European Western Balkans

Return of the mediators: What is the state of electoral reforms in Serbia?

Vladimir Bilčik, Tanja Fajon, Knut Fleckenstein and Parliament Speaker Maja Gojković following the 2019 IPD; Photo: EU Delegation to Serbia

BELGRADE – It seems that the authorities of Serbia will formally adopt the measures they agreed to during the dialogue mediated by the European Parliament, aimed at improving electoral conditions. However, there are not many indicators that this will lead to substantial changes.

Mediators of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik, together with the Commissioner for Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi are coming to Belgrade today, one of the goals of their visit being to take stock of the reform process that has been going on over the past several months. Based on what the current state of affairs is, the conclusion will probably be that there is a form, but that the content is lacking.

Almost all of the reforms listed in the “Implementation Timetable”, which was agreed after three rounds of dialogue, are a mare formal basis for the improvement of the electoral conditions, while, for the real change, it will be necessary to implement these measures in practice. As of today, this implementation is mostly non-existent.

Milan Antonijević, Executive Director of the Foundation for the Open Society, says for European Western Balkans that the difference between what is listed in the Timetable and what is happening in reality is significant.

“The implementation is important – if there are three changes to the laws, and if they have not caused an “effect on the ground”, if there is no true accountability of the public officials, then it was just a preparatory action that hasn’t had any effect. Only when we see the implementation of these laws on the ground, when we see the work of the Republican Electoral Committee, when we see how the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media is working, can we say that the recommendations from the Timetable are respected”, Antonijević emphasises.

Elections in Serbia are scheduled for 26 April, but the biggest opposition parties have announced that they will boycott them due to the unfair advantages they see from the side of the ruling parties.

The laws are not being implemented

The aforementioned laws address the misuse of public resources during a campaign – the use of municipal buildings, vehicles, websites and other resources to promote a single party. The “improved versions” of these laws, which further specify some terms and prohibitions, were adopted by the Assembly on 13 December 2019.

Back in November, however, program director of Transparency Serbia Nemanja Nenadić said for our portal that the proposed changes to the laws were “so minor, that it can be said that they were taken primarily to give the impression that there is a willingness to do something, and not to truly prevent abuse”.

Nenadić explained that even before the new laws were proposed, there had been no doubt that neither of these types of misuse of resources was allowed.

“On the other hand, there are forms of using the public function for party promotion, which are not banned even with the new laws, and would not be banned in the future. Of course, I am talking about of a “public officials’ campaign” – inventing formally official events with promotional potential at the time of the campaign”, he said.

Meeting of Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović with Tanja Fajon in October; Photo: Government of Serbia

And at the beginning of February 2020, there is no specific indication that the authorities will take the problem of the unfair advantage that its officials have over their competitors seriously, as noted by Milan Antonijević.

“I will remind you that CRTA (Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability) has initiated two misdemeanor proceedings against state authorities which, in their estimation, have violated their legal competencies, and so far we have had no answer. We have to wait and see how the laws are enforced. It is one thing to change the laws, and the other to see how they are applied”, he claryfies.

Public officials’ campaign and misuse of public resources, however, have only been one aspect of the electoral irregularities discussed by the participants of the dialogue. The other one concerned media coverage.

Can the public trust the media regulating bodies?

The “Implementation Timetable” envisaged four measures aimed at improving media reporting: the adoption of the new Rulebook by the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM), the election of new members of this body, its constant monitoring during the election campaign and the establishment of a National Assembly Monitoring Committee.

The very title of the REM Rulebook on the “obligations of the public media services during the election campaign” points to its potential shortcomings. The previous Rulebook, in force from 2015 to 2019, regulated “media service providers”, i. e. both public and private broadcasters. This is not the case now, and REM will only make “recommendations” for the private television channels.

Executive Director of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) Bojan Klačar tells EWB that this civil society organization, which has been monitoring elections in Serbia for over twenty years, is not satisfied that the rules do not apply to private media, but only to public service broadcasters.

“Also, the opportunity was missed to define the obligations of the public service regarding the monitoring of public officials in a stronger and more precise manner. It is commendable that REM envisages monitoring of the media in the election campaign and publication of reports, although it would be even more useful if the monitoring included the behavior of public officials outside the electoral blocs”, emphasizes Klačar.

