HRW World Report 2000: Chapter on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Serbia: Elections Unlikely to be Free or Fair
A Human Rights Watch Press Backgrounder
In the beginning of September, Politika, the main government-controlled newspaper in Serbia, published an editorial accusing opposition leaders of treachery, calling them "individuals who entered the sixth decade of their lives without ever having done anything practical," "well-fed dogs," and "Freemasons." It calls one opposition leader a "small greenfly with a huge appetite," and a third a "mistress of an American." It concludes: "So, this is the Democratic Opposition of Serbia. A hodge-podge of nothingness. There is a stench against which even holding one's nose does not help. Sometimes it is necessary to throw out the garbage!"

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 This is the political atmosphere the government has created in the run-up to the September 24 elections for the Yugoslav president and parliament, as well as for municipal assemblies in Serbia. The opposition presidential candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, is favored in the most recent polls to defeat Slobodan Milosevic. But in the past two months, the authorities in Belgrade have engaged in an unparalleled effort to ensure that support for the opposition does not translate into an electoral victory. The stakes could not be higher for Milosevic, who is desperate to avoid facing trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The elections are not taking place in an atmosphere supportive of free choice: the government has carried out a pre-election campaign of intimidation and violence against the opposition, and through a brutal abuse of state media it seeks to prevent the electorate from making an informed judgment about the contestants. There are also numerous indications that the elections will not be fair, since the electoral laws allow for gross and unchecked fraud during voting and vote-counting.

According to a number of opinion polls conducted in August, Vojislav Kostunica is supported by 35 to 40 percent of voters, whereas only 20 to 25 percent favor President Milosevic. Kostunica is the president of the nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia (DS), but he is backed by a wide spectrum of opposition groups that have united in the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS). DOS includes liberal parties, parties representing national minorities in Serbia, and moderate nationalists. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Otpor (Resistance), an important student-led group of government opponents, also support Kostunica. Milosovic's party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), is supported by the Yugoslav Left (JUL), the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), and Montenegro's Socialist People's Party (SNP) .


 The current state of civil and political rights in Serbia forecloses the prospect of voters exercising genuinely free choice in the elections. Opposition candidates lack equitable media access, particularly in the broadcast media. The government has also detained, harassed, and beaten opposition party members and their supporters and has sought to shut down movements advocating a high voter turnout.

Unbalanced media coverage

 Pro-government candidates overwhelmingly dominate the media. State-owned outlets provide only savagely critical or blatantly misleading coverage of the opposition and its supporters. A commentary on Radio Television Serbia (RTS), the main news program, for example, appealed to anti-Muslim sentiments by claiming that support for Vojislav Kostunica by the leaders of the Muslims in Sandzak, Serbia's southern region, meant that Kostunica promised an independent Sandzak if elected (1).

 The independent Strategic Marketing Agency in Belgrade studied political coverage of RTS's current affairs programs during the last week of August, finding that RTS broadcast 820 appearances by SPS and JUL officials, in a total of nine hours and thirty-eight minutes of favorable coverage; twenty one minutes were devoted to the opposition DOS, always in a negative context.

 In the municipalities governed by the opposition, media outlets that are not controlled by the Serbian government are subjected to intense government pressure. Since mid-August, the signals of independent television stations in Smederevska Palanka, Kraljevo, and Leskovac have been either jammed or overpowered by the signal of the state-owned RTS. Newspapers critical of the authorities struggle to obtain newsprint, as the only Yugoslav printing company, state-owned Matroz, refuses to sell such outlets sufficient amounts, and the authorities prohibit importing newsprint.

Intimidation, Violence, and Other Obstruction of the Opposition and Get-Out-the-Vote Campaign

 Police stepped up harassment and intimidation of DOS members in August, detaining and physically abusing many of them. Police also continue their five-month intensive campaign of intimidation against Otpor.

