European Western Balkans

Elections in Serbia: Measures adopted in EP-mediated dialogue prove to be insufficient

Bilčik and Fajon meet with Vučić; Photo: Twitter/VladoBilcik

Although the Serbian Progressive Party is not in danger of losing power in the elections on 21 June, almost all activities that made previous election cycles problematic and led to a boycott of the part of the opposition and inter-party dialogue mediated by the Members of the European Parliament have been observed in this campaign as well.

The dialogue, in which MEPs Vladimir Bilčik and Tanja Fajon played the most notable roles, resulted in a so-called “Implementation Timetable” of measures aimed at improving the election conditions. As our portal wrote back in February, the adoption of measures in this table was only a formal basis for improving the conditions, while the actual change will require their implementation in practice. The findings of domestic observers and the behavior of the ruling party in the past four months, however, show that this implementation was lacking. Therefore, the Implementation Timetable, as it turned out, was insufficient to improve the election conditions.

Among the main problems of election conditions in Serbia addressed in the dialogue was the practice of using public resources – buildings, vehicles, websites – belonging to all citizens, in favor of promoting the ruling party, in addition to the already documented unequal media coverage on the national television channels. Added to this is the intensive organization of seemingly neutral activities of public officials, which actually aim to promote the ruling parties. The Implementation Timetable tried to solve these problems and, apparently, failed.

Abuse of public resources and the campaign of state officials have continued

The first item in the Implementation Timetable concerned the ban of the use of public resources in a political campaign. The measure envisaged for solving this problem was the adoption of the amendments to several laws that regulate this area, which additionally specify some terms and prohibitions.

Back in November, however, the program director of Transparency Serbia, Nemanja Nenadić, assessed for our portal that the proposed changes to these laws were “so minor, that it can be said with certainty that they were taken primarily to create the impression that there is readiness to do something and not to really prevent abuse”.

“On the other hand, using the public function for party promotion, which is not banned now, will not be banned in the new versions of the laws either. Of course, I am talking about the campaign of the public officials, who invent events with promotional potential during the campaign”, Nenadić said for EWB at the time. The presence of President Vučić, who is not formally a candidate in this election, at the opening of the Science and Technology Institute in Niš on 9 June, during which he talked about future investments and jobs, would fit nicely into this definition.

So, what did the monitoring of the situation in the coming months show, especially after the election campaign continued on 11 May, following the state of emergency due to COVID-19?

“The fact is that in the two weeks since the campaign continued, we have counted 250 events that testify that officials use their position to promote their party, as if everything they built was not done with public funds,” said Raša Nedeljkov, Program Director of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) in an interview with N1 in late May. According to the findings of this organization, the campaign of public officials continued at full speed.

For the period from March 4 to May 24, when the election campaign was conducted in two separate periods, CRTA submitted eight complaints to the Anti-Corruption Agency for the campaign of public officials, misuse of public resources and violation of funding regulations.

Undoubtedly, the most notable policy of the Government in the past month was to indiscriminately allocate 100 Euros of aid to the citizens after the pandemic (average salary in Serbia is around 500 Euros). In addition, 4,000 RSD (some 35 Euros) of aid were paid to pensioners. It is noticeable, according to the Transparency Serbia, that the ruling party takes the credit for the paid amounts.

“In the letter that arrived at the addresses of all pensioners in Serbia, the state is mentioned only once, as a state that with its diligent work ensured that “we” – the signatories Aleksandar Vučić and Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), distributed 100 Euros and 4,000 RSD to pensioners”, stated Zlatko Minić from Transparency.

In addition to the 100 Euros received by all citizens who applied for the assistance, what SNS supporters will also probably remember from the time of the Coronavirus is that President Vučić, although without any formal authority, was the face of the state’s response to the pandemic, and that he personally accompanied the medical equipment to the cities of Novi Pazar and Niš.

President Vučić visits the storage of medical equipment; Photo: Presidency of Serbia

“Although there were no public gatherings, the campaign actually (during the state of emergency) continued in the gray zone, regardless of the long-term dialogue in which it was insisted that the campaign of the public officials should be completely avoided. Thus, party slogans and political messages were used at events that were not related to the elections, with the indirect promotion of the Serbian Progressive Party and its programme”, reads the analysis of the election process of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID).

