Serbia's early elections draw mixed reviews

03/02/2014

Opinions are divided on how Serbia's early parliamentary elections will affect the country's EU accession pace, implementation of reforms and negotiations with Kosovo.

By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 03/02/14

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Serbia President Tomislav Nikolic signed a decree to dissolve the parliament in Belgrade on January 29th, paving the way for early parliamentary elections. [AFP]

Serbian officials say a snap parliamentary election called for March 16th will be a critical step for securing public support for reforms the country needs before joining the EU.

"The state is facing difficult, painful reforms and meeting of EU membership terms," President Tomislav Nikolic said, adding that this requires support from the citizens.

While the government said the hastily called election, which could see the removal of Prime Minister Ivaca Dacic just weeks after Serbia began formal negotiations with the EU, will not slow Belgrade's accession path, some analysts expressed concern that the vote would be a distraction during a critical phase of the talks.

"The snap elections in Serbia may, to an extent, affect the course of the negotiations, given that they will bring some changes to the ministries and will delay the passing of the necessary laws," Maja Poznatov of the EurActiv web portal, which focuses on European integration, told SETimes.

"They should not affect the talks to a greater extent at this stage, since the process that is under way is the screening, which is more technical, but they may undoubtedly have consequences in the long term due to the slowing of reforms, as well as forming the main team for the negotiations, which has again been postponed because of the elections," Poznatov said.

Members of the outgoing cabinet said European integration would proceed on schedule.

Energy Minister Zorana Mihajlovic said that during the government's technical mandate, "regular activities and the negotiation process with the EU will not stop."

"We are doing everything. Nothing has been halted, nothing will stop, from the talks with the EU to all that we are doing in the technical mandate, until a new government is formed. I sincerely hope that will happen very soon," she told reporters.

Parliamentary elections have been held five times since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Early elections were held in 2000, 2003 and 2008, and regularly scheduled votes were held in 2007 and 2012.

Nikolic, who dissolved parliament on January 29th, setting the stage for new elections, said the vote will give the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) a stronger mandate to speed up reforms.

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European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (right) welcomes Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic to the first session of talks on Serbia's EU accession, at the EU headquarters in Brussels on January 21st. [AFP]

"I think there are conditions for fair elections, after which we will get a more energetic and enthusiastic government," Nikolic said.

Barring a major surprise, SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic is likely to become prime minister, replacing coalition partner Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) leader Dacic in the role.

According to pre-election polls, 42.1 percent of voters will support the SNS, 13.9 percent will vote for the opposition Democratic Party (DS) and 10.5 percent the SPS.

Despite the fact that he may lose his prime minister post, Dacic said he backed the decision to hold the early vote.

"I never thought of obstructing this decision," Dacic said. "We should do our maximum for the early elections not to jeopardise the reforms in Serbia, the negotiations with the EU and the dialogue with Kosovo."

Apart from the talks with the EU and economic reforms, there is fear in Serbia that the elections could also slow down negotiations with Kosovo, which largely condition Belgrade's path to Brussels.

Dusan Janjic, director of the Forum for Ethnic Relations, said it was not overly important to the EU whether there were elections in Serbia, but that Kosovo was an important matter for Brussels.

"Whatever government comes after Ivica Dacic's government will have to pass the test in the talks on Kosovo," Janjic told SETimes.

Poznatov said she expects a slight standstill in the dialogue with Pristina.

"There will certainly be no tough decisions during the election campaign," she told SETimes.

Seb Bytyci, executive director of the Balkan Policy Institute, told SETimes that with early elections, the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia will be paused, which will influence the implementation of the agreements reached during the talks.

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Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is a leading contender to become prime minister in the snap elections. [AFP]

"Holding the elections will lead to a break in dialogue, which will continue after the elections and the consolidation of the new government in Belgrade. The implementation of the agreement has been slow in Serbia, so it can hardly be slowed even more, but we can expect a stop during the election period," Bytyci said.

Bytyci said the need to continue the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade after the vote could lead to early elections in Kosovo as well.

"Already there are calls to organise elections in Kosovo this spring. By setting the date for elections in Serbia in March, it is expected that Kosovo will be pressured by the EU to hold elections at the same time so that the formation of new governments comes at the same time and the dialogue continues immediately," Bytyci said.

"If this is in accordance with the interests of the current government of Kosovo, we can expect that Kosovo will hold elections in spring, or even in March, like Serbia."

Serbia officially launched membership negotiations with the EU on January 21st. The country has a long negotiating process and several chapters it must fulfil in order to harmonise standards in all segments of society with those of the EU.

After calling the elections, the screening of certain chapters of the talks with Serbia continued in Brussels.

Tanja Miscevic, chief of Serbia's negotiating team, said the screening of Chapter 3, which was carried out on January 30th, proves that the process of association with the EU has not stopped.

"This screening is very important in my opinion, because it is the first after the calling of the elections and confirms that there is no stopping or changing of the plan of activities in European integration defined by March 2015," Miscevic told reporters in Brussels.

Although the EU would not comment regarding the snap vote, other officials had views on the matter.

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Before the elections were called, German Ambassador to Serbia Heinz Wilhelm told state-owned news agency Tanjug that Germany saw no need for new elections.

"I don't believe that the elections would be accepted with a lot of enthusiasm in Germany and other European countries, because you are opening negotiations and then, five weeks later, new elections are held, which means you're wasting time," he said.

Correspondent Enis Rexhepi in Pristina contributed to this report.

How do you think the elections will impact Serbia's EU talks? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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