On August 15, the president of the local branch of the opposition Democratic Party (DS) in Jagodina, Petar Jovanovic, was interrogated for four hours after the police found printed campaign material in his car. On August 17 police interrogated Miodrag Isakov, president of the Reform Democratic Party of Vojvodina (RDSV), for three hours. Isakov is a deputy in the federal parliament, and was returning by car from Hungary when he was detained at the border. On August 25, police detained two senior officials of the DS and five colleagues who were on their way to a pre-election town meeting in a village near Belgrade. The DS members were released after spending two and a half hours in detention. On September 2, the police beat Mile Milic, a DOS candidate for the municipal assembly in Lajkovac, after arresting him while he was hanging DOS posters. The next day, benefiting from this climate of impunity, SPS activists severely beat a juvenile who was hanging DOS posters in Indjija.

The police have also continued to harass Otpor, arresting hundreds of activists and beating dozens since July. In August alone, according to Otpor spokespeople, police detained 122 members, and beat at least ten who were in custody. An Otpor spokesmen claimed on September 6 that 250 activists had been detained in the ten previous days. The authorities initially tried to justify the crackdown by denouncing Otpor as a "terrorist organization," a charge so absurd that the authorities soon dropped it. Harassment intensified beginning in mid-August, when Otpor launched a campaign ("He's Finished!") calling for a high turnout of young voters in the elections. On September 4, the police raided Otpor's headquarters in Belgrade, confiscating computers, posters, and the like. Police in Vladicin Han tortured six Otpor activists for three hours in September, one of whom spoke at length about his ordeal on the B2-92 radio station. A photograph of the victim, clearly showing his bruises, was posted to B2-92's website.

Police have also banned or hindered activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) advocating high voter turnout. On August 30, for example, the Belgrade police stopped NGO activists from distributing campaign material at nine checkpoints in the city.


 An array of poorly drafted laws facilitate election fraud, which Serbian officials actively exploited in the 1996 and 1997 elections. Pro-government parties dominate electoral commissions and polling boards, making it difficult for the opposition to monitor the use of a wide variety of techniques for the manipulation of the electoral process, including ballot stuffing and tampering with voter registration lists. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the 1997 elections, found widespread fraud and made a series of recommendations to address it, all of which the Serbian government ignored.

Composition of Electoral Commissions Favors Ruling Parties

Under laws regulating the forthcoming elections—the federal Law on Election and Cessation of Tenure of the President of the Republic, the Law on Elections to the Chamber of Citizens, the Law on Elections to the Chamber of Republics, and the Serbian Law of Local Self-Government—electoral commissions and polling boards organize and conduct the vote. The laws enable the parties loyal to Slobodan Milosevic to dominate the composition of all polling boards and most electoral commissions.

Three sets of electoral commissions run the elections: at the top of the hierarchy is the Federal Electoral Commission (FEC); district electoral commissions (UECs)(2) are responsible for the conduct of federal elections in Serbia's twenty-six electoral districts; and municipal electoral commissions (MECs) conduct analogous activities for municipal elections. In addition, polling boards at every polling station conduct voting and count votes.

The Yugoslav parliament, which is heavily dominated by Milosevic supporters, has appointed nearly all of the FEC's fourteen members; this hegemony is reproduced at the district level, since the FEC appoints UEC members. The FEC also issues instructions implementing federal election laws, announces final voting results, and establishes media coverage rules for the campaign period.

The district electoral commissions have thirteen members, each with eleven from the government or pro-government parties. They set up polling stations and polling boards in each district, announce lists of candidates, determine the number of ballots for each polling station, certify ballots and hand them over to the polling boards, tally the results of voting in the electoral unit as a whole, and declare the distribution of parliamentary seats gained by each party or coalition.

Municipal electoral commissions have a minimum of eight members. Out of 140 municipalities in Serbia (not including Kosovo), about one hundred municipalities are governed by the members of the ruling coalition, SPS and JUL, and their commissions are staffed mostly by the SPS/JUL members.

Composition of Polling Boards Also Favors Ruling Parties

Approximately 10,000 polling boards run the voting at polling stations throughout the country. The polling boards are appointed by the district commissions; in most municipal elections, however, polling boards are appointed by municipal electoral commissions. But, since the municipal elections this year will be held simultaneously with the presidential and parliamentary polls, the polling boards set up for the federal elections will also run the municipal elections. As a consequence, polling boards in municipalities governed by the opposition and the ruling coalition alike will be set up by district electoral commissions dominated by Milosevic's coalition.