Reports of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media: Serbian oppositions seems to have the best treatment in the world

The Implementation Timetable envisaged four measures for solving the problem of unequal media treatment of the government and the opposition: election of new members of the Council of the Regulatory Body of the Electronic Media (REM), adoption of regulations for public media services in the campaign, recommendations for private televisions and regular monitoring of the election process. Promised – fulfilled. Now one just needs to look at how much the measures taken had an impact on improving the media scene.

According to CRTA’s monitoring of television channels with national coverage, during the first 12 days of the campaign in March, ruling parties received 91% of the time devoted to political actors, opposition parties that chose to run in the elections 6%, and parties that opted boycotted 3% of the time. The ruling parties had 47% positive and 52% neutral reporting, while the boycotting opposition received 34% neutral reporting and 66% of negative reporting.

After the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic continued to worsen, the state of emergency was imposed on 15 March and lifted on 6 May after 52 days. During that period, which no doubt influenced public opinion and voter preferences, members of the ruling majority had absolute dominance with 91% of the time devoted to political actors on national television channels within the “extended prime time”, according to the results of CRTA’s monitoring.

Following the formal resumption of the campaign on 11 May, CRTA notes a bit more balanced coverage between the government and the opposition on nationally-covered television: by 24 May, 60% of the time was devoted to the ruling coalition, 28% for the opposition participating in the elections and 12% for the boycotting opposition. The most represented political actor from March 4 to March 16 and from May 12 to May 24 was President Aleksandar Vučić, who, despite not being a candidate in this election, “lent” his name to the list of the Serbian Progressive Party.

After the lifting of the state of emergency, apparently, there is a movement towards something that looks more like a media balance. It should, of course, be borne in mind that this was done in favor of the opposition which is running in the elections, none of who represents even a remote challenge to the ruling party in terms of opinion polls, with many of these actors refraining from the serious criticism of the SNS.

Media; Photo: European Union

In anticipation of full reports on the campaign, however, it can be said that the extreme imbalance that existed at its beginning and during the state of emergency, as well as the fact that the boycotting opposition is still completely marginalized on national TV channels, is a sufficient proof that the measures envisaged in the Implementation Timetable were not enough to sort out the situation on the media scene.

Such a conclusion, however, could not be drawn from the reports of the media monitoring that the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media, as planned in the Implementation Timetable, started to publish on its website, but only during the formal period of the campaign. According to these reports, the Alliance for Serbia, a coalition boycotting the elections, had almost twice as much media time between the Serbian Progressive Party between 11 and 22 May, making Serbia probably one of the most democratic countries in the world when it comes to the position of the political opposition.

Are these monitoring results realistic – that is, as REM Council member Olivera Zekić would assess, “Media Monitoring Bible” – or is the way the media is monitored still problematic? According to the Bureau of Social Research (BIRODI), the big mistake of REM’s way of monitoring is that it does not contain an analysis of tonality – positive, negative or neutral, as well as that the media representation of President Aleksandar Vučić is not measured, since he is formally not the candidate. The attacks on the boycotting opposition, frequently seen on the pro-government television channels, would thus be included as the total time these actors receive, distorting the perception of Serbia’s media scene.

The Alliance for Serbia further pointed out that the REM reports give equal weight seconds on national television channels and cable channels, where the opposition is far more represented, but which are only available to only a third of the population.

Does the controversy that the work of REM continues to provoke in the public mean that the measures in the Implementation Timetable have achieved their goal? The final answer will wait for the overall results of the various monitoring, but at the moment it seems very clear.

Supervisory Board of the National Assembly: How many citizens know that this body even exists?

The establishment of the Supervisory Board of the National Assembly was marked as a significant measure in favor of improving the election conditions, and represented as such by the European Parliament’s Rapporteur for Serbia, Vladimir Bilčik. Since its establishment in February, this body has held four sessions, which have remained almost completely invisible to the public. The brief reports on the sessions on the National Assembly’s website were not even planned, but started to appear only after Transparency Serbia intervened.

