, took 27.3 per cent in the first round of the leadership ballot.


Since then, their popularity has grown. In local elections three months later, the party won 30 per cent in many major cities and municipalities. DS candidates now preside over 22 municipalities, while a party member is also mayor of Belgrade.


The party’s rising popularity was made possible by the leadership change carried out earlier this year, when Tadic forced aside the politicians the public held most responsible for the party’s perceived links with corruption.


The SRS, on the other hand, has now experienced an election failure in relative terms, in spite of taking the lead in 19 municipalities and the post of mayor of Novi Sad.


In December 2003 this was Serbia’s popular party, with 27.8 per cent of the votes. But the party lacks potential coalition partners, partly as a result of their insisting on retaining their nationalist programme from the Nineties.


So, while the SRS has done well in the polls for some time, it has never managed to capitalise on its good results because its inability to make coalitions.


As a result of this inability, the Radicals’ presidential candidate, Tomislav Nikolic, the front-runner in that election, lost out to Tadic. In the local elections that followed, the SRS dropped to second place in the list of most popular parties.


Since the presidential elections, the Radicals have tried to tone down their hard-line nationalist image, changing their rhetoric and campaign style.


The party’s two candidates for mayoral positions in Belgrade and Novi Sad highlighted their personal qualities in the campaign over their party membership - and over the fact that their leader, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial for war crimes in The Hague.


The result for the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, led by the prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, has also been relatively disappointing. This party won mayoral contests in ten municipalities but none in any of Serbia’s four big cities.


In December 2003, the DSS came second in terms of number of votes with 17.8 per cent, which qualified it to form the government in March.


Dissenting voices, calling for the party to adopt a more technocratic and managerial programme, have come from within the DSS for some time.


The leader of this faction, businessman Zoran Drakulic, the DSS’s recent candidate as mayor of Belgrade, aims to become one of the party’s vice-presidents at its forthcoming congress and so help modernise the party from that position.


Although the two most powerful parties in Serbia - the DS and SRS - are both in opposition, the chances for extraordinary elections are not great as, even before his presidential inauguration ceremony, Tadic committed himself to cooperate with Kostunica.


Nor has the offer of “cohabitation” been blown off course by the row between the government and president on whether Kosovo Serbs should vote in Kosovo’s elections on October 23, or their different views on cooperation with The Hague. (The president supports active cooperation, including arrests and extraditions, whereas the government is willing to accept only voluntary surrenders of suspects.)


Overall, Serbia’s political situation is stabilising, as the leading parties continue to reform themselves from the inside. This is evident from their political discourse, and from the issues which now dominate the campaigns. Serbian voters are ever more interested in bread-and-butter issues, rather than in the myths and symbols that dominated the political scene in the Nineties.


The candidates now wrestle over employment, foreign investment, corruption and tax - and less than they once did over territory and “national questions”. The change of the relative strength of the country’s three most popular parties indicates that active voters have shown they want a continuation of the reform policy that Zoran Djindjic started in 2001.


But the relatively low turnout in the presidential elections in June and the local elections in September and October - between 30 and 35 per cent – must be seen as a warning sign.


This is a source of potential danger for the reformists, for it remains unclear how many of these passive, inactive voters oppose the reforms, or what kind of politics they are ready to accept.


Dusan Pavlovic is a researcher at the Jefferson Institute, Belgrade.