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Serbia: Opportunity to Hold First Free Elections Since 1980

The Yugoslav republic of Serbia has an opportunity to hold free and fair parliamentary elections on December 23, for the first time since a multiparty system was introduced in 1990. A victory by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) would finalize the transition of government in Yugoslavia and Serbia that began with the victory of Vojislav Kostunica and the DOS in the September 24, 2000 federal elections and the popular revolt on October 5. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) of Slobodan Milosevic, which alone or in a coalition with the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the Yugoslav Left (JUL) ruled Serbia for the past ten years, effectively lost power in October.

In the loosely structured Yugoslav federation (Serbia and Montenegro) most power resides with the two estranged republics, rather than with the federal institutions. Since the federal elections in September, DOS has been a major partner in the federal government, along with the Montenegrin Socialist People's Party. Since October 24, DOS has also shared seats in the Serbian transition government with the SPS and the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) of Vuk Draskovic. The formation of the transition government in Serbia did not result from any electoral process, but from the obvious loss of legitimacy of the SPS after the September 2000 federal elections and the dramatic events in October. To consolidate its power in Serbia, DOS needs a victory in the December 23 elections for the Serbian parliament.

Since losing power in October, the SPS of Slobodan Milosevic is not in a position to manipulate the forthcoming elections, as it did on several occasions during the 1990s. DOS, which does not have the broad ranging power the SPS formerly exercised, has made numerous pledges, both before and after it came to power, that it would not repeat the practices of the SPS, including the abuse of the electoral process.

Although its current power is limited, DOS is in a position to facilitate or hinder the smooth progression of the elections. Holding a free and fair election would be an important first step towards promoting human rights and the rule of law in Serbia. As of mid-December, the pre-election campaign has been progressing according to basic standards of fairness. The campaign has been devoid of the intimidation and police violence that marked the September 24 election campaign. State media, though partial to DOS, have provided information so that the electorate can make an objective judgment about the candidates. The electoral law includes new rules that significantly limit the possibility for fraud during the vote and vote-count.

Opinion polls conducted in late November and early December found voter support for DOS at about 70 percent, SPS 20 percent, the nationalist SRS 5 percent, and other parties 5 percent. The threshold for awarding parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation is 5 percent. SPO is the only other party that might pass the threshold.

It will be incumbent on the winning party in the elections to establish the rule of law and to respect human rights. The international community should end the ongoing "grace period" since the transition in October during which states have unconditionally set aside the human rights agenda. Both the Serbian republic and the Yugoslav federal governments in Belgrade should implement, as a matter of urgency, the following changes:

Release of the estimated 600 Albanian political prisoners who are still unlawfully detained or convicted after unfair trials;

Investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations, including killings, abductions, torture, and illegal detentions, committed by forces under the authority of the Serbian Ministry of Interior and other government agencies;

Cooperation to the fullest extent with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), including the arrest and transfer to the ICTY of those individuals indicted by the tribunal, as provided for by the ICTY statute;

Annulment of the 1998 University Act, which empowers the government to appoint state university boards of governors and other bodies and to control the selection of teachers;

Annulment of the Public Information Act of October 1998, which severely curtails free expression;

Elimination of the death penalty from the Serbian Penal Code (articles 47 and 169);

Amendment of the federal Criminal Procedure Act to provide explicitly for detainees' right to counsel immediately after detention and for law enforcement officers' obligation to inform detainees of their right to counsel;

Amendment of the Law on the Armed Forces to reduce the length of civilian service for persons claiming conscientious objector status from a punitive twenty-four months to the regular length of armed service (twelve months), provide for service in civilian institutions, and protect a person's right to raise a conscientious objection to military service after recruitment;

Prompt reinstatement of the judges of the Supreme Court of Serbia, the Constitutional Court, and the seventeen judges of district, municipal, and commercial courts who were unlawfully removed in December 1999 and July 2000;

Reinstatement of university professors and Radio Television Serbia (RTS) journalists who have been dismissed or sent on compulsory leave in violation of their right to freedom of expression under the previous government.

Media coverage

DOS politicians have a constant presence in Serbian electronic and print media. The media report extensively on the activities of DOS ministers in the Yugoslav government and the transitional government in Serbia. DOS leaders are frequent guests on programs on major television stations, including RTS.

Most local media also cover DOS activities much more than those of other political groupings. The pattern is followed by all newspapers but one—the newly established daily "24 Casa."

Government control of the media has changed significantly since the near absolute control exerted by SPS over the state-controlled media. The Serbian Information Ministry is currently managed by representatives of DOS, SRS, and SPO. On the basis of a document formalizing campaign coverage on RTS, which all major parties signed between November 10-20, RTS broadcasts daily pre-election programs during prime-time hours. The daily activities of DOS, SPS, SRS, and SPO are presented fairly on the program. In addition, representatives of the four electoral groupings discuss a variety of issues on evening RTS debates. The Belgrade-based TV Studio B broadcasts lengthy interviews with both DOS and opposition politicians during prime-time hours. TV Palma, a private station whose signal can be received throughout most of Serbia, promotes SRS and SPS on its news program. The independent Television ANEM, whose program is transmitted through a network of local television stations throughout Serbia, also offers space to parties opposed to DOS. None of these options had been available to opposition parties during the September 24 election campaign.

