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Serbia: Government Crisis Suggests Early Elections

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica (file photo) A crisis has emerged in Serbia's six-party minority government that has led to the expulsion of one of the smaller parties. Speculation now centers on whether the latest developments will lead to the early parliamentary elections that many observers have long predicted for later in 2005.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on 24 August that the small Social Democratic Party (SDP), which belongs to his minority government, should either support the government or leave it, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. His remarks were triggered by the recent decision of the SDP not to back the government's proposal for a restructuring of the state-run Oil Industry of Serbia (NIS), which is the first step in the privatization of the company as called for by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Kostunica managed to put together enough votes to pass the measure but called on government officials belonging to the SDP to resign their posts.

Targeting Some Familiar Faces

Prominent SDP members include Slobodan Orlic, who heads the government of Serbia and Montenegro's information department, and Nebojsa Covic, who is that government's point man for southern Serbia and Kosova. Covic recently made political overtures to former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) to work together in support of leftist positions.

In response to Kostunica's challenge, Orlic said that no Social Democrat will resign of his own accord and that Kostunica will have to fire any SDP member whom he wants out of office. Orlic also challenged Kostunica to see if he can muster enough votes in the legislature to govern without the SDP, which has two parliamentary seats. Orlic said that he doubts that the prime minister can command the necessary 126 votes to stay in power in the 250-seat legislature. Kostunica has governed since early 2004 only with SPS parliamentary support.
This crisis has attracted attention because its potential implications could go far beyond the ability of the SDP to affect parliamentary decisions with its two votes.

The Serbian government reacted quickly to Orlic's tough stance and decided on 25 August to sack Covic. He held office by the mutual agreement of Serbia, Montenegro, and the joint state, so Serbia's withdrawal of its backing is sufficient to oust him. The cabinet also "recommended" to the government of the joint state that it fire Orlic.

Meho Omerovic, who is a top official of the SDP, said that it seems clear that Kostunica was targeting Orlic and Covic. Some SDP backers suggested that Kostunica wants Covic out of the way because the two men often compete for the same nationalist voters. Orlic took a similar position, pointing out that the government moved against him and Covic but left it up to other SDP members serving in lesser offices to declare whether they want to support the government or not. He said that the party leadership will meet on 27 August to decide its next move and inform party members in government institutions what they should do.

Possible Implications

This crisis has attracted attention because its potential implications could go far beyond the ability of the SDP to affect parliamentary decisions with its two votes. Kostunica formed his minority cabinet in early 2004 after refusing to bury his differences with the reformist Democratic Party. His deal with the SPS for legislative support has been called by many a Faustian pact. It was generally assumed from the outset that this is a temporary arrangement, and that Kostunica at some point will call new elections in hopes of getting a working majority by relying on his incumbency and personal popularity (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 February 2004 and 26 August 2005).

In June 2004, however, the Democrats' Boris Tadic won the Serbian presidency by about eight percentage points over the Serbian Radical Party's Tomislav Nikolic. That election left the impression that Serbia is moving from having a truly multiparty political landscape to having something more like that of Germany, in which there are two main parties and two or three lesser ones in the parliament. Subsequent opinion polls have confirmed this trend, with Tadic and Nikolic far outpacing Kostunica in ratings for Serbia's most popular politician.

Consequently, it is not surprising that Kostunica lost much of his enthusiasm for early elections. Recent polls showed that not only would his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) probably finish third, but most of his coalition partners probably would not clear the 5 percent hurdle. Furthermore, Tadic proved to be an articulate and media-conscious reformist political figure who could also play the nationalist card, which had hitherto been a strong point of Kostunica's among reformist politicians (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 February 2005).

The SDP might therefore be in a better position to drive a hard bargain than its legislative strength of two votes might indicate.

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