Serbia elections offered voters variety of choices and respected fundamental freedoms, but playing field was not level, international observers say
The 24 April early parliamentary elections in Serbia offered voters a variety of choices and fundamental freedoms were respected, although there was biased media coverage, an undue advantage for incumbents and a blurring of the distinction between state and party activities, the international observers concluded in a preliminary statement released today. The election administration performed its duties efficiently and generally enjoyed the trust of electoral stakeholders, they said.
“Yesterday, the citizens of Serbia made their choice freely from among a large number of political parties. Election day was calm and very well organized. Elections are not limited to election day and, with regard to the election campaign, contestants campaigned openly, but we have some concerns: first, the abuse by incumbents of the administrative advantages of office; second, media coverage favourable to the ruling parties, despite an open media environment; third, the lack of full transparency in party and campaign funding,” said Volodymyr Ariev, Head of the PACE delegation. “Serbia needs to improve its electoral legal framework, in close co-operation with Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, by implementing the recommendations in its legal opinions.”
Fundamental freedoms were respected and candidates were able to campaign freely, but the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and, to a lesser extent, the Socialist Party of Serbia took undue advantage of incumbency, the statement said. There were widespread reports of the ruling parties exerting pressure on voters, and public employees in particular, and enticing voters through welfare initiatives.
Overall, the legislation provides a sound basis for the conduct of democratic elections in line with OSCE commitments and other international obligations and standards. However, a number of previous recommendations by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission remain unaddressed. Key shortcomings include insufficient rules on candidate registration, ineffective measures to prevent the misuse of state resources for campaigning, inadequate regulation of campaign finance, deficiencies in dispute resolution, the absence of penalties for certain violations, and a lack of provisions for election observation, the observers said.
“Our assessment, based on our observation over the past six weeks, is not only black-and-white. While there are positive elements, there are also shortcomings,” said Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term election observation mission. “I hope that the relevant authorities will take into consideration the message in today’s statement, as well as the subsequent recommendations in the OSCE/ODIHR final report, which will be published in about eight week’s time, and engage in substantive follow-up to these recommendations.”
Twenty candidate lists nominated by political parties, coalitions of parties and groups of citizens were registered, providing voters with a range of political choices. Some of those submitting lists exploited the lack of clear criteria in the law and applied for national minority status solely to obtain the related privileges. Insufficient transparency in the candidate registration process created the perception of arbitrariness.
Public media provided equal airtime, in compliance with legal obligations, allowing contestants to present their platforms. However, government and ruling party activities dominated campaign coverage in the news and on current affairs programmes, the statement says. Analytical reporting on the main nationwide television channels was narrow, partly due to widespread self-censorship resulting from political control over the media sector.
The Republic Electoral Commission met all legal deadlines and operated in an efficient and transparent manner. It adopted detailed instructions for these elections, including guidelines for polling boards, and most stakeholders with whom the international observers met expressed trust in the Commission’s work, the observers said. There was less public confidence in the accuracy of voters lists, due to a lack of transparency in the voter registration process. Although voters could review their data and request corrections, the voter lists were not displayed for public scrutiny.
Amendments to the Law on Financing Political Activities introduced in 2014 reduced public funding for regular party activities and campaigning, in line with an OSCE/ODIHR and Council of Europe Venice Commission recommendation. Overall, the regulatory system does not ensure transparency, integrity and accountability of campaign finances. The significant financial resources of the ruling parties in comparison to those of other contestants undermined the equality of opportunity.