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

Serbian Government's Fate Hangs on Ballot

A presidential triumph for moderate candidate Boris Tadic could see off the threat from the extreme-right Radicals.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The outcome of the Serbia’s presidential election on June 13 may have far-reaching consequences such as a major reshuffle, or even the collapse of the current government.

Many analysts believe that a win by Tomislav Nikolic, candidate of the extreme right Serbian Radical Party, SRS, could cause the government to fall, as the centrist G17 Plus party has threatened to leave the coalition if that happens.

On the other hand, victory by the strongest moderate candidate, Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party, DS, could result in the DS joining a strengthened government capable of seeing off the Radicals.

Most pollsters put the government candidate, Dragan Marsicanin, well behind Nikolic and Tadic in the popularity ratings.

A poll in late May by Belgrade’s Faktor Plus agency suggested that Nikolic had the support of 27 per cent of respondents. It put Tadic on 24 per cent and Marsicanin on only 20 per cent.

Marsicanin’s rating was not far ahead of the colourful tycoon Bogoljub Karic, whose 12 per cent rating is a surprise, as he was a latecomer in the election.

If the election result confirms the trend indicate by this poll, only Nikolic and Tadic will make it through into the second round.

But this may not be an accurate prediction of the final result, as analysts believe that there are more swing voters in this campaign than in any of its predecessors.

“No election thus far depended to such an extent on a pre-election campaign as this one,” said Milka Puzigaca of Novi Sad’s Skan agency.

But few observers believe Marsicanin – who is backed by four parties of the ruling coalition led by prime minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS – can rescue his position after a lacklustre campaign.

His defeat in the first round will also create serious strains on the already fractured governing coalition.

Some observes predict that if Marsicanin fails, Kostunica will have more difficulty in keeping to his basic strategic approach, which is to maintain an equal distance between the extreme right SRS, which is strongly disapproved of in the West, and the DS, which presents itself as the party of reform.

Though Kostunica and his coalition parties, G17 Plus and the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, are closer to the DS than the Radicals in their platforms, a series of political rows has widened the gap. Relations failed to improve after Tadic took over the DS leadership last winter, on pledges to rid the party of corrupt officials.

After talks on forming a new government between Tadic and Kostunica fell through, Kostunica formed a minority government with the backing of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS.

Most analysts agree these conflicts could result in a low turnout by moderate voters, boosting Nikolic’s chances. There are also worries that the government may not survive an SRS victory, as G17 Plus has said it will walk out if Nikolic becomes head of state.

Most analysts predict that Nikolic will come top in the first round and that his rival for the run-off is likely to be Tadic. But there is no such agreement on who will win in the second round, which is scheduled to be held two weeks after the first.

Liljana Bacevic, of the Belgrade Institute for Social Sciences' Centre for Political Studies and Public Opinion, told IWPR that voters who backed one of the moderate candidates in the first round would most likely switch to the most moderate candidate in the second. ThereforeNikolic will not win, she claimed.

But she warned that political infighting in the moderate camp could deter some voters from switching to Tadic in the second round.

“It will be difficult to persuade Marsicanin's supporters to vote for Tadic in the second round because he has been demonised in their eyes,” she said, referring to the strongly anti-Tadic thrust of the Marsicanin campaign.

Djordje Vukadinovic, editor of the magazine Nova Srpska Politicka Misao (New Serbian Political Thought), maintains that Nikolic is the favourite to win both rounds. Marsicanin, he added, has little hope of victory. “Bearing in mind his dull campaign, something really big would have to happen to improve his standing,” he said.

But sources close to Kostunica have told IWPR that if Marsicanin loses on June 13, the time span between then and the second round could be used to hold talks aimed at a rapprochement between the DSS and the DS.

That could lead to Kostunica supporting Tadic all the way to the presidency and the DS entering a reshuffled government, effectively meaning a major realignment of Serbia’s moderate parties against the Radicals.

Kostunica would stand to benefit from a Tadic victory, as Nikolic has warned that he intends to dissolve the present government if he wins the vote.

Sources close to the government have told IWPR that consolidation of Serbia’s democratic forces – a process which must include the DS - may be the only way of saving the government from early parliamentary elections,

The same sources say the West does not want to see new general elections in Serbia but rather an alliance between the DS and DSS to block the Radicals.

If Tadic does win the presidency, the DS will have significantly strengthened its hand. It is then likely use its new political muscle to enter the government as a senior partner or at least as an equal partner to the DSS.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.

More IWPR's Global Voices