November 20, 2003

Serbia's Voting Woes
Futile Elections and Failure of Politics
by Nebojsa Malic

"Par for the course," announced the AFP headline on Sunday, October 16, as the third Serbian presidential election in a year headed to inevitable failure. By the time the polls closed, less than 40% of voters bothered to cast a ballot for either of the two major and several minor candidates, far below the 50%+ legal threshold. Though most reports blamed the low turnout on "voter apathy," and there was undoubtedly much thereof, the vote was doomed to failure from the beginning.

Another story was the surprising success of the Radical party, les enfants terribles of modern Serbian politics. Pre-election statements by pro-Imperial analysts already reflected alarm at likely Radical gains, though the actual victory of their candidate came unexpectedly.

Though a failure, this costly exercise in futile power-worship revealed much. In six weeks, when general elections are scheduled, the current regime will be booted from power without mercy. Whoever wins will be expected to pay obeisance to the Empire, or face the wrath of Washington and The Hague Inquisition. And while getting rid of DOS is a good thing no matter what, chances are the lives of people in Serbia will not change dramatically. The apparatus of government is too ingrained into the society there, as elsewhere in the Balkans, and too seductive for anyone lacking commitment to freedom. Whoever the Serbians vote for, a government will be elected.

Doomed From the Start

As soon as it was called, the election was guaranteed to fail, most of all because the legal requirement of a 50%+ turnout was left on the books. This was the accomplishment of the late Zoran Djindjic, who schemed to secure all levers of power in Serbia last fall by preventing the victory of arch-rival Vojislav Kostunica. He had already placed a puppet in line for acting presidency, and his party basically boycotted the vote, even though one of its members ran on a pro-government platform. Still, some 55% of the voters showed up, and the runoff election on October 13 was sure to go to Kostunica. Djindjic's plan was saved only by the boycott by Radical leader Vojislav Seselj's supporters; Seselj had come in third. Kostunica either did not try to make a deal with Seselj, or tried and failed. Either way, the turnout in the runoff was below 50%, invalidating the election and clearing the way for Djindjic loyalist Natasa Micic to step in as acting President. However, five months later Djindjic was gunned down, and the elaborate autocratic arrangement he ran began to disintegrate.

After a two-month period of police repression following the assassination, the Dossie regime began to rapidly decay. Lurching from one scandal to the next, it faced defections and rapidly dwindling popular support, until it was obvious it could no longer hold on to power. Resisting the calls for general elections, which would have spelled political suicide for DOS, the government arranged for a presidential vote as a way of throwing its opponents a bone. They didn't bite; both Kostunica's Serbian Democrats (DSS) and the Keynesian liberals of G-17 formerly allied with Djindjic boycotted the vote, reducing the choice to an aging former mentor of Djindjic's (Dragoljub Micunovic) and the Radical leader (Tomislav Nikolic), recently promoted by his party chairman's departure for The Hague dungeons. The former represented the despised DOS regime, the latter a brand of demagogic nationalism popular with the growing minority of Serbs but still a minority.

"The Undertaker's" Empty Victory

To make the irony complete, just days before the presidential vote the Dossies had no choice but to disband the parliament and call a general election for December 28. Even if DSS or G-17 wanted to run a presidential candidate, it was too late. Knowing their real chance would be in December, their supporters stayed home.

Meanwhile, Micunovic tried to appeal to the public last Thursday with a claim that his opponents stood for the "nationalist past" and threatened the "foundations of democracy," ostensibly build by DOS. But this "vote for me, the other guy's worse" approach failed to impress the people sickened by three years of governance that can only be described as disgraceful. In a political climate dominated by resentment and smoldering anger at Serbia's treatment by the West, signals that the Empire favored Micunovic may have hurt him some as well.

Nikolic, on the other hand, pushed all the right buttons. "We do not want to be slaves," he declared at his last electoral rally, and commented, "It's been a long time since patriots were in power and that's why things are going badly," as he cast his ballot.

Sometimes referred to as "The Undertaker" because in his pre-political life he used to manage a cemetery, Nikolic is hardly a Le Pen. But like the French firebrand, the reputation of his party and its former boss for "extremist" political positions drowns out the valid questions he sometimes asks. Despite their posturing, the Radicals don't really have a plan for running Serbia, and certainly not for reforming its autocratic system of government and state control. They are, however, bitterly opposed to the Hague Inquisition, the ongoing occupation of Kosovo and Imperial diktat albeit for very different reasons than the handful of Serbia's libertarians.

Fear and Loathing in the Aftermath

The failed vote's aftermath elicited reactions from DOS and the West ranging from alarm to anger. Even prior to the vote, international luminaries such as the ICG railed against Nikolic and the Radicals. Most agency reports referred to Nikolic as an "ultra-nationalist" (whatever that meant) as opposed to Dossie defenders of "democracy."

The bitter Micunovic said the vote was "Serbia's failure," but didn't specify whether this was because of the insufficient turnout, or because he lost. Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic bemoaned the results as "a giant step back," and complained to US propaganda outlet Radio Free Europe that this would hurt Serbia's standing abroad. No one pointed out that Svilanovic wasn't exactly helping by airing such views.

Waiting for December

At this point, Serbia is without a president or a parliament, with only the decomposing Dossie government in charge of things until December 28. The strongest contenders at that time will be Kostunica's DSS, the G-17, and the Radicals, but it is unlikely either will win an outright majority, and impossible to predict who might come out the strongest. Whoever does, they should expect a fierce diplomatic onslaught from Washington and The Hague, and threats of economic pressure if they fail to obey. Hinting at this is the New York Times report on the eve of the failed November 16 vote, which criticized DOS for "failure to cooperate fully" with the Inquisition. Presumably, whoever succeeds them will be expected to obey more readily.

Warning Sign

Whether one believes the purported correlation between democracy and prosperity, or takes seriously Washington's announced intent to spread democracy with fire and sword, the former Yugoslavia stands as proof positive that the former is not true, and the latter will not work. All of its successor states practice pure democracy, even the Bosnian protectorate and the occupied Serbian province of Kosovo. All, except Slovenia, are failures; admittedly, to a varying degree, but failures nonetheless. In Slovenia, for a variety of reasons, politics plays second fiddle to commerce and the country prospers. Everywhere else, politics is everything.

It has been said before here, and it doesn't hurt to say it again, however many times it may be necessary before the message sinks in: the problem of the Balkans is that everything is politics. The tentacles of government are in every sphere of life, draining away the people's will to live. The only way out offered to the hopeless is to seize the ruinous reins of power for themselves, and be transformed from the abused to the abuser. The cycle feeds itself, misery deepens, and hope gets ever dimmer.

As a wise man once said, the problem is not the abuse of power, but the power to abuse. Until the unfortunate people of the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, mind you grasp that basic truth, they can vote as many times and for whomever they please. Their lives will not change one bit.

– Nebojsa Malic

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Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.

 

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