Before the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000, elections were neither free nor fair and were fraught with irregularities, threats, and abuses, with the fraudulent local elections of 1996 leading to 78 days of student demonstrations. Political change was not the result of a vote for the Serbian parliament: it took a parliamentary and presidential election for the Yugoslav Federation as it existed then, which was held on 24 September 2000, to start the process. The events of 5 October 2000 saw more than a million Serbians take to the streets to defend their votes and prevent electoral fraud. Nearly all aspects of the 2000 election were undemocratic: (1) the Yugoslav constitution had been amended a mere ten weeks before the vote, threatening the equality of Serbia and Montenegro, two members of the federation; (2) there had been two assassination attempts on opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, and former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic had been abducted and then murdered; and (3) independent media operated in an environment of fear and faced retribution due to the restrictive 1998 regulations.
Not to be forgotten: the 2000 election
The crucial election took place in an undemocratic environment, and the events that ensued from 24 September to 5 October 2000 played out as either a thriller or a black comedy, depending on the observer’s point of view. The election itself was marred by many irregularities and implausible episodes. The electoral administration had put the official voter figure at 7,861,372, nearly 200,000 more than in 1997, but turnout numbers were calculated based on a total of under 7.3 million, 600,000 fewer than had been published. Serbian monitors were not allowed to observe the election. The electoral body made its first public appearance only on 26 September, two days after the vote, both attracting ridicule and causing concern amongst the public in the tense post-election atmosphere. For the first and only time in the history of Serbia’s multi-party politics, the official result was wholly at odds with fundamental logic and simple arithmetic, and the figures coming in from Kosovo clearly revealed that fraud had been committed. To cite only one example, the polling station at the patriarchate of Peć never opened, but the results showed 4,601 voters had cast their ballots there – with nearly all of them, 4,575, voting for the ruling party (Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia).
These were the circumstances in which the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, a Serbian watchdog that had observed the election in spite of constant harassment, had the courage to announce, at 2 am on election night, that opposition presidential candidate Vojislav Koštunica had won in the first round of the poll with 56.82% of the vote. Contesting the initial results, the opposition coalition filed a complaint with the electoral body, which was rejected, and then went on to lodge an appeal with the Constitutional Court. The Court’s ruling formally required a repeat of the poll, but this was shelved under pressure from the public in the 5 October demonstrations, so on 7 October the administration officially declared Mr Kostunica the first-round winner.
Normalisation and progress
The first parliamentary poll after the fall of Milosevic was a prelude to the normalisation of the electoral process in that the election was free and mostly fair, with no fraud at polling stations, and any issues generally occurring not on election day itself but during the campaign – and mainly involving media reporting, political finance, and abuse of public resources. The difficult legacy of the 1990s and the missed opportunity to promote democracy in the constitutional referendum in late October 2006 meant that elections remained fraught with problems until 2007. By any measure, the 2006 constitutional referendum was amongst the most poorly organised electoral processes since 2000, so it is only starting in 2007 that we can report elections free of any polling day issues that meet the minimum criteria for electoral democracy. This trend remained in evidence in the following poll of 2008 only to end in 2012, even though that year’s election was in all likelihood the most democratic vote ever in Serbia, not because it was flawless, but owing to the abundance of political pluralism, a vibrant political scene, and the legitimacy of all participants.
Neglect of electoral reform leads to stagnation
Even though polls held from 2000 to 2012 were able to meet basic democratic criteria, they were fraught by a multitude of problems caused by systemic neglect of the regulatory and institutional framework which had made the electoral process wholly dependent on political parties, so making it exceptionally vulnerable in the Serbian context, where democracy and political parties were always under threat. Serbia’s electoral law was adopted on the eve of the December 2000 poll at the initiative of nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, and, although intended only as a stopgap solution, it has remained in force to this day. The electoral administration is dependent on political parties and lacks permanence, its own funds, and a professional secretariat. Whilst parties thrived in Serbia in the first 12 years after 2000, politics oscillated between moderate and polarised pluralism, to use Sartori’s typology. During this time, the electoral process met the requirements for minimal or weak democracy.
Deterioration after 2014
The weakening of Serbia’s democracy after 2014 has been recognised by numerous global democracy indexes, some of whose trends reveal the country has slid back even if it has formally remained a ‘defective’ or ‘flawed’ democracy. For the first time since 2003, Serbia held the 2020 election as a ‘transitional or hybrid regime’ (according to Freedom House). In effect, this means that Serbia has entered an entirely new stage in its evolution, one characterised by political competition in elections fraught by many irregularities that jeopardise the equality of those who contest them, whilst fragile institutions face numerous challenges in safeguarding civil rights. Even though Serbia was always regarded as a weak democracy, since 2016 the political playing field has been skewed in favour of the ruling party. The democratic deficit did not appear immediately after the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) took power in 2012, but took hold only two years later, owing to the combined impact of three adverse factors: erosion of the democratic capacity of parliament, consolidation of all intelligence information under the control of the ruling party; and dissolution of the political opposition (which began with a split in the Democratic Party, once the largest political force). All elections since 2014 have remained relatively free (as competition was never openly suppressed and there was never any overt voter coercion), but not fair, due to unequal access to the media and abuse of public office for political campaigning.
Where to now?
The opposition ought to start with parliament, the key institution in Serbia’s modified semi-presidential system. Parliament must have autonomy and the ability to discuss issues of importance for democracy, but, even more importantly, must be able to control the omnipotent executive. The first step required to start this process is reforming the political, and in particular the electoral, system to change the rules of the game that are conducive to institutional capture, deideologisation, political unaccountability, and particracy. These reforms ought to bring about a pluralism that serves as the most effective barrier against competitive authoritarianism in weak democracies.
Research done by CeSID suggests that Serbians have yet to give up on democracy, but their patience may be wearing thin. Until 2005, democracy was the only game in town for the Serbian public, but authoritarian tendencies have been on the increase ever since, leading one-quarter of the population to agree in 2014 that ‘in some cases an undemocratic government may be better than a democratic one’.