It is questionable how much the new Rulebook, which does not contain drastic differences from the old one, will actually contribute to improving media coverage of elections and political actors. The backsliding in this area, recorded by organizations like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, took place during the implementation of the old Rulebook, which applied to both public and private media.

What could nevertheless amount to a significant difference, as noted by Milan Antonijević, is the announced reporting that REM will conduct on a weekly basis.

“REM has committed itself to weekly reports during the campaign, which will help us to see what our media space looks like, which politicians occupy the most space, whether there is a balance. Media monitoring is an exact thing – you can measure to a second how much of each politician had time, determine whether the reporting was positive or negative, and this is the data that REM itself has to publish”, Antonijević told EWB.

Whether REM will really improve its monitoring remains to be seen after the election of all new members, which is still pending, although the deadline in the Implementation Timetable was 31 December.

Another body that should improve the situation is the Monitoring Committee of the National Assembly, which is tasked with “the overall oversight of the actions of political parties, candidates and the media”. However, the influence of this body, founded by the parliament at the end of December, is highly questionable.

In addition to its merely advisory powers, at least half of its members have connections to the ruling party. These include actor Svetislav Goncić, candidate of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) for the last election in Belgrade, and narrator of several of the party’s election spots, as well as opera singer Aleksandar Stamatović, signatory of the “Appeal 1000+” of the public figures endorsing SNS.

Since its establishment, the Monitoring Committee has not given signs of life, and the opposition has already raised objections to its composition. The Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) also raised concerns about this body in its analysis of electoral conditions.

“Although the Monitoring Committee has formally been formed, it must be said that at the current time, there are a number of problems regarding its functioning, for which there is good faith that they will be addressed in the coming period. It primarily refers to the fact that for the time being, it is not known how the Committee will function, what will the methodology of its work be, how often it will meet, how much it will be visible to the public and how well it will work”, reads a recent CeSID publication.

The launch of an election campaign will definitely show whether the establishment of the Monitoring Committee has only served to tick another box in the electoral reform Timetable.

What is in the rest of the Timetable?

In addition to the issues of public officials’ campaigning and media reporting, the table also contains measures that should alleviate doubts about election irregularities on election day itself. As noted, extraordinary oversight of the Single Electoral Roll has been held, officials are being trained to maintain it, and the relevant Ministry has issued a Rulebook for this area.

In addition, the Republic Electoral Commission has organized training for members of polling station committees, and the status of domestic and foreign observers has been formally regulated, which will enable them to observe the whole process from start to finish. All of these measures have been marked as completed or are still ongoing, and their evaluation will have to wait for the election day. Nevertheless, neither of them relate to the most serious problems of electoral conditions raised by members of the opposition and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which mainly occur during the campaign, but not on election day itself.

Despite the relative success in adopting the measures in the Timetable, at least in formal terms, allegations of pressure on voters to vote for the ruling party in the upcoming elections are still reported on a regular basis. The appearance of opposition politicians on television channels with national coverage is slightly more frequent than in the previous period. However, no leader of the parties and movements that have declared a boycott except Vuk Jeremić has appeared on these channels since the start of the EP-mediated dialogue, not even after the “Declaration of boycott” was formally signed at the opposition rally on 1 February.

Vladimir Bilčik and Tanja Fajon; Photo: Tanjug / Tanja Valić

On the occasion of the arrival of European Parliament mediators Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik, as well as Commissioner Várhelyi, Milan Antonijević once again underlines the importance of adopting and implementing these reforms.

“These measures are not related to the decisions of individual parties to participate or not to participate in elections, these measures are related to one atmosphere in which elections in Serbia, as a country that wants to enter the EU, must take place. This is what the conditions for elections in a country that wants to be in the EU should look like – that will be the attitude of European mediators when they come to Belgrade”, he concludes.

The message is clear, and the seriousness of the authorities on this issue is indicated by the fact that, as in previous weeks, the focus of the visit of the EU mediators is likely to be something that no one has asked for during last year’s dialogues – lowering the electoral threshold.

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