At least three members of each polling board are appointed by the district electoral commission; the rest are representatives of parties fielding candidates in the electoral district. The appointed members and the two representatives of the ruling parties (one representing SPS/JUL, the other SRS) will together always outnumber the two opposition representatives (from the DOS and SPO).

While the text of the laws makes clear that appointed members of the polling boards have deputies, a similar privilege is not expressly provided for party representatives. It is physically impossible for the few opposition representatives, therefore, to be present at all times to guard against the many forms of fraud that other polling board members may engage in during the entire course of the vote and vote count.(3) The presence of deputies as observers would significantly strengthen their control.

Election Fraud

Some past examples The methods used in the 1996 municipal elections, illustrated below, suggest the types of abuses to which electoral commissions dominated by ruling parties' members may resort.

The SPS/JUL-dominated MEC in Palilula, a municipality in Belgrade, annulled results, signed by the members of polling boards, that favored the opposition. The justification was that an opposition activist had taken food and drink to the opposition members of the board, breaching the provision which prohibits "displaying political party symbols or other propaganda material at the polling station or within 50 meters from the station."

In Pirot, the MEC annulled the results at a polling station because the president of the polling board, appointed by the SPS-dominated local assembly, stated post facto that voters were permitted to vote without identity documents. He did not substantiate the claim with concrete examples, and the minutes signed at the polling station made no mention of such cases.

The city electoral commission in Nis, Serbia's second-largest city, overturned an opposition victory by conducting a second ballot count. During the second count, according to a 1997 study by a group of prominent Belgrade lawyers, the commission engaged in ballot stuffing and then altered the number of votes in the commission minutes, thereby creating an SPS victory.

Lack of Transparency in the Production and Distribution of Ballots

Ballots are printed at the state-owned printing house Politika. Opposition representatives are permitted to attend the printing process, but there is no guarantee that additional ballots cannot be printed in the absence of opposition representatives, as the government is believed to have done.

The Federal Electoral Commission determines the number of reserve ballots. According to the OSCE report, there was no written evidence of the number of reserve ballots printed in the 1997 elections. The authorities can thus accumulate unlimited ballots that are unaccounted for, which government members at polling boards may use to stuff ballot boxes.

 The law requires the authenticity of ballots to be protected by stamped watermarks, which does not serve to stop ballot stuffing. The OSCE had recommended that official watermarks specific to each polling station be placed on the ballots as they are handed to the voters, to prevent falsification. Yugoslav lawmakers ignored the recommendation.

Non-transparent Voter Registers

 The Federal Election Commission is obliged to publish the total number of registered voters in the country, but it does not have to make public an integral list with voters' names and I.D. numbers. A more detailed list would make it easy to identify persons registered in more than one polling station or election district, as well as those who are deceased but who remain on voters' lists. No independent body is authorized to monitor voter registration lists.

Fraud in Vote Counting

 Following the closure of the polling stations (at 8:00 p.m.), the polling boards establish whether the number of ballots cast corresponds to the number of registered voters who actually voted. Then they count the votes and sign the minutes. But true voter turnout is extremely difficult to verify because voters do not countersign the voting register. Instead, a polling board member merely circles the number next to the name of the voter casting his or her ballot. While it is relatively easy for an unscrupulous polling board member to circle a number, forging a signature would be more difficult and would make the transgressor more vulnerable to criminal prosecution. This clearly facilitates ballot stuffing, since the number of supposed voters can be so easily inflated.

 Voting results are expressed only in digits, not in words. In some cases during the 1996 and 1997 elections, digits were simply added to the numbers indicating the vote for the SPS, after polling boards had counted the votes. For example, at a polling station in the Kosovo municipality of Pec, in the repeat 1997 presidential elections, the number indicating 638 votes for the SPS candidate was retouched to "1638," and at another polling station, "30" became "730"; other examples were numerous.

Possible Abuses in the Delivery of Results

 The law does not specify the procedure for the delivery of ballots, voter registration lists, and minutes by the polling boards to the district electoral commissions. It does not spell out who is entitled to deliver the material on behalf of the polling board; in practice, the president of the polling board or an appointed member hands over the material, thereby preventing other board members from monitoring every part of the electoral process, right through the delivery of results. The polling board member and the member of the electoral commission sign a receipt confirming that the delivery has been executed, but in past elections this receipt did not include a description of the election results for the given polling station. The signatures thus did not endorse the delivery of specific results.

