Post-election Serbia – unknown equation
Author: Marko Matic
Uploaded: Tuesday, 10 July, 2012
An early analysis from a Belgrade commentator on the causes and consequences of Boris Tadic's defeat in the May presidential elections
After failing to be punished at the parliamentary elections, and just when the members of the ‘yellow and red’ coalition thought that they could continue their rule for another four years, the unexpected election defeat of Boris Tadic made the political situation in Serbia an equation with many unknowns. The course of Serbia’s future development will depend on how this equation is solved. The election of Tomislav Nikolic as president and the rather fluid distribution of forces in the parliament, the coalition combinations of which will condition the composition of the future government, are two key factors which will colour the Serbian political scene in the coming period
Having had a few night’s sleep, which cooled off some hotheads, the traditionally confused analysts and observers of the Serbian political circumstances, who mainly wrote off Nikolic too early and, as it turned out, wrongly, will seek an opportunity to redeem themselves in trying to figure out two key dilemmas. On the one hand, identifying the causes which led to Tadic’s defeat, despite all those indicators which had pointed to the opposite result right until before the elections, has been a dominant topic in the political public these days. On the other hand, there is a noticeable need among the public for someone to point out the possible directions in which Serbian politics will move in this new situation.
Although it was more than obvious even before the first round of elections that there is huge dissatisfaction among Serbian citizens with the rule of Tadic’s regime to date, the results of the parliamentary elections showed that citizens’ fear of what might happen if they gave their trust to the one-time Radicals was greater than their despair. This perception of reality by Serbian citizens drastically reduced the number of votes received by the two biggest Serbian parties, while placing the followers of Slobodan Milosevic as key players in all post-election combinations. Despite the drop in support for the Democratic Party, the parties in the ruling coalition got an even larger number of deputies in the Parliament, which was a signal that indicated that the people did not wish to punish the current authorities all the way after all. In these circumstances it seemed that the second round of the presidential elections would be pure formality: to use sports jargon a slam-dunk, politically scored by the cunning basketball player Tadic. To everyone’s surprise, instead of certifying the announced double-digit difference in his favour and his great third consecutive victory, Tadic slammed into the concrete and faced the biggest defeat in his career to date.
Precisely because there was dissatisfaction in both rounds of the elections, and because the mass abstinence and the punishment of the current regime came only in the second round of voting, one should seek the main causes for Tadic’s defeat in the events that happened in the period between the two rounds, and which finally activated all the piled-up dissatisfaction and caused a political eruption. The aggressive, yet completely counter-productive media campaign in favour of the regime candidate, and the arrogant spread of victorious atmosphere and triumph among Tadic’s followers, certainly stand out among the events which filled the days between the two rounds of voting. This inevitably led to apathy and the relaxation of even their faithful voters. Declaring Tadic’s victory practically a done deal turned many of his voters away from going to the polls, by leaving them with the false impression that because of this vast advantage, their vote would not be crucial for the victory of the Democratic Party (DS) candidate.
Unlike the apathy which the over-eager spin doctors carelessly caused among hardcore Tadic followers, thus unconsciously pushing them into abstinence, the ever-present irritation of the more moderate and undecided voters was present even before the first round. However, the key event which made the second group, on which Tadic’s campaign strategists seriously counted in their electoral calculations, turn towards abstinence and voting against, was the hasty announcement of an agreement to continue the rule of the current ‘yellow and red’ coalition.
Instead of postponing the agreements on a new government until after the second round of elections, the arrogant and pompous Tadic, aiming to procure the support of Ivica Dacic and his Socialists just before the second round (which did not seem to imply the support of their voters), rushed to announce the continued cooperation of the previous period. This finally drove away the fears of many previously frightened, yet undecided voters, that Nikolic’s victory in the elections could lead to unpredictable situations. At the same time, this gave them an opportunity to vote for cohabitation and by doing so at least limit the huge power that the former Serbian president had held in his hands until them. The disappearance of the fear on which Tadic’s rule had been based since 2004 in the end left him without the large number of secondary votes on which he had counted. These voters who felt dissatisfied but now fearless decided to punish Tadic by abstaining, crossing out their ballots, or voting against the luckless Serbian Bonaparte.
Possible cohabitation and influence of the new president
The victory of the written-off candidate of the Serbian Progressive Party at the elections has brought a new dose of dynamics to the Serbian internal political process, which will represent the result of the balance of power in some new, drastically changed circumstances. This will be the result of the upcoming negotiations on forming a new government, and the political moves of the newly-elected head of state.