To date, the language that the pro-DOS media have used in its reports on the SPS and SRS is neutral and objective—in stark contrast to the vitriolic anti-DOS language used by the same media when they were under firm SPS control.

Another encouraging change is the manner in which RTS is broadcasting sessions of the parliament. When SPS had control over RTS, speeches made by opposition members of the Serbian or Yugoslav parliament were broadcast with a voice-over by the announcer. But the speeches of members of parliament from SPS and SRS were covered without interference during the recent two-day broadcast of the session of the Yugoslav parliament (December 7-8).

Intimidation and Violence

In the transitional period leading to the December elections, the Serbian Ministry of Interior has been led by three co-ministers from DOS, SPS, and SPO. The police apparatus has remained largely intact since the October events. Top officials—who during the 1990s virtually transformed the police into an armed wing of the SPS—and its former coalition partner, JUL, still hold their posts. Since October 5, there have been no reported instances of police engaging in any unlawful activities against political parties or nongovernmental groups. This restraint clearly distinguishes the forthcoming elections from those held in September, which had been preceded by months of police harassment and intimidation of DOS and nongovernmental activists.

There have been no reported violent incidents between supporters of the various parties that will participate in the December 23 elections.

New Election Law

The new Law on the Election of People's Deputies, adopted on October 9, 2000, by the Serbian parliament, has corrected some important shortcomings in the election laws that regulated previous elections. DOS did not directly participate in the enactment of the bill, since it was not in represented in parliament, having boycotted the last parliamentary elections in Serbia in 1997. The bill—adopted five days after the October 5 events and under strong DOS pressure—and the ensuing instructions issued by the Republic Election Commission take into consideration key objections that DOS, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), independent monitors, and human rights groups raised with respect to the previous election legislation. The major changes in the law include provisions for: greater transparency in the production and distribution of ballots; transparent voter registers; safeguards against abuses in vote counting and the delivery of results; voting in the military to be administered by multiparty civilian agencies; and independent election monitoring.

The new law, while addressing fair competition among political parties, neglects persons who are not able to vote in person at the polling station. Past laws enabled them to vote by mail or at home, but the new law does not contain provisions for them, thus potentially disfranchising thousands of potential voters.

The election law does not ensure representation of ethnic minorities in parliament. The law stipulates a 5 percent threshold for a party to get a seat in parliament. Ethnic Hungarians and Muslims each make up between 3 and 4 percent of the Serbian population. While a major political party representing ethnic Hungarians—the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians—participates in the DOS coalition and will enter the parliament on the DOS list, the leading party representing Muslims in Serbia will not be represented in the parliament. The List for Sandzak party (named after the Sandzak region in southwestern Serbia, populated mainly by Muslims) decided not to participate in the elections because it did not manage to reach an agreement with the DOS about its share of posts on the joint list of candidates.

Composition of Electoral Commissions and Polling Boards

Under the laws governing the federal elections in September, there were insufficient safeguards protecting the independence of the electoral commissions and polling boards, the bodies organizing and conducting the vote. As a result, they were dominated by the SPS and JUL. The new Serbian election law contains an important ban that did not exist in the federal legislation: "No political party, coalition or other political organization, can have more than half of the permanent members in the bodies conducting the elections" (article 29 (4)). Such a prohibition existed in the previous Serbian law on elections. But as the presidential elections held in autumn 1997 made manifest, the prohibition was undermined by the appointment of non-party individuals who favored the SPS. In December 2000, however, no one political party dominates the government and political life, and thus the prohibition contained in Article 29 (4) is expected to be respected.

Serbia as a whole is one election unit, and one electoral commission—the RIK (Republicka Izborna Komisija, or the Republic Election Commission)—organizes and conducts the December 23 elections. The RIK appoints approximately 10,000 polling boards, which conduct the voting at polling stations throughout Serbia.

On October 24, the Serbian parliament appointed the president of the RIK, sixteen permanent members, and their deputies. The permanent members are low-profile judges and lawyers with no significant party affiliation, or with affiliations to various political groups. Eight additional members, representing the eight parties and coalitions that are taking part in the elections, are also part of the RIK. There have been no complaints thus far during the campaign that the RIK is favoring any participant in the election. The RIK's operating procedures stipulate that the commission must convene in public, so that its work is transparent. Such a rule is indispensable in light of the experience of the September 24 elections, when the Federal Election Commission held clandestine sessions from which opposition representatives were excluded. The president and three members of the Federal Election Commission were indicted on December 12 for the misuse of their official positions by allegedly attempting to falsify the results of the September 24 elections.

