European Western Balkans

Election day in Serbia: Massive irregularities even without true competition and uncertainty

Photo: CRTA

The final results of the June 21 election in Serbia are still unknown – the citizens had to rely on the projections of the election observers all the way until Friday, when the Republic Electoral Commission announced the results from 97,23% polling stations, simultaneously annulling the voting due to irregularities on the rest 2,77% of them, meaning that more than 200.000 citizens will have an opportunity to vote again on 1 July. Long-time election observers CRTA and CeSID noted both technical and major irregularities on the election day, with CRTA Programme Director Raša Nedeljkov assessing that they were the worst process this organisation has monitored.

These facts might have led an average observer familiar with the state of democracy in Serbia to believe that the campaign was contentious and that the ruling parties had to resort to irregularities to protect themselves from the rising opposition challenge. This was not the case. The main opposition parties boycotted the election, and every participant apart from the ruling coalition struggled to reach even a hastily lowered threshold of 3%.

In the absence of the biggest opposition coalition, the Alliance for Serbia, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has won around 60% of the vote – according to the 97% of the polling stations processed by the Republican Electoral Commission, this is about 1,9 million votes – a bit lower than “over two million” that the President of Serbia and SNS leader Aleksandar Vučić proclaimed in the election night, which was then quoted by all media outlets amidst the lack of the official numbers.

The 3% threshold was crossed only by two other parties – junior coalition partner Serbian Progressive Party and Serbian Patriotic Alliance of Novi Beograd mayor Aleksandar Šapić, which barely got to the required percentage. Several other parties were close to 3% – analysts believe that one or two of them may as well cross the threshold on 1 July, provided that citizens are not discouraged to go to the polls by the new rise of COVID-19 cases in Serbia. This would not change the overall distribution of seats in the parliament significantly, as SNS would still be left with a two-thirds majority. None of the parties having an opportunity to cross the threshold support Serbia’s accession to the European Union.

The turnout, declared by the President to be just above 50% in the election night, which was also picked up by all of the media in the following days, stands at around 48% at the 97% of the polling stations. It could reach the 50% nationally if the turnout at the repeated voting on 1 July is extremely high – an increasingly unlikely prospect. In any case, it remains the lowest for any parliamentary election in Serbia since 1990.

Reach 50% turnout by any means necessary

It was exactly this issue – how high will the turnout be – that lead to such a high number of irregularities, election observer CRTA pointed out in its preliminary findings of the election day. According to the organisation, the final turnout was 49% – if it was not for these irregularities, which included various pressures on the voters to go out and vote on the election day, it would have been around 45%.

Political scientist Boban Stojanović also believes that a high turnout was the main goal of the ruling party in the context of the election boycott.

“I personally did not expect that this would the most irregular election, because the whole process was observed from abroad as well. I expected that the SNS would try to raise the turnout as much as possible, but without so many irregularities, so that the observers would say that, even though the opposition boycotted, the process itself was more or less regular. Apparently, Vučić wanted the turnout to be above 50% whatever it took, but he was, as it seems, unsuccessful, which was in the end confirmed by REC as well”, Stojanović told European Western Balkans.

In his opinion, the irregularities on the election day cast a large shadow on the whole process, which was already boycotted by the main opposition parties. It is worrying that the ruling party was not able to organise an orderly voting despite the most predictable result in any recent election cycle, he says.

According to CRTA’s representative sample of polling stations, irregularities that could influence the result of the election were noted at 8 to 10% of the polling stations, which is twice as much as in 2016. This has led to its assessment that the election day was “on the verge of regularity”.

CRTA presenting the result of the election day monitoring

Throughout the election day, reports of people receiving phone calls and even visits from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party activists urging them to go out and vote were posted on social networks. Despite only being present in a limited capacity and not being able to comprehensively follow the process due to COVID-19, ODIHR Mission stated in its preliminary report that it had observed cases and received reports of violations of the campaign silence provisions in favour of the ruling party.

