1706529115 The opposition in Serbia is promoting protests against alleged voter

The opposition in Serbia is promoting protests against alleged voter fraud in December's elections

The opposition in Serbia is promoting protests against alleged voter

Serbia's president, conservative nationalist Aleksandar Vucic, is unable to quell the protests that erupted against his government when two random shootings in May left 18 people, including nine minors, dead. To calm the streets, Vucic brought forward parliamentary and local elections in 65 municipalities to December 17th. This initiative led to the creation of an opposition coalition of eight parties – left, center and right – called Serbia Against Violence (SPN). The alliance sought to govern at least in Belgrade, but Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won both the parliamentary elections and most local elections, including in the capital. The 53-year-old president's power has been strengthened, but his image is under attack. Since the day the results were announced, there have been several large demonstrations in front of the headquarters of the Electoral Commission of the Republic, accusing the government of electoral fraud.

After more than ten days without demonstrations, thousands of people protested again in Belgrade on Tuesday, January 16th. That same week, the coalition appealed to the country's Constitutional Court to annul local elections in the capital. Biljana Djordjevic, co-chair of the Green Front-Left party, points out via video conference that the “fraud” took place not only in local elections, but also in parliamentary elections. “But the most compelling evidence is in Belgrade,” he says. Djordjevic assures that in Belgrade the meaning of the vote was changed and “the majority (of the opposition) became a minority.”

Biljana Djordjevic explains that the opposition coalition had many volunteers who controlled the polling stations. “That's why we saw how many people came to Belgrade by bus from other communities and even from Bosnia-Herzegovina. We found out that they met at the Stark Arena, a large sports hall built in 2005 for the European Basketball Championships and where concerts usually take place. That's where they concentrated these election tourists; There they were given instructions so they knew where to go to vote. When citizens alerted us, members of the electoral commission came to the pavilion, but the facility's security personnel allowed them entry. The police didn’t show up and eventually the Election Commission claimed it had no authority to look into the matter.”

In the parliamentary elections, the Serbian Progressive Party won 129 of the 250 seats in parliament with 46.8% of the vote, while Serbia Against Violence (SPN) only received 23.7% of the vote and 65 deputies. However, in the local elections in Belgrade the gap was narrower: the ruling SNS won with 39.1% of the vote compared to 34.6% for the SPN. According to the opposition alliance, a difference of less than five percentage points and 41,810 votes was enough to turn the election in the country's capital, which is home to 1.4 million residents and a quarter of the Serbian electorate.

Vucic, who has ruled Serbia for the last decade, three years as prime minister (2014-2017) and the last seven years as president, maintains excellent relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia while seeking to strengthen ties with Brussels as he is the official candidate for the office is joining the European Union.

Two days after the elections, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and EU Neighborhood Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi released a joint statement expressing “concern” about the “tangible improvements and new reforms” that the electoral process suffered underneath. And they warned: “We also assume that credible allegations of irregularities will be followed up transparently by the relevant national authorities.” This includes complaints related to local elections in Belgrade and other municipalities.”

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But just as Vucic navigates between the waters of Moscow and Brussels, EU authorities are trying to nurture the relationship with an indispensable partner for controlling irregular migration and maintaining the precarious peace in the Balkans.

“Illegal voter migration”

The Belgrade-based Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) says it monitored the electoral process with 3,000 observers on site. This civil society group warned even before the elections about what, according to the independent group itself, ultimately happened: the illegal migration of voters, the massive expulsion of voters to places where they were not registered.

Rasa Nedeljkov, CRTA's program director, gave a speech to members of the German Bundestag's EU Affairs Committee last Wednesday, in which he spoke to them about the “political pressure” that “dozens of citizens” are facing for Vucic's party. Nedeljkov described the case of a woman with cancer who was waiting for a surgical procedure that could save her life. “They asked him to do the party a favor so that in return they would advance the date of the operation,” the CRTA director said.

Nedeljkov added to German parliamentarians that on election day his organization found that 10% of polling stations in Belgrade and 5% of polling stations in the parliamentary elections had “serious irregularities” such as vote-buying and polling station violations, among other things, of voting secrecy. “In Belgrade, CRTA also identified patterns of organized voter migration and problems with voter registration in 14% of polling stations,” he said.

The activist noted in his speech that what CRTA observers revealed was “just the tip of the iceberg.” He said his organization was observing a pattern of behavior in which “people's primary residence, necessary to participate in local elections, was moved to Belgrade in an organized and corrupt manner shortly before the elections; These people were registered in groups, (…) they were accompanied to vote. And after the elections it was removed from the electoral register.”

“This operation,” Nedeljkov continued, “can only have been orchestrated within the institutions: the Ministry of the Interior, which maintains the population register; the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government, which maintains the electoral register; and the local autonomies that update the electoral register of their areas.”

Actions before the international community

Biljana Djordjevic, the co-leader of the Green Front-Left, claims that the opposition will continue its fight through demonstrations, appeals to the Constitutional Court and actions before the international community.

An article published in the Financial Times on January 13 asked why the European Union was so “soft” on Serbia. The author noted: “One wonders whether the West's efforts to work constructively with Vucic are bringing any real benefits.” As for the quality of Serbian democracy, a pro-Western foreign policy and the search for a solution to Kosovo, the answer seems to be one to be a clear no.”

Nedeljkov, CRTA's program director, told this newspaper via video conference: “The average Serbian citizen is a victim of the government's manipulation of the media.” But despite everything, there are still people here who are ready to defend European values. But we need a little help from countries like Spain, Germany or France. We need the condemnation of the authoritarian regime in Serbia and the recognition of the will of the people fighting for European values.”

Aleksandra Tomanic, director of the NGO European Fund for The Balkans, said by phone: “Democracy has been under threat in Serbia for many years. But now the fraud has reached a different dimension. It is therefore important that international organizations respond. Not only for democracy in Serbia, but also for his own credibility.”

This newspaper has tried unsuccessfully to obtain the version of the Serbian presidency, which has rejected allegations of electoral fraud in the local media.

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