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Analysis: Tadic Wins The Serbian Presidency

  • Patrick Moore

Boris Tadic (file photo) A minority of Serbia's registered voters has given a slight victory to the presidential candidate favoring European integration over his ultranationalist opponent. It is perhaps too early to tell what long-term effect the vote will have on Serbian politics, if any.

Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party won the second round of the Serbian presidential elections on 27 June with 53.61 percent of the vote against 45.03 percent for the Serbian Radical Party's (SRS) Tomislav Nikolic, with a turnout of 48.5 percent, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported, citing unofficial returns (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 June 2004).

In central Serbia, Tadic won 52 percent to 46 percent, in Vojvodina 55 percent to 42 percent, and in Belgrade 59 percent to 39 percent. Nikolic won among the Serbs of Kosova with 70 percent to 29 percent. The Serbian presidency is a largely ceremonial post, but the vote was widely seen as a barometer of the political mood.

Ultranationalist Nikolic conceded defeat, arguing, however, that he received more votes than his party did in the December parliamentary vote (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). He attributed Tadic's victory to votes from ethnic minorities, but it is not clear how he arrived at that conclusion. Repeating one of the Radicals' main campaign themes, Nikolic called for new general elections, which he pledged to win.

Tadic, who had the backing of the other major first-round candidates and the EU, said that the election proves which "road Serbia wants to take.... Serbia wants to join the EU." He stressed that "these elections are very important in terms of new political values in Serbia. I'm a pro-European candidate, which means that I'm for new political values here." Nikolic had criticized Tadic's support from Brussels, saying that voters should pick someone with his base in Serbia, "not those who wander around the world."

Three points probably stand out regarding this election. First, caution is perhaps in order in drawing long-term political conclusions from the vote. After all, many observers displayed starry-eyed optimism about Serbia's having "turned a corner" following the October 2000 fall of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. But after the 28 March 2003 assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, it became clear how deeply the rot of the Milosevic era had penetrated Serbian institutions and society.

Second, this complex state of affairs will not be reversed with one election with a 48.5 percent turnout and a 45 percent vote for the SRS (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March and 9 May 2003). Indeed, the most important statistic to emerge from this election might not be that nearly 54 percent of those casting their ballots voted for Tadic but that 51.5 percent of all registered voters stayed home. And Nikolic may not have been just boasting when he said that the Radicals can look forward to the general elections with optimism.

Third, the low turnout coupled with the high vote for Nikolic -- whose candidacy appealed to protest voters as well as to nationalists -- suggests that it might be premature to suggest that "new political values" have triumphed when evaluating Tadic's victory. What seems clear is that apathy and discontent regarding a society marked by poverty, crime, and corruption remain deeply rooted among ordinary Serbs.

In other words, by choosing Tadic, many voters might not have been motivated so much by lofty "European values" but by a desire to improve their lot. Many might have sought to return Serbia to international respectability, obtain for it a seat at Euro-Atlantic decision-making tables, and, perhaps above all, receive an influx of funding and assistance. For many former Yugoslavs, the mention of "Europe" recalls the 1960s and 1970s, when the country grew prosperous through Western investments, tourist revenues, and remittances from relatives working abroad, especially in what was then West Germany. For Serbs especially, the contrast between the pleasant memories of those days and the grim realities of the present remains striking, not to say haunting.

In any event, the 27 June presidential runoff election will have some direct implications for Serbian politics, which will make themselves felt in the days and weeks ahead.

The most important aspect is that Tadic's victory will most likely strengthen the hand of the opposition Democratic Party. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) heads a minority government with the parliamentary support of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS).

Pressure is likely to build from inside Serbia and abroad for Kostunica to drop the SPS and cut a deal with the Democrats, who are his bitter rivals. It remains to be seen whether Kostunica and the Democrats will be any more successful in coming to a mutually agreeable arrangement than they were in January, despite much foreign pressure to do so.

There is also the matter of new elections. Kostunica's position has long been that Serbia needs a new constitution and new elections, but he might have lost some of his enthusiasm for the latter following the poor fourth-place showing by the DSS candidate, Dragan Marsicanin, in the 13 June first round of the presidential vote.

Conversely, the Democrats might now be eager for an early vote, which they tended to dismiss in the past. It is not clear, however, whether the results of the presidential vote will be mirrored in a general election, when voters might pay more attention to parties and their programs than to charismatic leaders.

For their part, Nikolic and the Radicals, who make up the largest single faction in the parliament, can be expected to press their demand for new elections. He told his supporters that their motto should be: "Radicals, heads high!"

In short, the Serbian presidential vote might have revealed little about long-term trends in Serbian politics except to show that political apathy and social and economic discontent remain significant. The vote nonetheless made it clear that a new chapter has begun in jockeying for coalition alliances and preparing for new elections. And as Tadic told his supporters, "Big difficulties await Serbia."
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