In addition to several technical irregularities, the most experienced election observer in the country, CeSID, noted several major irregularities in its preliminary report. Almost all of them are not new – the same types of behaviour have been present in Serbian elections for years.

„Major irregularities included parallel recordkeeping, undue pressure on voters at all levels to turn out, disturbances in or outside polling stations requiring police intervention, and obstruction of polling boards by individuals who were neither board members nor accredited election monitors“, CeSID wrote.

The most illustrating examples of election irregularities were the two cases of so-called “Bulgarian trains”, a practice in which the voters receive an already filled out ballot before entering the polling station and return the blank one as a proof that they have inserted the other in the ballot box. Two such cases were recorded by CRTA, as well as one case of apparent buying of votes and one case in which a person at a polling station had been observing what the voters circled on their ballot before inserting them in the box.

Many analysts have been stressing for years that the elections in Serbia are mostly regular on the election day itself, while the majority of the unfair conditions, such as media presence and abuse of public resources, are observable during the period of the campaign. This election has shown that not only is the situation not improving, it is moving in an opposite direction – instead of eliminating non-democratic practices on the election day, the ruling party seems to be letting them increase, if not organising them, as the cycles are passing by.

Massive annulments and accusations of fraud

Following the controversial campaign period and the election day, not even the aftermath of the process looked orderly enough to improve citizens’ trust in the process – once again, despite the fact that the ruling party scored a massive victory.

It took the Republican Electoral Commission four days to declare the final results for 97% of the polling stations, leaving citizens in the dark on whether the turnout actually crossed 50% and whether SNS’s number of votes indeed crossed 2 million benchmark, as announced by President Vučić in the election night. And even then, the results were delayed as the voting at 234 polling stations is to be repeated – this is an absolute record of annulments, the previous high point being only 15 polling stations in 2016.

The official explanation for the annulments was the inability of REC to determine the final results due to the irregularities in keeping of the record by the polling boards – if this is true, it represents another blow to the European Parliament-mediated dialogue between the government and the part of opposition, which included a pledge that the appropriate training of the polling board members will be conducted. This measure did not seem to be controversial at the time, but it apparently failed to achieve its purpose, given the record number of the annulments.

Republic Electoral Commission session; Photo: RIK

The Alliance for Serbia, opposition coalition that boycotted the election, accused the government of organising the repeat vote so that small parties that were close to 3% threshold could enter the parliament and make it appear more legitimate. The coalition also maintains that the turnout in the entire country did not cross more than 42% and that everything above is the result of a fraud.

Accusations of fraud have also been raised by “Enough is Enough” (DJB) movement, which participated in the election and remained around 20.000 votes short from the 3% threshold. It filed 2700 complaints to the Administrative Court, claiming that the results in the records kept by polling boards are not in line with the actual ballots. According to DJB, this proves that there was a deliberate attempt to rig the results so that the SNS could get as many votes as possible and raise the turnout – 2700 polling stations represent more than 25% of the total number. REC dismissed DJB’s complaints en masse, without checking the content of each of the ballot boxes.

Whatever the legal conclusion of the whole process turns out to be, the sheer number of irregularities during the whole election cycle, including the election day and the aftermath, will probably further undermine the citizens’ trust in the process, which largely contributed to the boycott of the elections. According to Boban Stojanović, the opposition should now seek a “Macedonian scenario”, referring to the 2015 Pržino agreement between the government and the opposition in the country which paved the way for the election results accepted by all political actors.

“Opposition should demand a more serous mediation of the international actors, political agreement which would entail a serious control of the election process, presence in the media and absence of the pressure on the voters”, Stojanović says.

He believes that the cooperation with international actors, such as the European Parliament, and extra-institutional pressure are the only way for the opposition to achieve its goal and reach an agreement that would solve the political crisis, which is just now getting serious.

“The goal of the opposition should be better conditions for regular presidential election of 2022 or a snap parliamentary election”, Stojanović concludes.

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