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

Serbia: Reformist Vote Set to Split

Defection of G17 Plus experts from ranks of Djindjic supporters will inject fresh life into Serbia's political scene but divide the reformists.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The ranks of Serbia's reformists have been divided by the defection of Miroljub Labus from the Democratic Party, DS, of Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic, sparking a flurry of reports that the influential economist will soon found a party of his own.


Labus, leader of the influential G17 Plus experts group and deputy prime minister in the federal government, last week quit the premier's party, the dominant force in the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition.


The move deals a blow to Djindjic. Labus was a founder member of the Democratic Party in 1989 and became deputy leader before the creation of G17 Plus. A new party drawing on the reformists within G17 Plus will rob Djindjic of influential supporters and may strengthen the political right.


Reports of G17 Plus's imminent evolution from an NGO into a mainstream party have circulated for more than a year. The group provided DOS with its economic programme, and after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic its experts joined the economic teams of the federal and Serbian governments.


The NGO's expertise and good connections are credited with securing Yugoslavia favourable arrangements with the IMF and the World Bank to reschedule its international debts, and with getting some debts written off.


There has never been a consensus within G17 Plus over forming a party or remaining neutral. The National Bank of Yugoslavia governor Mladjan Dinkic has long backed the creation of a party, while Bozidar Djelic, finance minister in Djindjic’s government and symbol of Serbian reforms, remains opposed.


The scales tipped towards the political option after the second round of Serbia's presidential elections on October 13, when the poor turn out invalidated the result. Labus ran in the poll against federal president Vojislav Kostunica with the support of DOS and Djindjic and in the second round won about a million votes, half the amount that Kostunica received.


But Labus complained afterwards that Djindic's party had “let him down” by effectively boycotting the election. “I have not left the DS, it turned its back on me,” he claimed. Labus said he had a “legitimate right to expect [Democratic Party] support in the elections as a party member”, adding that “I do not like to disappoint people but I do not like being disappointed myself”.


The outburst, formally severing the alliance with Djindjic, means the reformist vote will now be split. The move will anger many in the Democratic Party as sources close to G17 Plus have revealed that in August Labus promised the Serbian premier that he would not turn the NGO into an independent party.


“Labus broke his promise, as he said clearly he would remain a member of the DS and not form another party,” Cedomir Jovanovic, a leading Democrat, told the Belgrade FoNet news agency.


Labus has formally left the question of forming a party to the group's annual assembly in December, claiming that “within G17 Plus discussion is going on concerning this issue”. But most experts think the deal is already done. Dimitrije Boarov, an economist close to G17 Plus, said the development was inevitable as this was the course advocated by Mladjan Dinkic, the influential and young national bank governor.


Boarov predicts the new party will attract a number of parties now loyal to Djindjic and that a new bloc will be formed, forming an alternative to Kostunica and Djindjic, both of whom are thought to have jeopardised the reform process with their ongoing conflict.


Many observers believe G17 Plus could become a strong party, as it is widely seen as free from corruption. Polls have consistently shown that three members of the group - Labus, Dinkic and Djelic - are among Serbia's five most popular politicians. As its internet website (www.g17.org.yu) shows, it already possesses a network throughout Serbia that could serve as a basis for a party infrastructure.


Back in August, Srdjan Bogosavljevic, director of the Belgrade polling agency Strategic Marketing, remarked that G17 Plus enjoyed great confidence among the electorate and would represent a strong third bloc if it contested elections. Labus’s score in the presidential elections was also a good beginning, as he has shown he can muster almost a million reform-oriented votes.


An IWPR source from G17 Plus claimed another positive factor was the support of international financial institutions, in which Labus and his colleagues have good connections.


On the other hand, Zoran Lutovac, of the Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences, has warned that the group will lose much of its former popularity when it becomes a political party. “They will have to give up their image as people who care about the general good and who are not interested in power,” he told the Belgrade daily Blic last Thursday.


G17 Plus can also expect a bumpy ride from Djindjic, who will no longer view it a partner, but as a rival. Other analysts warn that there is no space left on the Serbian political spectrum for more groupings after the splits and regroupings that have already occurred.


If it does contest elections independently, G17 Plus will inflict more harm on Djindjic than Kostunica, as both parties will be appealing to the same constituency. It may also trigger more splits within the DOS, if G17 Plus draws several of the smaller parties to its own side.


Another option is that Labus forms an alliance with Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS. In the event of early elections, the latter is unlikely to win an absolute majority enabling it to form a government on its own and will need allies among some of the reformist groups.


However, an alliance with Kostunica's more nationalist supporters could cost G17 Plus much of its support. Until now, it has taken up a position diametrically opposed to that of DSS traditionalists who are no friends of reform. But whatever happens at the group's December congress, there seems little doubt that Kostunica and Djindjic will no longer be alone in their fight for supremacy on Serbia's political stage.


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