A team of PACE pre-election observers, ending a two-day visit to Serbia, has noted a highly polarised campaign ahead of next month’s early parliamentary elections, marked by an unprecedented level of negative campaigning and fearmongering, attacks against the opposition and journalists and serious issues related to the media. However, it welcomed the efficient preparation of the elections and the high level of trust in the electoral administration so far, while urging the authorities to take measures to alleviate an unlevel playing field and protect the integrity of the electoral process.
The four-member,* cross-party delegation, headed by Stefan Schennach (Austria, SOC), was in Belgrade on 23-24 November to assess preparations for the early elections, during which it met election officials, party representatives, journalists and civil society groups, as well as the ODIHR mission and diplomats.
The delegation was informed about the situation of the media, which are key in an electoral campaign: while positive advances were acknowledged after the recent adoption of media laws, the delegation was particularly concerned to hear about the direct and indirect influence exerted by the ruling party on mainstream national and local media, significant inequalities in the access of political entities to the media space, self-censorship and disinformation. The delegation was also alarmed to hear of inflammatory rhetoric, including by high-level officials, and hate speech, as well as the negative tone and pressure being used against opposition members, journalists and civil society activists. The delegation urges all contestants and officials to refrain from such divisive and defamatory rhetoric and recalls that voters require pluralistic, fact-based information if they are to make an enlightened choice.
The delegation took note of the confidence of most interlocutors in the electoral administration, and noted the arrangements found by the Republic Electoral Commission to install polling stations in central Serbia for possible voting of Serbian citizens residing in Kosovo.** The delegation was informed of serious concerns and allegations related to “phantom voters”, falsified signatures supporting candidates, the possible migration of voters to take part in consecutive local elections, abuse of administrative resources, pressure on public company employees and civil servants, timely handling of electoral complaints by courts, and the limited space made available for opposition contestants to campaign at local level. The dominant presence of the President of the Republic in the media, campaign and electoral lists at all levels was also mentioned as an issue of concern: the activities of the President, not running in these elections, could indeed confuse voters and are not subject to campaign rules, the delegation was told. The delegation expects the authorities to tackle these issues before the elections.
The delegation stressed that this was the third early parliamentary election in a row within a four-year period - all but one of Serbia’s parliamentary elections since 2000 having been snap elections – which further negatively impacts the functioning of democratic institutions, including the parliament and independent State institutions; it strands the country in a semi-permanent campaign period, and hampers the full implementation of laws and control of the executive.
In this context, the delegation also noted that two tragic mass shootings in May 2023, including by a 13-year-old boy (19 fatalities, mostly young people) was a shock for the country. It triggered large protests under the slogan “Serbia against violence” demanding action to counteract the prevailing culture of violence in the country, thus prompting the opposition to demand early elections which they see as an exit strategy following the response of state institutions, deemed to have been unsatisfactory.
The delegation was also informed that the unexpected and simultaneous resignation of 65 mayors from the ruling party, including the Mayor of Belgrade – which led to the conduct of early elections in a third of municipalities - and the auto-dissolution of the Assembly of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, are seen by the opposition as a tool for power consolidation and a misuse of the voting rights of local communities. The delegation regrets this instrumentalisation of electoral cycles, which undermines people’s trust in democracy, elections and politics; in this context, it welcomes civil society initiatives, such as ProGlas, encouraging citizens to go and vote, the mobilisation and training of domestic observers and initiatives to promote women’s participation in public life and elections. The delegation expects the authorities to ensure that these positive initiatives can take place in fair conditions, without undue obstacles or pressure.
A full-fledged PACE delegation of 21 members, accompanied by legal experts from the Venice Commission, will travel to Serbia to observe the vote on 17 December 2023 in the framework of the International Election Observation Mission. The Assembly will debate its conclusions in due course.
PACE – which brings together parliamentarians from 46 European nations – has observed all elections in Serbia since 2000 (with the exception of the 2020 parliamentary elections).
* Composition of the delegation: Stefan Schennach (Austria, SOC), head of the delegation; Corneliu-Mugurel Cozmanciuc (Romania, EPP/CD); Tamara Vonta (Slovenia, ALDE) and Laura Castel (Spain, UEL).
** All references to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.