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Populist rhetoric in Serbian election campaign undermines trust in the rule of law

On 6 May citizens of Serbia, EU-candidate state, voted in presidential, parliamentary, regional and local elections. Even though the support for the need for European integration is greater now than it was in 2008, it is obvious that candidates struggle to prevent that this ambition alienates voters.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012, by HRH Oslo, Based on BBC and Norwegian Helsinki Committee information

The Serbian government had to make a wide range of concessions to achieve candidacy status for the EU, many of them contrary to the opinions of a large part of the public, says Mina Skouen, project manager in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. However, these concessions must not be confused with their implementation. The commitment to protect vulnerable groups against human rights violations, particularly those of Roma origin, and sexual and gender minorities, still seems to be mostly declarative, which raises serious concern.

Support for EU vs. other urgent issues

Prejudices against ethnic, religious and other minorities are widespread in Serbia, as is the suspicion against the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and the risk of losing Kosovo, says Ole B. Lilleås, Senior Adviser of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. A conservative social climate upheld by politicians feeds these sentiments. Politicians should be careful when sending out dodgy messages that Serbia can become a member of the European Union without consistently embracing core democratic values.

Urgent problems await the next government. Unemployment stands at 24% and public debt is growing. People face numerous challenges with corruption and bureaucracy. Tension in Sandzak and the Preševo valley with their predominantly Bosniak and Albanian populations awaits long-term political solutions, and the Kosovo question might be currently stalled, but it is not solved. The new government has to demonstrate real commitment to implementation of democratic principles, human rights and rule of law. This would offer Serbia the reforms it truly needs, and make it a better state for all its citizens and a better neighbour in the region.

Election campaign expectations and surprises

The rivals for Serbia's presidency - liberal Boris Tadić (Democratic Party), who has been in power since 2004, and ex-nationalist Tomislav Nikolić (Progressive Party) - will confront each other in the second round of election on 20 May.

The first round of the presidential election, which took place on 6 May, featured 12 candidates. Mr Tadić polled around 26%, while Mr Nikolić was around one percentage point behind.

Serbia won the EU candidate status in March, and although both the presidential candidates say they back EU membership now, Mr Nikolić was the one who strongly opposed it several years ago. He once said he would rather see Serbia ally itself with Russia than join the EU but has softened his rhetoric in the recent years. Mr Tadić, on the contrary, was a key player in Serbia's talks with the EU and said that his party's continuation in power was necessary for Serbia's future development and stability. He also promised reform and better living standards for Serbs.

The campaign was dominated by concerns over the future of the Serbian economy, with unemployment at 24% and a foreign debt of 24bn Euros (£19.5bn; $31.5bn). Because of the economic difficulties, Mr Nikolić had been expected to perform better than the incumbent president Mr Tadić and his party in both votes. 

The BBC's Nick Thorpe in Belgrade reports that the first surprise of the election was the strong showing of the Socialists, led by Interior Minister Ivica Dačić, who gained around 16% of the vote. That would put them in with a strong chance of joining a coalition with Mr Dačić as potential prime minister, Thorpe says. The Socialist Party was founded in the 1990s by the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, who was put on trial for genocide at The Hague, but they are now seen as pro-EU and have been part of the outgoing coalition government. Another surprise is the relatively poor showing of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party who were allies of Slobodan Milošević during the conflict in Kosovo in 1999. 

Allegations over election fraud 

Serbian nationalists accused pro-European Union reformists of stealing the recent general elections, fuelling tensions ahead of a key presidential runoff. Progressive Party leader Tomislav Nikolić alleged that his rival Tadić’s Democratic Party printed extra ballots and tampered with voting lists during the 6 May's vote. He presented a sack stuffed with thousands of voting ballots that he claimed were replaced by other ballots by the pro-EU camp and alleged that "hundreds of thousands of ballots" were switched in such a way. "This was an election robbery of an unprecedented scale", Nikolić said during a hastily called press conference. Democratic Party leader Boris Tadić, who will face Nikolić in the 20 May runoff, has rejected the allegations, saying they were designed to undermine his presidential bid. Tadić described the election as "a normal one with sporadic mistakes". 

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Ole B. Lilleås and Mina Skouen are in Serbia and will be observing the pre-election campaign and elections from Belgrade and Sandzak on behalf of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

HRH Oslo, Based on BBC and Norwegian Helsinki Committee information

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