The agreement that Tadic and Dacic made between the two rounds of the election nonchalantly, in only 15 minutes, although not annulled after the electoral defeat of the leader of the DS, will surely be seriously re-examined. In the coming days, the two main parties will use all their available aces in order to gain the support of the third-ranked, but key for forming a government, party of the followers of Slobodan Milosevic. In this match, Tadic’s Democratic Party does have a certain advantage. Despite the serious loss of its leader, it is still a more lucrative coalition option for Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Socialists. However, the initial coalition arrangement could be brought into serious question under the impression of the second round of voting and Dacic’s attempts to procure for himself as many concessions as possible in the coalition agreement on the wave of this new reality.
The first statements of the Socialist leader, given immediately after the completion of the election process, also lead to this conclusion. He said that after the surprising results of the presidential elections, the realisation of the already agreed coalition arrangement would become significantly more complicated. Many understood this statement to mean that Dacic would defect to Nikolic’s flock, although political rationality brings such conclusions into serious question. The possible turnabout of Milosevic’s party heirs might relatively pay off for them if the situation were such that they could form a new government only with the Progressives. This would be an arrangement in which these two parties would not question their European agenda. However, since that is not the case, and since this combination also requires the votes of the party of Vojislav Kostunica, which went to the elections with a clear anti-European program and the project of so-called military and political neutrality, any attempt to form a possible government with the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) seems to be mission impossible. The agreement between Nikolic and Kostunica that their programmatic differences regarding getting closer to the EU would be resolved by a referendum does not appear too manageable at the moment, since most decisions regarding the further advance of Serbia towards European integration require urgency, which will not stand any postponement or time-wasting to organise a possible referendum.
One should add to this that it does not suit Nikolic himself to form a coalition government with Kostunica and Dacic at this moment, which would have to carry too big a burden of making some difficult decisions facing Serbia. For these reasons it appears that Dacic, with his statements regarding additional complications, does have in mind a rearrangement of the agreement already reached with the DS in order to procure as many concessions as possible from the Democrats, seriously shaken by the election defeat. In that sense, the fact that Nikolic was elected with the votes of about one-fifth of Serbian voters is welcome, as justification. This significantly reduces the pressure on the leader of the Socialists to form a new government with the winner of the elections.
In the meanwhile, the third option, favoured by Washington, Brussels and the international financial institutions, regarding the formation of a so-called broad coalition between the DS and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has also come to life. This would leave Dacic’s coalition, together with its over-expensive populist pre-election promises, in the opposition. Even though in the mid and long run this solution would not suit either of the two deeply antagonized leading Serbian parties, it is primarily the international factors, motivated by the need for difficult decisions regarding the economic situation and Kosovo, who are interested in it. These decisions will urgently need to be made by the future government, and the responsibility will be divided between the parties most trusted by the people. However, one needs to note that such a coalition was drawn-up by some international circles based on the assumption that the two key parties would win over 60% of the vote at the elections. In this situation, where the leading parties received less than half of the votes of those who voted, the broad coalition seems rather slim for taking over the burden of making the difficult decisions intended for it earlier. Such an alliance is made less likely by the existing animosity between the DS and the SNS. This would put the additional burden of making conditions on staff and requests for the necessary removal of certain leading members, who were in the first party line-up, on the formation of a future government.
Government by a ‘broad’ coalition, without the appropriate size and political authority, could be a source of instability rather than a stabilising factor for Serbia in the coming, very difficult, period.
Regardless of the structure of the coalition which will stand behind it, the future government will have the new president to face, whose politics is viewed as a great unknown, and rightly so. In his role as president, Nikolic will have to show by his actions that his shift from his radical nationalistic politics is not just a verbal façade. That is what his internal and international reputation and legitimacy will depend on. The calming statements, given just after the elections, and the meetings he had with Muamer Zukorlic, Mufti of Novi Pazar in the previous, opposition period, and with Milo Djukanovic, the leader of the ruling Montenegrin party, hint at the possibility that Montenegrin-Serbian relations might improve, as might the relations between official Belgrade and the Bosniaks in Sandzak. Apart from this, the personal animosity between Nikolic and Dodik might be a favourable circumstance for a partial, positive change of the political course of official Belgrade towards Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, whether Nikolic will at all be able to put into practice his politics in the region will primarily depend on his cooperation with key international factors, but also on his relationship with the future government in Belgrade, which according to the constitution has much wider powers than the president when it comes to creating and implementing foreign policies.
When one sums up all the possible and likely versions of the further movements of official Serbian state politics, one can conclude with certainty that although Nikolic’s election has been called a political earthquake, apart from the psychological effect, for now one should not expect any major changes in the policies of official Belgrade. The direction of the political process, which was quite channelled by the actions of the international factors earlier, is not likely to suffer any significant changes, either positive or negative, in this new situation of the division of power on the Serbian political playing field.