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Serbia: Hague Relations Unlikely to be Upset by SRS Poll Success

Despite Radicals’ electoral triumph, democratic parties expected to form next government and continue to cooperate with the tribunal.
By Aleksandar Roknić

The far-right Serbian Radical Party, SRS, got the highest number of votes in Serbian elections this week - but they can’t form a government, because no other party is prepared to work with them.

The parliamentary elections held on January 21 were the first since the break-up of Serbia’s union with Montenegro in June 2006, and had a turn out of over 60 per cent - with almost four million people casting a vote.

The government that emerges in the coming weeks will determine Serbia’s future prospects of joining the European Union.

EU accession talks were suspended in May 2006, because of Serbia’s failure to deliver arch war-crimes fugitive and Bosnian Serb wartime military commander Ratko Mladic to The Hague.

While the SRS emerged as the strongest party in the polls, winning 30 per cent of the vote – which secured it 81 out of 250 seats in the Serbian parliament - they lack the parliamentary majority of 126 mandates needed to form a government.

The Democratic Party, DS, of Serbian president Boris Tadic, came second with 64 seats, and the coalition of the Democratic Party of Serbia and New Serbia, DSS-NS, led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Capital Investments Minister Velimir Ilic, came third, securing 47 seats. Neither of these are prepared to form a government with the Radicals.

Former SRS allies, the Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS - to which the late former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic belonged - won 16 seats, but they have said they won’t cooperate with the Radicals either.

Political analysts say the ultra-nationalist SRS have emerged as the strongest political force in Serbia through their use of nationalistic and populist rhetoric and exploitation of social and economic discontent.

Sociologist and political analyst Dr Milan Nikolic of the Belgrade Centre for Studying Alternatives, which specialises public opinion research, thinks the SRS’s electoral success - which won them the cities of Belgrade, Novi Sad and Kragujevac - was down to them tapping into the public’s fear of unemployment and disillusionment with the democratic and socialist parties.

“There is almost 40 per cent unemployment in Serbia. The Radicals recognised that. They gave up nationalistic stories of Great Serbia, and focused on the social-economic problems instead,” Nikolic told IWPR.

Analysts have differing opinions as to whether the recent hunger strike of Vojislav Seselj, the SRS’s leader, whipped up support for the party.

Many observers suspected it was not by accident that Seselj’s hunger strike coincided with the beginning of the pre-election campaign in Serbia. During his 28-day fast, Seselj gained significant support among the voters back home, who saw his protest as some sort of a heroic deed.

Seselj is currently recovering from a hunger strike in the Hague detention unit and awaiting trial. He is charged with taking part in a joint criminal enterprise, the purpose of which was allegedly the permanent forcible removal of non-Serbs from parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia in order to create a new, Serb-dominated state.

Nikolic thinks that Seselj’s hunger strike, which ended on December 7 last year, helped the SRS’s pre-election campaign, because after the tribunal restored their leader his right to defend himself, the party claimed this was Seselj’s victory over the tribunal.

But Dr Zoran Lucic, the executive director of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, CeSid, disagrees, saying Seselj’s hunger strike had no influence on the election campaign in Serbia.

“There were a lot of people who can be termed ‘transitional losers’. They lost their jobs and have no other choice but to be angry at the government. [But] I’m very surprised that support for the Radicals didn’t decrease in the past years,” said Lucic.

He added that if under the new Serbian government unemployment decreases and Hague tribunal- and Kosovo-related problems are resolved, he expects to see support for the Radicals decline.

“There are a lot of unemployed people in Serbia, lots of very disappointed people and they will show their frustration at the elections by voting for Radicals,” Lucic told IWPR.

By law, the new parliament must be formed by February 24, within 30 days of the Republic Electoral Commission, RIK, announcing the official election results. Then, the new government must be in place by May 24, but the question is which parties will form a governing coalition?

Nikolic suggests a democratic coalition is likely.

“The biggest winners in the Serbian elections were the Democrat Party and the democratic bloc, because almost 65 per cent of the electoral body in Serbia voted for them,” he said.

Javier Solana, the EU high representative for foreign policy and security, hopes the new government will be formed by pro-EU reformist parties.

And all the democratic parties have declared that they want to cooperate with the Hague tribunal, a precondition for Serbia joining the EU. They say after form a government, they will make the arrest all six remaining fugitives a priority.

Nikolic thinks the new administration will continue to continue to work closely with the tribunal, but he explained that suspending EU accession talks with Serbia until it arrests Mladic is too harsh a penalty - that ultimately will only punish Serbian democratic forces.

“We conducted research, and concluded that after every visit to Serbia by Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte support for Seselj’s Radical party is grows,” said Nikolic.

Lucic shares this opinion, saying all democratic forces in Serbia have to be given more time to meet the tribunal’s requests for the arrest war crimes fugitives.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR contributor.