Each polling board serving in the December 23 election has a president and three permanent members. They all have deputies. Representatives of the parties contesting the elections join the polling boards during the elections. The aim is to ensure that no party or coalition dominates the work of the polling boards or commits fraud during the voting at the polling station.

The new law, like the preceding one, does not clarify whether the party representatives on the polling boards have deputies. Given the deeply rooted mistrust among the participants in the elections, the presence of deputies as observers would be instrumental in strengthening the control during the voting and vote count.
Transparency in the Production and Distribution of Ballots

Ballots for the December elections are printed in the printing house of the Yugoslav Official Gazette. The law authorizes party representatives to attend the printing, counting, and packing of the ballots, as well as their delivery to the polling stations. A RIK instruction also authorizes representatives of the political parties to "be present at, or in front of, the premises in which the ballots are deposited." The Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID) announced that its representative had also received permission to attend the printing, as a safeguard against the fraudulent production of additional ballots.

The law fails to mandate an obligation for the polling boards to place official watermarks specific to each polling station on the ballots, as they are handed to the voters. Such a provision would strengthen protections against ballot-stuffing.

Voter Registers

The new bill introduces a requirement that municipal voter registers be connected to an integrated computer system. This change enables interested parties and citizens to identify persons registered in more than one polling station. The possibility of multiple voting by the same person is also reduced by an RIK instruction that stipulates the marking of the voter's finger, as a sign that he or she voted.

Possibility for Fraud in Vote Counting

The new law provides for transparent ballot boxes at the polling stations. It also stipulates that the voters countersign at the voting register in the polling station before they cast their vote. Previously, the only proof that a person voted was the circle made by a polling board member next to the voter's name. Unscrupulous polling board members were thus in a position to stuff ballots and artificially inflate the number of supposed voters by circling numbers of individuals who did not turn out to vote.

The law should mandate that voting results be expressed in words as well as in numerical form. Thus a possibility still exists that, after the counting of the votes, digits could be added to the numbers indicating the vote for a party, as has been documented by the OSCE in Kosovo in the 1996 and 1997 elections.

Possibility for Abuses in the Delivery of Results

The law does not specify the procedure for the delivery of ballots, voter registration lists, or minutes by the polling boards to the RIK after the votes are counted at the polling station. An RIK instruction, issued on October 30, 2000, authorizes political party representatives to attend the transfer and delivery of the materials by the members of the polling board. This supervision is aimed at preventing forged ballots or data.

Lack of Elaborate Rules on Voting by non-Albanians from Kosovo

The Kosovo vote has traditionally been the major contentious issue in the elections in Serbia. Although the majority of Kosovo Serbs in recent years voted for the SPS (in the September 2000 elections their support for the SPS was about 70 percent) the party fraudulently inflated the numbers in both the 1997 elections for the president of Serbia (the SPS candidate was Milan Milutinovic) and the September 2000 elections for the president of Yugoslavia (the candidate was Slobodan Milosevic). With the mass displacement of Kosovo Serbs after the end of the 1999 NATO war, accurately tallying the Kosovo Serb vote became more difficult. Almost 200,000 internally displaced persons from Kosovo live in Serbia and Montenegro, and the remaining non-Albanian population in Kosovo is about 100,000.

The new legislation does not resolve the issue of their vote. While the 2000 federal law on electoral districts allowed Kosovo voters to cast their votes in two districts of Serbia (Prokuplje and Vranje) that border Kosovo, and at special polling stations in municipalities in other parts of Serbia or in northern parts of Kosovo, the legislation for the December elections fails to address the issue. The RIK should urgently issue instructions to ensure that the displaced persons will be able to vote on the same terms as other Serbian residents.

Voting by Military Personnel

In previous elections, active military staff and conscripts voted from military barracks by mail, and the opposition could not monitor the process for fraud. A major change in the new Serbian election law provides for such voting to take place at the polling station nearest to the barracks. Thus, the voting is administered by multiparty civilian agencies.

Election Oversight and Monitoring

Supervisory Board

While the supervisory board in the elections in September 2000 was composed of supporters of the Milosevic government, the ten-member board appointed by Serbian parliament on October 24 includes members with diverse political affinities. The Serbian media reported the opinion of the board on the course of the electoral process on one occasion, December 8, when the board criticized RTS for its pro-DOS bias.

Independent Election Monitoring

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. On November 28 the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights established a standard Election Observation Mission for the elections. The mission consists of ten election experts based in Belgrade and twenty-four observers deployed throughout Serbia. OSCE also announced the deployment of 150 short-term observers shortly before polling day. On November 27, the RIK authorized the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID) to monitor the elections. This includes attendance by CESID members during the printing of ballots and monitoring the work of the polling boards on election day.

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