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

Serbia: Political Feud Threatens Election

The ongoing battle between the country's two most powerful men may lead to another constitutional crisis.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The increasingly bitter feud between Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica is threatening to scupper a presidential election rerun next month.


Analysts fear that the December 8 ballot, repeated after September's poll was declared void after a poor turnout, may suffer a similar fate if the prime minister does not throw his weight behind Kostunica's bid for power.


This is causing great anxiety among politicians and observers alike, as if the new ballot descends into the farce that marred the previous one, the resulting power vacuum would plunge the country into crisis and sideline key reforms.


While Kostunica is still Serbia's most popular politician, he cannot count on getting the fifty per cent voter turnout required by law without Djindjic's support.


Yet by accepting the prime minister's help, Kostunica risks losing the support of those voters he attracted with his anti-government rhetoric. So he dare not publicly ask Djindjic for his backing.


Dragoljub Micunovic, leader of the Democratic Centre party, a member of the governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, DOS, has been trying to resolve the dispute between the country's two most powerful politicians in the run up to the poll.


He hopes to persuade the federal president to stop criticising Serbia's government, and to make a public request for support from its prime minister. At the same time, Micunovic is urging Djindjic to back Kostunica, and lobby for a strong voter turnout.


It is believed that the candidates - Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, and the extreme right-wingers Vojislav Seselj and Borislav Pelevic - will not be able to persuade a large enough number to turn up at the ballot box for the elections to succeed.


The main battle in the October poll was between Kostunica and the reformist candidate Miroljub Labus - an economics expert backed by DOS and Djindjic.


After the ballot was declared void, Labus - who won half as many votes as the federal president - distanced himself from Djindjic and said that he was not planning to contest the presidency again, robbing centre-left voters of a suitable candidate.


The million or so voters who backed Labus last time around must pick an alternative or the election is doomed to failure, according to Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences analyst Vladimir Goati. Kostunica, in particular, should be targeting the former, he added.


However, the Yugoslav president's nationalist stance will not impress the Muslim and Hungarian minorities that voted for Labus last time. And while Kostunica has been backed by seven of DOS' 17 parties, this support will not count for much if his great rival refuses to publicly back him.


In spite of these worries, governing coalition representatives and the international community are working hard to ensure that sufficient numbers turn up for the vote to be declared valid.


Following the failure of the September 28 election, the Serbian parliament came under fierce western pressure to amend the complicated Milosevic-era legislation that required 50 per cent minimum turnout in both rounds of an election. A new law stipulates that this now applies to the first round only.


But there may be far fewer people available to cast their votes than the authorities think. The electoral roll, which hasn't been updated since the Milosevic era, is believed to be so inaccurate that at least 600,000 of the 6.5 million people listed as eligible to vote are in fact dead, living abroad, or have boycotted all previous elections for ethnic or political reasons.


For those eager to ensure at least a 50 per cent turnout, these missing voters complicate matters even further.


Srecko Mihailovic of the Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences believes that given the flawed electoral roll as many as 65 per cent of registered voters must cast their ballots in order for the minimum requirement to be met - and he admits that this is "unlikely to happen".


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor of the Belgrade weekly magazine Blic News.