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Balkan commentator Richard Cowper says this Sunday’s bitter Serbian election may give President Boris Tadic’s pro-European Union bloc the most seats, but it is still not clear whether it will be able to form a governing coalition. May 12th.

Pro-European bloc in poll position as parties battle to form Serb government

By Richard Cowper in Belgrade*

Serbian voters appear to have reacted positively to a strongly interventionist political campaign from the European Union by voting the country’s main pro-EU bloc into first place. This will give President Boris Tadic’s pro-Western, Democratic Party (DS), a real chance of putting together a coalition to govern the country.

But with no single party or electoral list winning the necessary 126 seats to secure an outright majority in the 250-seat parliament, the outcome is still not certain and there could be days or weeks of political haggling between the nation’s 30-plus parties before a governing coalition is announced.

The EU offer on visas to make it easier and cheaper for Serbs to travel to Europe and the signing less than a week ago of an EU Stabilisation and Association agreement (SAA) with ministers from the caretaker government convinced voters that their future really was inside the EU and not on closer relations with Moscow or in splendid isolation.

“Most commentators got it wrong. A serious intervention by the EU late in the campaign seems to have had a big impact. The key thing was the SAA and the Euros700m deal signed with the Fiat car company less than a week ago. For voters it was just simple mathematics. With the EU, you’ve got jobs. Without the EU, you don’t have jobs,” said Alexandar Vasovic, a leading Serbian political commentator, who has observed all the Serb elections this decade.

Estimates based on representative counts from polling stations by the widely-respected Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) show that the pro-European bloc led by Mr Boris Tadic’s DS, is set to get 37.8% of the votes (103 seats) with the old-style hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party ( SRS), led by Tomislav Nikolic, expected to win 29% (77 seats), down from 81 seats in the last parliament, almost the complete reverse of what most analysts had predicted.

Outgoing nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and its junior partner New Serbia, won 11.3% or 30 seats, a sharp drop from the 47 seats they held previously. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SRP), the party of the much-reviled nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosvic, won a surprising 7.9 per cent of the vote and looks set to secure 20 seats in the new parliament. Cedomir Jovanovic’s Liberal Democrat Pary (LDP) won 5.2% of the vote and is predicted to get 13 seats.

Mr Tadic’s party is expected to try and ignore its previous partner, Mr Kostunica’s DSS, and opt to try and form a government with a rainbow coalition of small parties, possibly including Ivica Dacic’s  Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) which appears intent on trying to transform itself into a viable and modern new-left socialist party, capable of playing a more responsible role in post-communist society.

If the DS manages to form a governing coalition favourite for prime-minister is either former deputy Prime Minister Božidar Đelić of the DS or Mladan Dinkic, a former Minister of Finance from the minority G17 party. But if the DS is unsuccessful all bets are off, and it is even possible that a right-wing, ultra-nationalist coalition of the SRP radicals, DSS socialists,and the SPS might be formed with Mr Kostunica becoming premier for the third time.

The poll has been billed as the most crucial election in the Balkan state since voters ejected Milosevic from power just over seven years ago. It matters because the outcome will decide whether Serbia opts to continue reforming its outdated socialist-style economy and joins the European Union or whether it is likely to remain mired in the past, obsessed with dreams of regaining lost lands and forced to rely on forging closer links with Moscow.

Despite the better than expected result by the pro-EU DS the nation remains deeply split and just how long any government will last is unclear.

This is nothing new. Since Milosevic was voted out of power in September 2000 Serbs have been plagued by uncertainty and poor governance, recording eight parliamentary and presidential elections, many either invalid or inconclusive. The country has so far been unable to adjust to the loss of its role as the leading nation in the former Yugoslavia. These divisions turned to fresh tragedy in 2003 when Zoran Djindic, their most widely acclaimed leader since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, was assassinated.

It is hardly more than twelve months since the last parliamentary election brought together a fragile ruling coalition between President Tadic's pro-EU DS, and the DSS, led by Mr Kostunica, a once pragmatic old-style nationalist, who favours much closer ties with Russia and a less conciliatory attitude to the EU and the West.

This coalition collapsed into seemingly irreparable acrimony three months ago following the unilateral declaration of independence on February 17 by the former southern Serbian province of Kosovo and its subsequent recognition by over 30 nations, including the US and leading EU states.

If a governing coalition led by Mr Nikolic and his ultra-right SRS, forms the next government Serbia might well find its path to EU membership firmly blocked and its new leader turning the country towards Russia. For Brussels has made it a firm condition of Serb EU entry that it hands over Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, two alleged war criminals, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, in the Hague. But Mr Nikolic, a former overseer of cemeteries - who refers to himself as the "Undertaker" has made it clear he will not turn them in.

The election campaign was plagued by debate over Kosovo, the former southern Serb province that provoked the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, to bomb Belgrade in 1999, and then occupy the disputed territory with over 16,000 troops. Kosovo’s decision on February 17 this year to unilaterally declare its independence from  Belgrade after nine years of being run by a United Nations administration caused a storm of protest and heartache throughout Serbia. It deepened the split between old-style nationalists and democrats in the ruling coalition and led to the demise of the government just a few weeks later.

The emotive battle over a territory, 90% of whose inhabitants are Kosovar Albanians who do not want to be part of Serbia, helped to undermine what many had hoped was a steady progress towards becoming a full member of the EU. Brussels is keen to take on a leading role in smoothing Kosovo’s path to full independent status in the United Nations, and will at the very least expect Belgrade not to embark on any dangerous adventures in its former province.

But right-wing Serbian ultra-nationalists from groups such as the SRS, the DSS, and the SPS, all jumped on the Kosovo bandwagon, projecting it as the loss of the "indisputable cultural and religious heartland" of the Serbian nation.

It was the centrepiece of Mr Kostunica’s slick DSS election campaign. At a rally earlier this week in Republic square with rousing partisan songs, drums and fireworks Mr Kostunica said: “They are asking us to give up Kosovo. They are asking us to give up what we are. They say it is good for Serbia, but it is a lie. It is treason. If we lose Kosovo, we can only be a caravan of gypsies and we are not a caravan of gypsies. We are a respected nation”.

Violent and emotional rhetoric over Kosovo threatened to diverted attention throughout the election away from fundamental questions like when to join the EU, how to boost jobs, increase investment, and speed up the transition from the old-style socialist economy in a nation where official joblessness is 18% and salaries are often barely enough to live on.

But a late aggressive campaign by EU leaders and organisations over the last month seemed to tip the balance away from a clear win for the right-wing radicals and nationalists who talked of sending troops to Kosovo and invited a series of Russian speakers to take part in their election rallies.

In the early hours of this morning rowdy supporters of Mr Tadic’s pro-EU democratic party were roaring around Belgrade streets in cars celebrating victory. But this was premature. Precisely which parties will form the next government in Belgrade is still unclear and may not be known for several days or even months.

The incentive of securing jobs and money in the usual round of political horsetrading may bring together some strange bedfellows. Analysts suggest that if Mr Tadic’s DS party is to form the next government it will have no choice but to get into bed with one of its oldest enemies, the Milosevic’s SPS.

"It has been a very unpleasant campaign and it’s not over yet," a senior western diplomat in Belgrade said yesterday. In my book the likelihood of the parties being unable to get their act together is quite high. A new election in the autumn is somewhere between possible to probable. For Serbia that would simply mean more wasted time."


*Richard Cowper is an economist and foreign policy expert, who worked for the Financial Times of London for 30 years. He can be contacted by email at