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Sunday, May 11, 2008

A turn to the West in Serbia? Pro-EU parties handily defeat ultra-nationalists

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Sunday's general election in Serbia, which had been widely anticipated to be a tight race between the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and For European Serbia - a coalition of moderate, pro-European Union parties headed by the Democratic Party (DS) - had a completely unexpected outcome, with the pro-EU parties easily prevailing over SRS, according to both estimates published by the Centre for Free Election and Democracy (CeSID) and preliminary results issued by Serbia's Republic Electoral Commission.

The results contradicted findings from opinion polls that suggested the Radicals would top the poll, largely by playing on widespread anger in Serbia over Western backing of the former province of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence last February 17. However, the EU's offer of closer ties with Serbia - which included a pre-membership agreement and offers of free visas to Serbs by seventeen European countries - clearly helped the pro-European parties, which repeatedly warned a Radical victory would lead to Serbia's renewed isolation.

The election also dealt a blow to the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia-New Serbia (DSS-NS) alliance of outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, which continued to lose ground and came in a poor third place. Kostunica's center-right coalition government with DS and the right-liberal G-17 (now part of the pro-EU coalition) came apart last March over the issue of suspending ties with the EU in the aftermath of Kosovo's independence, triggering Sunday's parliamentary poll - Serbia's third nationwide vote in fifteen months - three years ahead of schedule. All three ruling parties were (and remain) staunchly opposed to Kosovo's independence, but DSS-NS - along with the opposition SRS - advocated a hard-line stand against Europe over the issue.

While the leftist Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS; originally the party of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic) and its allies scored significant gains in the election, at the time of writing it remained unclear if the left-of-center Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - the only party that has accepted the independence of Kosovo - would retain its parliamentary representation by securing at least five percent of the vote. CeSID's projection has the party narrowly crossing the threshold, but LDP stood just below five percent in preliminary election results issued on election night (subsequent official results placed the party above the threshold, as noted under Update).

Irrespective of the LDP result, the pro-EU parties will almost certainly finish well short of an absolute majority in the new National Assembly (Parliament) - whose 250 seats are allocated by proportional representation on a nationwide basis - and SPS could end up holding the balance of power. It was originally expected the party would join forces with SRS and DSS-NS, but according to CeSID's estimate the three groups would have an overall majority of just four seats in the event LDP actually secured parliamentary representation, and the Socialists have not ruled out reaching an agreement with the pro-European parties to form a stronger coalition government.


Serbia's Republic Electoral Commission reports that final results of the May 11, 2008 parliamentary elections were as follows:

For European Serbia - 1,590,200 votes (38.4%), 102 seats
Serbian Radical Party (SRS) - 1,219,436 votes (29.4%), 78 seats
Democratic Party of Serbia-New Serbia (DSS-NS) - 480,987 votes (11.6%), 30 seats
Socialist Party of Serbia-Associated Pensioners Party-United Serbia (SPS-PUPS-JS) - 313,896 votes (7.6%), 20 seats
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - 216,902 votes (5.2%), 13 seats
Hungarian Coalition - 74,874 votes (1.8%), 4 seats
Bosniak List for the European Sandzak - 38,148 (0.9%), 2 seats
Coalition of the Presevo Valley Albanians - 16,801 votes (0.4%), 1 seat
Others - 99,992 votes (2.4%), no seats

In addition, there were 88,148 invalid ballots, or 2.1% of the total number of votes cast. The election had a 61.4% voter turnout, slightly up from 60.6% in 2007, and nearly identical to the turnout figure for the first round of voting in last January's presidential election.

Following the election, SRS, DSS and SPS, which together commanded an overall parliamentary majority of six seats, announced they had reached an agreement "in principle" over the future administration. However, United Serbia (JS) - one of the Socialists' junior partners - subsequently called for the suspension of talks with SRS and DSS, due to conflicting views over the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union. In due course, the Socialists did an about-face and reached an agreement with the pro-EU parties, paving the way for the formation of an eleven-party coalition government headed by outgoing Finance Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, with Socialist leader Ivica Dacic as First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior. In July 2008, the new government - which also includes several small ethnic minority parties - narrowly won a vote of confidence in the National Assembly.