High turnout in first round of Serbian presidential poll makes run-off too close to call

By bne IntelliNews January 22, 2008

Dominic Swire in Belgrade -

The result of Serbia's presidential election was no big surprise, with the nationalist hardliner Tomislav Nikolic claiming a slim victory and taking the elections to a second round on February 3 against the incumbent president, Boris Tadic. The astonishingly high turnout, however, makes the result of the second round far too close to call.

For weeks, pundits were predicting the Serbian presidential elections would go to a second round with the acting leader of the Radical Party Nikolic claiming a slight lead over the pro-reform Democratic Party candidate Tadic. On January 20, this was confirmed with Nikolic claiming 39.6% of votes, just above Tadic's 35.5%. What nobody expected, however, was the number of people who would turn out to vote.

Just one week before the election, director of the research firm Strategic Marketing, Bogosav Ljevi, was quoted as saying, "At the end of the day, there isn't even much tension around the campaign as these elections aren't, at least for now, being viewed as particularly important."

Boy, was he wrong. Over 60% of the electorate cast their vote in the first round, the highest since 2000 when ex-dictator Slobodan Milosevic was clinging to power. Prior to the election, many experts were saying a high turnout would bode well for the Democratic Party, who traditionally have a hard time mobilizing their supporters, many of whom choose to support one of the lesser candidates in the first round, before succumbing to the Democrats in the second. At least, this is what happened when the same two candidates fought for the presidency four years ago, which resulted in a Tadic victory.

However, Balkan expert James Lyons from the International Crisis Group points out that the most surprising fact in this election was that 75% of the electorate chose to vote for one of the two main parties in the first round, leaving fewer fringe votes to scrap over. Velimir Ilic, who had the backing of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, won just 7.6% of the vote; Cedomir Jovanovic, the staunchly pro-Western leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, got 5.6%. "Many people thought Ilic would do poorly, but not that poorly. Some said Jovanovic would do better - everyone expected the higher numbers to come out in the second round," Lyons says.

Given what happened in the first round, Lyons says it's impossible to predict what will transpire in the second. So far, nobody knows which side PM Kostunica is going to come out and support - if indeed anybody - and whether his voters will even do what he says. Jovanovic supporters are generally assumed to jump ship to the Democrat camp when it counts, but Lyons says some of them are so upset with the corruption of the Democrat camp, which is seen as even worse than the notorious kleptocratic Milosevic regime, many could abstain - or even vote for Nikolic out of spite. "There are no answers," says Lyons. "If anyone tells you they know what's going to happen, they're blowing smoke up your butt. It's a tough call because the turnout was so high."

A referendum on Europe

The tactic for Tadic's team now is to paint the second round as a referendum on the EU. This was certainly the message the party was sending out just minutes after preliminary results had been announced on the 25th floor of the new glass-walled skyscraper that the Democrats had chosen as a press base for election night.

"In exactly two weeks, we will have a referendum on the direction of where Serbia wants to go... we will be doing everything in our capacity to mobilize all those who are for are for a European, open, progressive Serbia," Vice President of the government Bozidar Delic told bne following a rousing speech from Tadic. "Our main challenge is to have a majority, albeit not a very big one, which is pro-EU and pro-reform to come out and vote. We will do our part but Europe has to do its part as well."

Brussels has certainly been waving carrots, notably by arranging the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, the first step to joining the EU, in the middle of the elections on January 28 - a date seemingly chosen to give the Democratic Party's European project a boost. Perhaps even more desperately, the EU also recently announced that talks on creating a visa-free regime between Serbia and the EU - an issue close to the heart of many Serbs - are to start in Belgrade on January 30.

Having said that, membership talks come with many strings attached. The bloc is in favour of an independent Kosovo, and insists that Serbia hand over suspected war criminals who still remain at large. Balkan expert Denisa Kostovicova from the London School of Economics warns that balancing such demands with incentives is a dangerous game. "The EU has no easy option. If it insists on conditionality, it may radicalise the electorate. If it drops the conditionality, it blunts its own - and one could say the only - tool to press for Serbia's further democratization," says Kostovicova.


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High turnout in first round of Serbian presidential poll makes run-off too close to call

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