October 13, 2002
By Russ Baker, Special Correspondent
European Press Network
have a talent for understatement. The same country that still
manages, more than two years after the fact, to go about life as
if no war crimes were committed by its troops and its allies, has
now managed to throw a wrench into democratization, nullifying its
first post-Milosevic presidential election with a spectacular
Fewer than half
of all eligible voters bothered to vote in today’s runoff
election, rendering it null and void. The Serbian constitution
states that no election is valid unless turnout is at least 50
percent plus one. This means that a whole new election will have
to be scheduled on some yet-to-be-determined date. It also
introduces another element of uncertainty and instability into a
country struggling to westernize its economy, introduce democratic
reforms and gain a welcome back into the international community
after being vilified for its role in Bosnia and Kosovo war crimes.
Of those who did
vote, an estimated 66.4 percent supported Vojislav Kostunica, who
was hoping to trade his position as president of the Yugoslav
Federation, which will become increasingly irrelevant in a
structural revamp, for the parallel position at the Serbian helm.
He’d been warning against rapid changes in the economy that, he
said, were designed to accommodate Western demands but resulting
in societal dislocations. Only a third of voters supported
Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, an economist, who
had been urging faster changes. Both Kostunica and Labus have been
accused of corruption, including close ties to business people who
have profited greatly from privatization, although charges against Labus appear to have harmed him more with voters.
percent of eligible voters turned out. This was a drop from the
first round two weeks ago, in which turnout was a slightly less
anemic 52 percent. Extreme nationalist candidate Vojislav Seselj,
who had been backed by former president Slobodan Milosevic from
his jail cell in The Hague and came in third in the first round
with 22 percent of the vote, had urged his supporters to boycott
the runoff. For the election to succeed, nearly all of Seselj’s
voters would have had to defy him.
countries, this electoral failure would be seen as a crisis. But
Serbians are surprisingly blasé about the whole thing. Even at the
Media Center, a press club where reporters gathered to hear
returns and analysis, the tone was distinctly phlegmatic. Within
half an hour of the announcement, everyone had gone home.
A number of
factors clearly contributed to the poor turnout, besides the
Sesejl boycott and rainy weather. Perhaps more importantly,
neither of the candidates seemed to have the political skills,
charisma or issues to capture the public imagination. A heavily
promoted televised debate failed to generate even sputtering
fireworks, as neither candidate showed an instinct for the jugular
or a command of the medium.
impending parliamentary maneuvering, the next election could come
as early as November, or, alternatively, Serbia could find itself
without a legitimately elected president for the first half of
next year. Current Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, whose term
expires at the end of the year, has been indicted by the Hague
Tribunal for atrocities in Kosovo, and is expected to turn himself
in shortly, in which case the parliament speaker would serve as
interim president. The parliament itself is in some turmoil.
know where it wants to go,” says James Lyon, Serbia director for
the nongovernmental organization, International Crisis Group.
“It’s clearly not too keen about hurrying into a transition, not
too keen about reform. It’s not sure it wants to pull itself out
of socialism and communism.” The fact that two-thirds of those who
did vote backed Kostunica seemed an endorsement of his go-slow
approach, but also a sign of support for his quasi-nationalist
tendencies and a rebuke of Labus for his ties to forces that have
cooperated with the Hague Tribunal and acquiesced in turning over
The low turnout itself seemed to signify primarily that, after an
exhausting decade of war and politics, people have had enough.
“Why do you think so few people voted?” I asked a woman in the
Media Center offices. “Because we’re not interested,” she said
with a smile, before grabbing her coat and sprinting for the door.