 The authorities have not amended the laws in order to fill these gaps, although the 1997 OSCE report identified the drawbacks of the existing provisions. Thus, it is still possible for a member of the polling board who transports the election material to add forged ballots; the electoral commission member who receives the material can make a corresponding change in the minutes, for example by adding a digit before the number of votes for the preferred candidate.

"Bottomless Pits" of Voter Support

 Yugoslav authorities have consistently relied on certain sectors of the population to inflate or manipulate votes. The vote within the military and among displaced and other non-Albanians from Kosovo, for example, is subject to virtually no independent monitoring by the representatives of the opposition or by independent monitors.

Lack of Transparency in the Voting by non-Albanians from Kosovo

 The non-Albanian Kosovo vote is considered to be the major factor determining the outcome of the September 24 vote. Previous elections have established Kosovo as the main reservoir of fraudulent votes for the government, and in the repeat 1997 presidential elections, fraud in Kosovo assumed grotesque forms. OSCE election experts established that some polling stations issued official results showing a 100 percent turnout, with 100 percent for the SPS candidate, although the OSCE observers verified that these stations were not even open on election day. The OSCE also documented numerous cases in which SPS members of polling boards added digits before the number designating the votes for the SPS candidate.

 All Kosovo Serb leaders, moderates and hardliners alike, have declared their support for Vojislav Kostunica in the presidential race. The government, however, is laying the ground work for another round of fraud in the Kosovo vote. Government officials are inflating the number of eligible voters from Kosovo, in an attempt to prepare the public for post-election day claims that "hundreds of thousands" of Kosovo non-Albanians voted for Slobodan Milosevic.

 In May 2000, the UNHCR established that 210,000 internally displaced persons from Kosovo were registered in Serbia and Montenegro, and in November 1999 estimated the remaining non-Albanian population in Kosovo to be about 100,000. While according to reasonable accounts about 200,000 Kosovo non-Albanians are eligible voters, Branislav Ivkovic, a minister in the Serbian government, put this figure at 350,000.

 The 2000 federal law on electoral districts allows Kosovo voters to cast their votes in two districts of Serbia (Prokuplje and Vranje) that border Kosovo. They may also vote at special polling stations in municipalities in other parts of Serbia, or in northern parts of Kosovo. An August 23 decision by the Federal Electoral Commission authorizes the district electoral commissions in Vranje and Prokuplje, dominated by pro-Milosevic parties, to create special polling boards for the special polling stations throughout Serbia. The decision does not clarify whether the opposition parties will have representatives in the special polling boards.

Mail-in Voting from Military Barracks

 An expert from the Belgrade Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID), a respected organization with expertise in election matters, recently estimated that military personnel account for more than 100,000 votes; the 1997 OSCE report, however, quoted a high-level military official who put this figure at 300,000 persons." In the 1997 presidential elections, the OSCE found that only about 6,000 mail-in votes cast by military personnel were received in their appropriate districts.

 Since 1997 the army has undergone several purges resulting in the appointment of hardliners to key positions. The fate of soldiers' votes remains under these new leaders' exclusive discretion, and, as in past elections, the opposition cannot monitor the process for fraud.


Biased Supervisory Board

 The election laws provide for the establishment of a seven-member Supervisory Board, which monitors the election campaign and points out irregularities in the activities of political parties, candidates, the media, and polling boards and commissions. The board cannot stop actions it deems contrary to the election laws, but it can initiate proceedings before competent bodies.

 The federal parliament appointed members of the Supervisory Board on July 24. They are low-profile allies and sympathizers of the Milosevic government, rather than independent individuals respected across the political spectrum. The president of the Supervisory Board, Ivan Radosavljevic, is believed to be affiliated with the JUL party. Three members of the Board— Simeon Babic, Gavro Perazic, and Radmila Bakocevic—are prominent members of the so-called Patriotic Alliance, an association of elderly ultra nationalists and leftists whose ferocious attacks against opponents of the regime have been promoted for years by RTS and Politika.

