Plenary hall of the National Assembly of Serbia; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With the adoption of amendments to the election laws on 10 May, the National Assembly of Serbia concluded the additional sessions that it had to hold after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of the state of emergency. It first returned to work on 28 April, even though the state of emergency was declared as early as 15 March. Why it took 45 days to confirm the state of emergency, although the Constitution clearly states that, if the parliament does not declare it itself, it should do so in the next 48 hours or as soon as it is able to meet, remains unclear.

We remind that the Speaker of the Assembly, Maja Gojković, explained the decision not to convene the session after the declaration of the state of emergency due to epidemiological reasons and measures of the Government that limited the gathering of more than 50 people at that time. These measures, in the case of the National Assembly, could only have been a recommendation, since the Government cannot prohibit the parliament from meeting.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić explained at the session that the Assembly could not meet in March due to the high percentage of infected people, which was double-digit at the time of the declaration of the state of emergency, and dropped to less than 5% only at the end of April.

The Prime Minister presented accurate data when it comes to percentages – but she did not mention that it was a consequence of a much larger scope of testing. The day before the introduction of the state of emergency, on 14 March, only 29 tests were performed, and COVID-19 was determined in 11 people. The day before the first session in a state of emergency, on 27 April, 3614 people were tested, of which 233 were positive.

Was the risk really higher in March? Or, perhaps, it took a full 44 days to deliver the masks, gloves and transparent partitions used by the MPs in the Assembly?

“The question is who determined that the National Assembly cannot meet, and in which way. I cannot enter into an epidemiological assessment of the danger or risk of the Assembly meeting or not. It is possible that the session of the Assembly would have been a big risk at the moment of the beginning of the epidemic, for the deputies, but also for all the employees in the Assembly. But for me, as an MP, it is unacceptable that nobody from the Assembly asked and decided whether the Assembly can and should meet, nor insisted that the Assembly evaluate it itself”, says Nataša Vučković, a member of the opposition Democratic Party, for EWB.

In her opinion, it was certainly possible and there was no risk for the Administrative Committee to meet and express its position, or that the Speaker of the Assembly Maja Gojković at least discusses the circumstances with the heads of the parliamentary groups.

“It simply came to our notice then. Even later, there was no attempt to organize the session online, although some other parliaments resorted to this practice. There were those which, like the British one, interrupted their work, but also others, such as the Croatian Parliament, which met in another space”, notes Vuckovic.

As our portal wrote in April, all parliaments of EU member states have found a way to meet, either by switching to remote work, by moving to a larger space or reducing the quorum. Only in Serbia, it seems, have these logistical problems proved insurmountable. Either that, or the reason, as Nataša Vučković notes, was not of a technical nature.

“Given the general disparaging attitude of the ruling majority towards the parliament, democratic parliamentary culture and the principle of separation of powers, we cannot escape the belief that a sense of the omnipotence of the executive was the deciding factor,” she said.

It is significant in this sense that the announcement of the final meeting of the parliament was not announced to the public by Maja Gojković, but by the President Aleksandar Vučić.

Political scientist Boban Stojanović also thinks that the justification that the National Assembly complied with the measures of the Government restricting the gathering is groundless.

“The Government cannot ban the parliament from working, especially not in these circumstances, when it is the National Assembly that decides on the state of emergency. Vučić wanted a play for the public in which he is the one who declares a state of emergency and who is almost the master of life and death in Serbia. And I think that the session at the end of April is exclusively the result of external pressure and the fact that the Serbian parliament is almost the only one that did not work”, says Stojanović.

The first EU representatives to notice that the Serbian parliament had not met for a month were the Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Serbia, Tanja Fajon, and the EP Rapporteur for Serbia, Vladimir Bilčik.

“I call on the authorities of the Western Balkan countries to ensure the constitutional role of parliaments in monitoring the measures taken to combat COVID-19. Suspending democracy is not an option in these difficult times,” Fajon wrote on Twitter on 15 April, while Bilčik added that parliaments must monitor the measures taken to fight the spread and influence of COVID-19, because they represent the voice of the citizens.

