Dejan Kozul in Belgrade -
If it's true that familiarity breeds contempt, then Serbs are sick of the numerous elections they've had over the past two decades. A low turnout in May's elections, therefore, could finally hand power to the ultranationalist Radical party, though the pro-Western coalition is ahead in the polls.
In the forthcoming parliamentary and provincial elections on May 11, Serbian voters will have a chance to vote for the 25th time in 18 years of parliamentary democracy (including presidential, provincial, parliamentary elections and referendums). The governments here typically last less than two years; the only country that can compare with that is Italy, where it is considered a success if the government lasts more then two years. Between 2002 and 2004, Serbia had six presidential elections that failed simply because not enough people voted. Since 2000, Serbia has changed four governments and the fifth one is about to come in after these elections in May.
With people fed up of elections, another low turnout is expected and this could mean victory for the country's largest party, the Radicals. This nationalist party, under the acting leadership of Tomislav Nikolic (the actual leader is in The Hague awaiting trial), have never been closer to the top. Even during the rule of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic, the Radicals didn't enjoy this kind of support. But since the start of democratic changes after Milosevic was overthrown in 2000, the Radicals' support has strengthened until they are now the largest party, though have been kept out of power by a coalition of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS).
These elections have come about because PM Kostunica resigned from his post on March 8 following disagreements within the coalition government over Kosovo and EU integration.
Most Serbian citizens didn't think that they would again find themselves in the position they were in eight years ago, choosing between self-isolation and European integration. Marko Blagojevic, from the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, says that choosing Serbia's future direction is not the only similarity to the elections in 2000. "If we compare results from the last presidential elections and from the year 2000, there are so many similarities. Back then, Milosevic and Nikolic won 2m votes and Kostunica won 2.3m. This is the same ratio as in presidential elections that recently ended," explains Blagojevic. Tadic narrowly won reelection with 50.31% of the vote in a second round of voting on February 3 against Nikolic.
Despite that setback, the Radicals have seen their popularity rise since 2000. But will it be enough to win an outright majority?
For years, the consensus was that the Radicals' succeed in elections only if the turnout is low. However, the last presidential elections proved this thinking wrong: the turnout was more then 70%, yet Nikolic won 49% of the vote.
Pundits point out, however, that this doesn't mean nationalists comprise one half of the population. The Radicals have 500,000 regular voters, which is 10% of voters in Serbia; the rest are unsatisfied citizens, roughly translated as "transitional losers" - those groups such as the unemployed, poor and dissatisfied who have not benefited from the country's transition and who now comprise a huge voting army looking to the Radicals for change. "Any kind of change and uncertainty is better then the present situation - this is their way of thinking", says Blagojevic.
Certainly, PM Kostunica is playing the pessimistic card. On March 24, the PM said that Serbs should be prepared to wait "many, many years" for EU membership until the EU formally recognizes Kosovo as part of Serbia. He added that Norway and Switzerland "cooperate" with the EU, but are not members of it. However, analysts retort that Norway and Switzerland rank in the world's top-10 richest countries by GDP per capita, while Serbia is down in 104th place.
The citizens of Serbia are not the only ones who are frightened of the situation. Foreign investors have already stopped making further investments in Serbia until after the elections. The information from Serbia Investment and Export Promotion Agency is worrying - more then €750m of potential investment has been "frozen," pending the results.
What are the polls saying? On March 21, a Medium Gallup poll showed that the coalition gathered around President Tadic's DS would win 39.9% of votes, or 105 seats in the 250-seat Chamber. The Radicals could count on 37.1% of the votes, or 95 seats, while the coalition led by PM Kostunica would garner 10.4% of the votes, which would secure them 26 seats. The Socialists of Ivica Dacic would win 5.34% of the votes, or 14 seats in parliament. Tadic is the most popular politician in Serbia with 45.6% of citizens saying they have a positive opinion about him, followed by Nikolic with 41.1%.
The optimists say this shows that like the last presidential election, when Serbs are asked to choose between isolation and integration, they prove to be more responsible than their political parties.
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