It is the media presence, together with credible membership, that should be the basis of the Supervisory Board’s influence, because this body, as stipulated by the Law on Elections of Members of Parliament, can only monitor the election process, propose measures and address the public – in other words, it has no authority to sanction any conduct. However, as already mentioned, this body lacks visibility in public and members who are perceived as objective.

Seat of the National Assembly of Serbia; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Out of four sessions, the first elected the president of the Supervisory Board – actor Svetislav Goncić, a well-known supporter of the Serbian Progressive Party and the narrator of several of its campaign videos. At the second session, held on 20 May, 2020, the rules of procedure of the Board were adopted, although at that time 21 days of the formal election campaign had already passed. At the remaining two meetings, on 27 May and 4 June, apparently nothing notable happened, since the media continued to ignore the work of the Board.

The work of this body, due to the membership that foes not instill trust – in addition to Goncić, there are several other signatories of the Appeal in Support of Aleksandar Vučić during previous election cycles such as opera singer Aleksandar Stamatović – did not promise from the beginning. Despite reports from other organizations, the Supervisory Board has so far failed to take any significant action, leaving no place for optimism until the end of the process.

Observers of the elections have the widest set of rights yet – if they are able to come to Serbia

Another measure from the Implementation Timetable that has been fulfilled, but which obviously will not achieve the desired effect, concerns the rights of election observers. The Republic Election Commission recently adopted a Rulebook according to which observers were given rights they did not have before – now they can observe the entire work of the polling boards, not only while the polling station is open. They can also monitor the work of the working bodies of the Republic Election Commission, which are, among other things, in charge of taking over the materials from the polling boards and handing them over to the REC coordinators.

And while domestic observers such as CeSID and CRTA will benefit from the new rules, observation of these elections will be of much smaller scope than originally planned. The European Parliament’s Observation Mission will not be able to come due to the still present risk of Cornavirus. For the same reason, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is present in these elections only to a limited extent, without comprehensive and systematic monitoring of voting and counting on election day.

If the ruling party had decided to take the step proposed by the opposition gathered in the Alliance for Serbia and postponed the elections for a further few months, all observers could be present and follow the process in full, dispelling suspicions that there were any serious irregularities. This was also pointed out by the MEPs from the ranks of the group of Socialist and Democrats in last week’s letter addressed to Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi.

Pressures on voters left out from the Table

All remaining measures listed in the Implementation Timetable refer to potential irregularities on election day itself, and have been met. Extraordinary supervision of the Single Electoral Roll was held, officials were trained to maintain it, and the Ministry issued a manual for that purpose. Also, the Republic Election Commission organized training course for members of polling boards. All these activities, as our portal wrote earlier, do not refer to the most difficult problems of election conditions, which mostly happen during the campaign, but not on election day itself.

On the other hand, one of the most serious phenomena that violates the balance of the election game – the pressure on voters – was not included in the Implementation Timetable at all. And, as reports from domestic observers show, it also remains present.

“In the reporting period, CRTA observers recorded a total of 38 cases of pressure on voters in almost 30 cities and municipalities. In most cases, the goal of the pressure was to sign support for the lists participating in the elections. The pressures were carried out by telephone or in person. Among the most common ways of pressure, citizens cited threats of losing their job, as well as the loss of access to the services of state institutions. Most of the cases were recorded in public institutions as well as in public and private companies,” CRTA’s report for the period until 24 May reads. The registered cases most likely represent only scratching on the surface of this problem, which has been present in Serbia for many years.

The analysis of the fulfillment of the obligations committed to by the ruling party in the inter-party dialogue shows that the measures were adopted, but that they were insufficient – in other words, the least common denominator found between the ruling coalition, part of the opposition, international actors and domestic civil society was insufficient to improve electoral conditions in Serbia. While these elections appear to represent a lost chance to improve the situation, taking the failure of the Implementation Timetable as a lesson for some future talks would undoubtedly be its positive contribution.

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