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October 13, 2002

By Russ Baker, Special Correspondent

European Press Network




Democracy on Trial 

Serbians sure 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 yawn.  

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.   

About 45.9 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. 

In many 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.  

Depending on 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.

“Serbia doesn’t 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 Milosevic.  

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.

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