 The partisanship of the Supervisory Board became manifest soon after the beginning of the election campaign. On August 30, the Board condemned two liberal newspapers, Danas and Vreme, for expressing doubt about the regularity of the forthcoming elections and for their support for the opposition. The Board has remained silent about the reporting of RTS and Politika, despite their entrenched partisanship.

 Judicial complaint mechanisms are also ineffective. A complaint against any decision by the Federal Election Commission may be lodged with the Federal Constitutional Court, a heavily politicized body (4); complaints against district election commissions are handled by the Federal Election Commission; and complaints against the municipal election commissions are filed in heavily politicized municipal courts.

Refusal to Allow Independent Election Monitoring

 The authorities have turned down an OSCE request for monitoring of the September 24 elections. They announced that only observers from friendly states that did not participate in the NATO bombardment would be invited.

 While Serbian authorities have never allowed domestic groups trained in election monitoring to officially monitor the elections, they have grown even more intransigent. On August 25, RTS accused the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, a well-trained and professional election-monitoring organization, of being "another in the series of products coming from NATO's kitchen... . The main financier is the notorious George Soros and his crisis group whose mouthpieces are the even more notorious Louise Arbor and the biggest war criminal Wesley Clark."

Lack of transparency for Pro-Government Nomination Lists

 Since the beginning of September, SPS/JUL officials have been stating that Milosevic has already won the elections, claiming that the parties had collected a million and a half signatures to support his candidacy, "ten times more than the number of signatures for the other candidates taken together." Only 25,000 signatures are needed for a valid candidacy. The improbably large number of signatures claimed in support of Milosevic's candidacy have led some analysts to speculate that the SPS/JUL may use this number either to validate a rigged election of Milosevic or challenge a genuine, if unexpected, victory by his opponents.


(1) "Serbian Radio-TV Accuses Opposition of Planning Sandzak Independence," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Aug. 31, 2000. Other examples abound. Another commentary read on August 31 on RTS news concluded that only "their foreign patron" kept opposition parties together. See, "Stranke clanice DOS povezuje jedino strani gazda," B2-92 News, Aug. 31, 2000.

(2) UEC stands for Unit Electoral Commission; this term is commonly used in the OSCE reports.

(3) Permanent board members can, for example, in the absence of observers circle numbers on the voter registration list next to names of voters who either reside abroad or who are deceased, and stuff the ballot box with a corresponding number of non-used ballots "in favor" of the ruling parties' candidates. The ruling parties used this method, for example, in the 1996 municipal elections in Subotica. See Vesna Rakic-Vodinelic, Ljiljana Benac-Santic, Refik Secibovic, Goran Svilanovic, and Srdjan Radovanovic, Izborna kradja: pravni aspekt (Electoral Fraud: Legal Aspect), Belgrade, 1997, p. 192. If it is in the interest of the permanent members and representatives of the ruling parties to annul the vote at a particular polling station due to, for example, a high turnout of young people who generally favor the opposition, they can stuff the ballot box without marking off the voters on the station's registration list. This would result in a surplus of ballots. The law treats such surplus as a basis for annulment and repetition of the vote in the respective polling station. See Law on Elections to the Chamber of Citizens, article 82 (9); Law on Elections to the Chamber of Republics, article 87 (9). During the vote count they can also invalidate ballots for the opposition by circling another candidate's name on the ballot: a ballot is invalid if more than one name is circled. Law on Elections to the Chamber of Citizens, article 82 (6).

(4) In December 1998, the Court declared unconstitutional a law on the election of the Montenegrin deputies to the federal Chamber of Republics, enacted earlier that year by the Montenegrin parliament. Four years earlier, in 1994, the Court found that an identical law enacted by the Serbian Assembly was constitutional. In 1994, by upholding the Serbian law, the Court enabled the deputies from Serbia loyal to Slobodan Milosevic to occupy all twenty seats reserved for Serbia in the Chamber of Republics; in 1998, by annulling the Montenegrin law, the Court prevented the deputies from Montenegro who opposed Milosevic from occupying all twenty seats reserved for Montenegro in the same Chamber. See analysis by Slobodan Vucetic, in "Vlastoljublje iznad Ustava I drzave," Blic (Belgrade), April 24, 2000 (Vucetic is a former justice of the Constitutional Court of Serbia).