Serbia has an opportunity for the first time to have reasonably free and fair parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch said. In a backgrounder released in advance of the December 23 elections for the Serbian parliament, Human Rights Watch concludes that Serbia's new electoral law significantly limits the possibility for fraud, and that the conditions are in place for the Serbian electorate to make a fairly objective judgment about the candidates.

In light of Belgrade's relatively rapid progress toward democracy, Human Rights Watch said the international community should end the post-Milosevic "grace period" in dealing with Serbia, and insist on stricter adherence to international human rights standards.
"There are still some serious human rights problems in Serbia, but the election conditions show a significant improvement since the last time around," said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "Now Yugoslavia can and should be held to the same standards as any other country on human rights."

Denber said the winner of the elections should be required to make urgent human rights improvements, such as releasing 600 Kosovo Albanian political prisoners and fully cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Opinion polls indicate that the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) will win about 70 percent of the votes, and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of Slobodan Milosevic up to 20 percent. A victory by DOS would finalize the transition of government in Yugoslavia and Serbia, which began with the victory of Vojislav Kostunica and DOS in the September 24 federal elections and the popular revolt on October 5, 2000, which removed Milosevic from power.

Although DOS politicians have a dominant presence in Serbian electronic and print media, other parties and movements receive fair coverage. The language used by pro-DOS media to describe other parties is neutral and objective—in stark contrast to the vitriolic anti-DOS language used by the media when they were under firm SPS control.

The new electoral law and the instructions issued by the Republic Election Commission have corrected some important shortcomings in the election laws which regulated previous elections. The major changes include provisions for greater transparency in the production and distribution of ballots, transparent voter registers, safeguards against abuses in vote-counting and in the delivery of results, and voting in the military administered by multiparty civilian agencies.

While the Milosevic government emphatically refused to allow the OSCE and nongovernmental organizations to monitor the September 24 elections, the monitoring of the December 23 elections will be unhindered.

The new law, however, fails to ensure representation of ethnic minorities in parliament. A high 5 percent threshold for a party to get a seat in parliament resulted in a decision by the main political party representing Serbian Muslims (3 and 4 percent of the population) not to participate in the elections.

The electoral regulations also leave unresolved how non-Albanians from Kosovo will have access to the vote. With the mass displacement of Kosovo Serbs after the end of the 1999 NATO war, their vote—traditionally the major source of fraud in the elections in Serbia—became even more confusing and opaque. Human Rights Watch called on the Serbian authorities to provide clear guidance for the Kosovo Serb vote.