As the second phase of the inter-party dialogue in Serbia mediated by the European Parliament approaches, some of the measures adopted in the first phase are presented by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) as significant concessions and improvements of the electoral conditions despite making no impact on the fairness of the 2020 elections.
The dialogue, which took place from October to December 2019 in the National Assembly of Serbia, resulted in a table of measures, most of which were implemented, alongside several other changes to the electoral legislation. Nevertheless, many of the most talked-about reforms ended up as a box-ticking exercise.
That did not stop the ruling party from presenting these measures as a breakthrough.
“We have adopted such standards no opposition in this country could have dreamt of”, stated Vice President of the National Assembly and Chair of the Delegation to EU-Serbia SAPC Vladimir Orlić in a recent speech.
European Western Balkans previously assessed that the improvements brought about by the dialogue had been very limited. In the meantime, some of its elements have wrongly been hailed as a success by the SNS, as well as some EU representatives.
Lowering of the threshold – a measure that nobody requested
The decision of the Serbian Progressive Party to lower the threshold for entering the parliament from 5% to 3% this February was not even a part of the inter party dialogue, which focused on the electoral conditions rather than the elements of electoral system. MP Orlić still described it as a major concession to the opposition, allowing it to enter the parliament more easily.
While planning to hold the elections in April 2020, SNS announced that it would change the threshold in January and finalised the process in February. There was no cross-party support and no extensive consolation process on this reform, which also violated the good practice of not changing the rules so close to the election date.
Every observer has since explained the move as a reaction to the boycott of the majority of the opposition and the aim of SNS to make the parliament more legitimate by allowing smaller parties to cross the threshold. The estimation of the ruling party that, with the old threshold, the parliament would lack opposition parties, turned out to be correct – if the threshold had remained 5%, only the ruling SNS and SPS coalitions, together with the national minorities, would have entered the parliament. This way, right-wing SPAS also managed to win seats, ultimately joining the coalition government.
ODIHR election observation mission also emphasised this interpretation in its report.
“While these amendments allow for easier representation in parliament, several ODIHR SEAM interlocutors argued that such pluralism would not be genuine and that these changes were aimed at reducing the effect of the opposition boycott of the elections and could increase fragmentation of the political scene”, the report reads.
Following the elections, a “national unity government” was formed, ultimately leaving the parliament without meaningful opposition anyway.
Postponing of the original election date – for a week
Originally, elections were called for 26 April 2020. This has also been represented as a concession of the ruling party, which could have set an earlier date, but chose to leave more time for the improvements of the electoral conditions to be felt on the ground.
How big of a concession was this decision? According to the Constitution of Serbia, the President calls the elections 90 days before the expiration of the mandate of the current parliament, which was done on 4 March 2020. The Law on the Election of MPs stipulates that the elections must take place no less than 45 and no more than 60 days after the were called. This makes a window for the 2020 parliamentary elections between 18 April and 3 May 2020.
In other words, the ruling party has postponed the elections for a week, given that the earliest legal opportunity for them to be held was 19 April (elections in Serbia are traditionally taking place on Sunday). To put this into a perspective, opposition that boycotted the elections demanded at least nine months of fair electoral conditions for them to participate.
There were allegations that SNS planned to hold elections in March, which made their postponement for April a more meaningful concession. However, the elections in March would have been snap elections, held entirely due to the political considerations rather than real need for them. If the allegations are correct, they represent a problem in and of itself.
The ruling party even had another opportunity to make a true concession to the opposition, as the decision on the new election date was being made in May, since the date of 26 April had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least one opposition party, New Party, suggested the postponement of the elections for August or September, giving all the actors enough time to prepare in the new circumstances. SNS nevertheless set a new date for 21 June, capitalising on the fresh “victory against COVID”.
Supervisory Board of the National Assembly – a body that never addressed the public
One of the demands of the opposition was to set up a Supervisory Board of the National Assembly, a body that was supposed to monitor the elections, point at the violations of the democratic standards and release suggestions and warnings.
Throughout its existence, the Board never addressed the public, and the short reports on its sessions (less than ten in total) have now been removed from the website of the National Assembly.
The fact that the Board never addressed the public makes its existence meaningless. Its whole purpose, according to the Law, was to raise awareness of the fairness of the electoral process, since it did not have the power to sanction anybody.
The brief reports on the sessions of the Supervisory Board on the National Assembly’s website, which have since been removed, were not even planned, but started to appear only after Transparency Serbia intervened. 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. Additionally, the Board’s membership included several prominent SNS supporters and none of the experts for electoral process who could provide the body with additional credibility.
It is hard to believe that the Supervisory Board did not find anything to comment on during the elections, given the findings of other observers, including ODIHR. Its establishment seems to have been just a pointless, box-ticking exercise.
Regulatory Body for Electronic Media – skewed monitoring of the campaign
Election of five new members (out of nine) of the Regulatory Body for Electronic media was aimed at improving the work of this body leading up to the election campaign. REM had a responsibility to sanction television channels for violating the reporting standards and monitoring the presence of the political actors in the campaign.
There have been several pieces of criticisms against REM’s monitoring methodology. According to them, it was designed to create an impression that an overall media balance exists, contrary to the reality.
Firstly, REM was criticised for only comparing the presence of the opposition parties and the candidates on the parliamentary list of SNS. Looking at their presence this way, it is almost equal. However, President of Serbia and leader of SNS, Aleksandar Vučić, even though he was not a candidate in the 2020 elections, had the ruling party list named after him and had a dominant media presence throughout the campaign, and his activities constantly blurred the line between his official duties as President and campaign for SNS, which was also noted by ODIHR.
“Combining the roles of the president and leader of the ruling party, Mr. Vučić featured prominently in the campaign. His continued engagement as the head of state afforded him unparalleled public exposure, without clear differentiation of his roles”, the mission report reads.
Secondly, REM did not monitor the media during the state of emergency (15 March – 6 May) when the official campaign was suspended. During these seven weeks, opposition was virtually absent from the media with national coverage that only covered the state officials, primarily President Vučić – who did not have any formal role in the anti-COVID policy, but continued to feature prominently, nonetheless. The activities of the state officials during this period, ODIHR noted, at times took on the form of tacit campaigning.
Thirdly, 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. The smearing campaigns against the boycotting opposition, frequently seen on the pro-government television channels, would thus be included just as the total time these actors receive, distorting the perception of Serbia’s media scene.
Finally, REM reports gave equal weight to the time on national television channels and cable channels Nova S and N1, where the opposition is far more represented, but which only have a limited outreach, further distorting the actual balance of power in the media, which is heavily tilted towards SNS.
Continuation of the dialogue – essential issues must be tackled
According to the Executive Director of the Open Society Foundation in Serbia Milan Antonijević, who mediated the first phase of the inter-party dialogue in the summer of 2019, all technical issues have already been dealt with, leaving only the essential issues on the table.
The essential issues include establishing a true media balance, at least on the most-watched public broadcaster RTS, finding a way to prevent the pressure on voters working in the public sector to support the ruling party and reducing the blurring of the lines between state and party activities, especially in the case of President Vučić.
The opposition also demands that the local elections are held separately from those on the national level, because the merging of the elections on all levels changes the topics and dilutes campaign resources, helping the ruling party.
The improvements in these areas would represent true concessions of the ruling party, in contrast to what it currently claims it accepted during the first phase of the inter-party dialogue. That is, if the establishing of the conditions for free and fair elections should be considered a “concession” at all.