Serbia’s government simulates democracy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters march in city center of Belgrade, Serbia, 6 April 2019. Thousands of people protested in Serbia against president Vucic over what they say has been a smothering of democratic freedoms under his government. [Srdjan Suki/EPA/EFE]

The key obstacle to free and fair elections is widespread voter repression by the regime of President Aleksandar Vučić, writes Nebojša Zelenović.

Nebojša Zelenović is the President of the political party Together for Serbia and Mayor of the City of Šabac.

For once, president Aleksandar Vučić speaks the truth by saying Serbian democracy is under attack. However, it is the Vučić regime itself that is consistently orchestrating these attacks. While the President claims that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has retained its power through free and fair elections, it is under their rule that Serbia has been plummeting in the rankings of major democracy monitors.

Last year, Freedom House demoted Serbia from a ‘free’ to a ‘partly free’ country, citing the conduct of elections, media repression, and the president’s counter-constitutional accumulation of executive powers as the primary cause. In addition, CIVICUS downgraded Serbia’s civic space from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’. Meanwhile the country dropped 36 ranks in the World Press Freedom Index since 2014 and the last two European Commission reports on Serbia noted that the lack of progress in freedom of expression is a matter of “serious concern”.

The Serbian government often defends its democratic record by highlighting Serbia’s economic growth. However, democracy is not measured by economic advancement. Democracy is measured by the rule of law, media freedom, and citizens’ freedom of expression – including the right to vote freely. All of these democratic pillars are currently being undermined in Serbia under the Vučić regime.

The parliament has been passing new laws and regulations at lightning speed at a time when the majority of the opposition is boycotting the institution. However, the implementation of such laws leaves much to be desired, if they are implemented at all. Following the recent EU-mediated dialogue, the government committed to a series of regulatory changes. It has become clear now that these changes were merely cosmetic, which is in line with the trend of the last few years. As Freedom House noted, Serbia’s electoral laws already largely adhere to international standards. The opposition therefore has not demanded regulatory changes during the dialogue, but a meaningful implementation of the laws and regulations that already exist.

The primary example of this is the continued repression of independent media despite the adoption of a new Media Strategy. Following the EU-mediated dialogue, state-owned cable operators have decided not to renew their contracts with the United Media Group, which has excluded the only critical media outlet N1 from nearly 300.000 households, roughly 15% of the population. After N1 spoke up against these pressures, it faced a coordinated attack by the government – led by the Prime Minister – as well as three major cyber attacks on its web portal. The attack was condemned by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, while the European Commission expressed its regret at the decreased access to diverse media. This is just one example of the relentless repression of media freedom in Serbia.

Another key indicator that the government is insincerely committed to reforms is its lowering of the electoral threshold only three months before the elections and without any public debate. While the government presents this as a step towards democratisation, it is clear that its primary goal is to enable satellite opposition parties loyal to the regime to enter parliament. The move has been labelled ‘a dangerous tactic’ by MEPs Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčík who headed the EU delegation during the dialogue. The Venice Commission’s electoral code notes that changes to electoral laws should not be made within one year of the election as this can be an indication of political manipulation. Finally, this reform concerns the electoral system, rather than electoral conditions, which are the opposition’s main concern.

Last December, members of the Serbian opposition alerted the European Parliament to the fact that there are currently no conditions for free and fair elections in Serbia due to an advanced level of state capture and media capture. Institutions remain in service of the ruling party. Examples include the abuse of state resources for political campaigning, the selective functioning of the judiciary, and the inaction of the Anti-Corruption Agency. Media coverage remains extremely biased, hiding government scandals while systematically attacking the opposition and any other dissenting voices.

However, the key obstacle to free and fair elections is widespread voter repression by the Vučić regime. It is widely known that those employed by the state have an obligation to vote for SNS, and are often expected to gather more voters. Many of these employees – by some estimates around 230.000 – have temporary contracts that will only be extended if they provide proof that they voted for the ruling party. This is all in addition to the general fear-mongering campaign about the opposition, which is exacerbated by the mainstream media.

Under these circumstances, the majority of the Serbian opposition has announced a boycott of the upcoming parliamentary elections. We cannot legitimise an increasingly authoritarian system in which our country is consistently backsliding on all democratic indicators and moving further away from EU membership. Nevertheless, we remain committed to any meaningful reform efforts that could allow free and fair elections in the future.

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