If the interpretation that the opinion of European parliamentarians has a greater influence on whether the National Assembly meets than the opinion of the public in Serbia is correct, it indicates a state of deep (self)isolation of the formally most important democratic institution in the country. The way the session was finally conducted does not inspire much optimism about what the next parliament will look like and what its role will be.

Return to the bad habits

Twelve additional days of sessions in late April and early May, although held during the national crisis, failed to unite the MPs. Instead of exclusively pandemic measures, the government representatives also dealt with the new attacks on the opposition, which was accused of being on the side of COVID-19. The opposition gathered in the Alliance for Serbia again boycotted the sessions, several opposition MPs were removed from the hall due to non-compliance with the protective measures, as well as the leader of right-wing Dveri, Boško Obradović, for blowing a whistle. Despite the fact that a state of emergency was debated on and confirmed, this session will probably remain the most remembered for the clash between the MPs and activists of Dveri with the MPs of the Serbian Progressive Party and the Government Ministers, taking place in front of the building.

The debate in the plenary itself did not pass without controversy. Opposition MPs who participated in the session had objections to the merging of all measures adopted by the Government during the state of emergency, i.e. 44 decrees, into a single draft law.

This practice reminded of the earlier merging of dozens of legal proposals into one session, making it is physically impossible to scrutinise all of them. The Budget Law for 2018 was passed, for example, within the agenda with 62 legislative proposals. After the beginning of the boycott of the parliament by the opposition in 2019 and the Report of the European Commission, which stated that the practices of the ruling majority violated the functions of the parliament, Speaker Maja Gojković promised a “package of measures” which seemed to eradicate this problem. Whether this was just an incidental episode or proof that the problem was not actually permanently removed remains to be seen.

Finally, after the lifting of the state of emergency, this session was used for another amendment to the election laws, six weeks before the parliamentary and local elections on June 21. In February, the electoral threshold was lowered from 5% to 3% with little to no public debate, and on this occasion, the options for verifying the signatures necessary for submitting the electoral list were expanded – this can now be done by a public notary, city and municipal administration, and the basic court.

According to Boban Stojanović, there is no objective justification for such changes at this time.

“We had changes of the election rules before the elections, which is problematic, and now we have a change during the campaign itself or at least between the two parts of the campaign stopped due to the Coronavirus. The only goal of these changes is to make it easier for smaller parties that are part of the government or close government to collect signatures, and I believe that now, through abuses of municipal and city services, a large number of signatures will be forged,” he said.

He explains that a large number of parties, even the ruling ones, had a problem collecting signatures for local elections in some local governments, and that this legislative change goes in their favor.

“This move only further speaks of how many institutions and rules do not actually exist,” says Stojanovic.

Program Director of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) Raša Nedeljkov reminds for our portal that it is good practice that election laws should not be changed in an election year because it leads to some uncertainty, and thus to a possible decline in public confidence in the election process .

“We can see the changes we are talking about here as a forced solution in order to avoid gathering more people in one place,” he says.

However, he adds that these “technical” changes have a serious shortcoming that was noticed in the 2016 elections, when there were 15,000 forged signatures on seven electoral lists.

“It is now important that the competent institutions inform the public how they will ensure that there is no such mass falsification of signatures. One of the main, priority recommendations of the OSCE / ODIHR International Monitoring Mission was to find a new solution for signature verification, which was done through notaries. However, due to the circumstances, we are returning to the old, bad solution”, he concludes.

At the moment, it is impossible to predict what the newly-elected National Assembly will look like, how long it will last and what topics it will deal with. What is certain, however, is that if the approach of citizens and MPs to this institution does not change soon, the Government will have to, in addition to its recent attempt of rebuttal of the Freedom House “Nations in Transit” report, write reactions to many other reports on the further decline of democracy in Serbia.