A four-member, cross-party “pre-electoral” delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) visited Serbia from 3 to 6 April 2016 to evaluate the state of preparations and the political climate in the run-up to the early parliamentary elections on 24 April 2016.
The Assembly has observed all elections in Serbia since 2000. The Assembly pre-electoral delegation notes that the majority of elections in Serbia have been early elections. In this regard, the delegation considers that, while legally the “culture” of early elections does not pose a problem, nevertheless one can question the impact of systematic early elections on the efficient functioning of the Parliament according to the constitutional term of office, no matter which political forces are in power.
Regarding the legal framework for parliamentary elections, it provides an overall sound basis for the conduct of democratic elections, in line with Council of Europe commitments, if applied in good faith.
The Assembly pre-electoral delegation notes with satisfaction that the election campaign is calm and mostly peaceful, and that all political contestants can campaign freely without restriction. Nevertheless, the delegation was informed about isolated cases of violence against representatives of opposition parties. In this regard, the delegation condemns any case of violence, even isolated, and is of the opinion that such cases must be condemned without ambiguity by all political forces. The delegation was also informed about the polarisation of society before these elections and the growing popularity of extremist opinions, which could cause additional tension.
The Republic Electoral Commission (REC) is working in a transparent and efficient manner; while political contestants have confidence in its impartial and neutral work. The registration of candidates is inclusive and no concerns have been reported regarding the accuracy of the voters lists. The delegation was informed about problems concerning the transcription of names on voters lists in areas of national minorities. The delegation asks the REC to verify these allegations in order to avoid any possible problems on election day.
With regard to the place of money in politics, in the election process in particular, and in general, concerning the financing of the election campaign, the PACE pre-electoral delegation recalls the fact that both the Assembly, in its different resolutions, and the Venice Commission in its opinions, have frequently stressed the need for more robust legal mechanisms to increase the transparency of political party funding, and the accountability of political parties, as well as the financing of election campaigns.
In October 2014, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission – in its opinion on the law on the financing of political parties – recommended to the authorities of Serbia to include in the law the autonomous mandate of the Anti-Corruption Agency, to reconsider the level of public funding; to introduce an overall election campaign expenditure limit and a party financing limit and, finally, to lower the limits on private funding for both private individuals and companies. Unfortunately, many key recommendations still remain unaddressed and the delegation hopes that the newly elected Parliament will address these issues as a top priority.
The legislation on media guarantees media freedom and equal access of all political contestants if applied fully. The media environment is pluralistic, but still lacks transparency in media ownership. Many media remain concentrated in the hands of wealthy individuals, which is a persistent problem. The Assembly delegation was informed that not all political parties received equal airtime at the beginning of the election campaign and the media coverage is mostly in favour of the ruling party. Also, the delegation regrets that the Parliament was not able to appoint all nine members of the Republic Broadcasting Agency (RBA), which plays a key role in ensuring impartial monitoring of the election campaign, as well as balanced media coverage, and guaranteeing equal free airtime for all political parties.
During its visit to Serbia, the delegation met with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucić, the Speaker of the National Assembly Maja Gojkovic, and State Secretary in the Interior Ministry Aleksandar Nikolic, as well as the Deputy Chairperson and members of the Council of the Republic Broadcasting Agency, representatives of the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA), the members of the Republic Electoral Commission (REC) and the leaders and representatives of the main parliamentary caucuses. Meetings were also organised with the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission, as well as with representatives of the diplomatic corps, international organisations and missions, and civil society and the media.
The Parliamentary Assembly will send a full, 22-member delegation to observe the early parliamentary elections.
The members of the delegation were Volodymyr Ariev (Ukraine, EPP/CD), delegation head; René Rouquet (France, SOC); Andrea Rigoni (Italy, ALDE) and Matjaz Hanzek (Slovenia, UEL).