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Yugoslavia: Balkan Elections Reveal Divergent Voting Trends

  • Jolyon Naegele

Recent elections in Bosnia, Serbia, Slovakia, and Macedonia have revealed two divergent trends: low voter turnout and the relative success of nationalists on the one hand and high voter turnout and the victory of reformists on the other. RFE/RL explains the trends and what they are likely to mean for upcoming elections in Serbia and Montenegro.

Belgrade, 10 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The outcome of recent elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia bear both striking similarities to each other and marked differences with the stabilizing effect of recent elections in Slovakia and Macedonia.

Poverty and frustration with the lack of change are complaints repeated across Bosnia and Serbia and neighboring Montenegro, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for 20 October.

There have been virtually no celebrations in Belgrade to mark the second anniversary of the public overthrow of the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. There is little to celebrate, since there have been few tangible improvements in the way people live.

Belgrade-based public-opinion pollster Srdjan Bogosavljevic said unemployment and poverty are at the root of public frustration and indifference. "It is a very difficult situation in which many people are formally employed in the economy but without income. They fear for their future. Many are very poor. Simply, there are certainly plenty of people who won't be satisfied with the work of any government. People don't compare what was five years ago and what is today. They compare what they have today and what they expected they'd have," Bogosavljevic said.

South of Belgrade, in the central Serbian industrial municipality of Kragujevac, some 40,000 people out of a population of 200,000 are unemployed. Large parts of the Zastava car-truck-and-armaments factory are still in ruins three years after NATO air strikes.

Kragujevac University sociologist Gordana Mitic said there is widespread dissatisfaction among voters in Serbia today due to unemployment and economic hardship. "They are fed up with everything that is connected with elections, with candidates, with political games, etc. There's significant abstinence [from voting], and I'm worried about that. That means that people in Yugoslavia, in Serbia particularly, in these two years [since the fall of Milosevic] didn't build the political consciousness and [a sense of] responsibility for the reforms for the process of transition," Mitic said.

Mitic conceded that two years is too short a period to expect significant change. But like Bogosavljevic, she said people resent not having experienced the miracle they were anticipating.

Turnout for the first round of Serbia's presidential elections on 29 September was 55.5 percent. The largest share of votes -- nearly 31 percent -- went to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a self-proclaimed nationalist. Kostunica faces the runner-up, Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, an economic reformer, in the runoff on 13 October.

Ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj made a strong showing with his bloc of 800,000 faithful voters, who appeared stronger than in the past due to the low overall turnout. Seselj is among a number of opposition leaders calling for a boycott of the runoff. If less than 50 percent of registered voters participate on Sunday, new presidential elections will have to be held.

Kostunica has warned of the danger of Serbia's descending into "chaos and anarchy" if the election is declared invalid, but he said he is confident Sunday's second round will turn out well. "Simply, when you have a second round, you've got another situation, another level of the elections. In the first round, you have more programs, more political options. [After the first round], the voters, the people don't react reflexively. They think things through, and 14 days later, they have to choose from two candidates and new issues, with clearly defined programs. There should be more people voting for Miroljub Labus and me than in the first round," Kostunica said.

The most recent of the four elections, the presidential and parliamentary elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina on 5 October, were a victory for Bosniak (Muslim), Serbian, and Croatian nationalist parties and a defeat for the moderate Social Democrats. Turnout in Bosnia was just under 55 percent.

The international community, which had pleaded for a large turnout and for a victory for moderation and reform, has sought to put a brave face on the outcome. The international community's high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, said, "What I think we have seen over the weekend was, more than anything else, a protest vote against the governing parties, not a vote to return to the nationalism of 10 years ago."

Analysts in Bosnia had also warned of the rise of nationalist parties due to voter frustration with the lack of change. Sarajevo University sociologist Salih Foco said, "Today, objectively speaking, there is greater apathy of the population and enormous mistrust in the structures of government and in the political parties and their programs."

The international community took a backseat in the Bosnian elections for the first time since the war, allowing Bosnian officials, rather than the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to organize the polls. European Union and U.S. officials made an 11th-hour plea for a high voter turnout, but the calls went largely unheeded.

In contrast, the international community took a far more active role in speaking out in advance of elections in Slovakia on 21 September and Macedonia on 15 September, calling on citizens to vote responsibly and warning of the consequences of low turnout. Turnout surpassed 70 percent in both countries.

Slovakia faced the prospect of losing its bid to join NATO and the European Union in the event that voters returned former autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar to power. Although the largest share of votes went to Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, the party was unable to find a coalition partner. Other nationalist parties failed to surpass the 5 percent hurdle required to enter parliament.

Four center-right parties are forming a coalition to govern Slovakia for the next four years.

In Macedonia, which last year was rocked by a seven-month armed rebellion by ethnic Albanian insurgents, voters strongly rejected nationalist rhetoric and corruption, turning out the previous nationalist-led coalition government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski.

The international community was elated. Prime Minister-designate Branko Crvenkovski declared that Macedonia had turned over a new leaf. "Together, we have shown that we are a mature nation-state, a nation that knows who should set things straight from now on," Crvenkovski said.

Former rebels, whose Democratic Union for Integration, or BDI, received the majority of votes in the country's Albanian community, have begun negotiating four seats in a new 14-seat Social Democrat-led government. However, the ex-rebel commanders who head the party are expected to forgo any cabinet posts.

The international community, though relieved both by the high turnout and the results in Macedonia, remains concerned about how the former rebels, with their track record of violence and lack of political experience, will behave while in office.

The electoral experiences of the past month in these four countries hold lessons for the parliamentary elections in Montenegro 10 days from now. Poverty and corruption have become a way of life in Montenegro. Some workers say they have not been paid in two years and that they are living on a subsistence income of about $2 a day.

What remains unclear is the extent to which voters will perceive this election as a referendum on the future relationship with Serbia in a common state or as a test of how they have fared economically and politically under President Milo Djukanovic and his government.

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