Serbia's Absurd, and Dangerous, Elections

Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Radical Party, is running for office despite being under indictment at The Hague tribunal for war crimes
The leader of Serbia's Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, is one of the nationalists running for office despite being under indictment for war crimes at The Hague (Undated file photo Notimex/AFP-Getty Images).

Following three failed attempts over 13 months, Serbian voters will vote for a president again in January. Serbian election law requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for an election to be valid. The most recent presidential polls, held Nov. 16, saw only a 36-percent voter turnout. Tomislav Nikolic, the candidate of the nationalist, pro-Slobodan Milosevic Radical Party, received 46 percent of the vote. The Radical Party’s leader, Vojislav Seselj, is in The Hague awaiting trial for war crimes. But that won’t stop him, Milosevic, or two other nationalists indicted for war crimes from running for office in the Dec. 28 parliamentary elections. In an article for Belgrade’s weekly NIN magazine, Petar Ignja argues that Serbian election laws must be revised to address what he calls an absurd situation.—WPR

The Serbian authorities did the best they could to fix the unfixable. They tried everything. Chemistry didn’t help. So they tried alchemy, only to realize they needed to do what had been necessary from the beginning: call for an election. This was the only logical solution. Elections are the way to deal with a political crisis everywhere else in the world. Some might say they should have done it earlier. Maybe they could have resolved it [in August 2001], when the breakdown of the first democratically elected coalition sparked the crisis in the first place. But like it or not, those issues are no longer relevant. They are gone with the wind. Writing about them would be a waste of time. But there are certain questions that are worth giving serious thought: Will Serbia develop into a “normal” democratic country after the December elections? Are these elections going to be normal?

As the answer to the second question is simpler; we should begin at the end.

Vojislav Seselj and Slobodan Milosevic will stand as candidates for their respective parties, the Serbian Radicals and the Socialist Party of Serbia. Since both parties are big enough to enter Parliament, in theory both candidates could become elected representatives in our glorious Serbian Assembly. Both men are currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague. So far, the tribunal has not issued an accreditation letter to Serbia’s Election Commission confirming that those future members of Parliament would occasionally be allowed out of jail to be present at the sessions. According to the Constitution, the Parliament consists of 250 elected representatives. It seems logical to expect that all 250 of them would be able to attend the sessions. For a rational mind, it is hard to accept that the officially elected member might not be able to participate in the work of Parliament because he is in prison.

Bearing the election law in mind, members of Serbia’s Election Commission have already said that there are no legal obstacles to Vojislav Seselj’s name appearing on the election ticket. Strictly speaking, that might be so. Nevertheless, many great lawyers such as [Serbian historian and jurist] Slobodan Jovanovic, one of the biggest names in Serbian legislative history, used to say that one should keep the broader picture in mind when reading the law, particularly if a regulation could disturb the functioning of society if read literally. The law needs to be obeyed, but at the same time, the law needs to obey reason. In this case, reason says that people who are sitting in jail cannot also be present at a legislative session.

So we can now conclude that the elections will be held under at least one distinctly abnormal condition.

For the sake of argument, let us follow this line of reasoning through to its absurd conclusion. Theoretically, it could happen that all 250 newly elected members of Parliament might be prisoners. If so, how would we assemble the Parliament? How would the sessions run?

Some of our most eminent legal experts lately have raised their voices, claiming that a Seselj or Milosevic election victory would set a grave precedent in European parliamentary practice. They say that such a bizarre situation was not foreseeable, but they do not say anything about the possible ways to prevent it now.

“It was not foreseeable.” Yeah, right. Even a person with limited political knowledge, one who knew just a little about the practices of the Radical Party, could have said for a fact that this charade was bound to happen. The representatives of the people’s authority—divided, immature, and busy with their own affairs—unfortunately did not have enough time to formulate a decent election law. Finally, to bring up yet another paradox, the present election law is even older than the constitution imposed by Slobodan Milosevic. According to our election law, the political structure of Serbia is still socialism.

The president of the Yugoslav Board of Lawyers, Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, expresses deep shock at what’s going on. She confirms that the election law did not foresee a situation of this kind. There was never the need to account for a situation as nonsensical as this. Since parliamentary elections are a fairly serious issue, it was logical to assume that an elected representative would be able to be physically present in the Parliament. According to her, having Seselj, and most probably Milosevic, as elected members of Parliament would be absurd, “primarily because it would defy the laws of physics, but also moral laws and common sense. As to the Election Commission’s claim that there are no obstacles to Seselj’s becoming one of the candidates, this idea is so absurd that it is not worthy of comment.”

Kovacevic-Vuco says she would not be surprised if a debate began over whether we should ask for Seselj to be returned from The Hague in the name of Serbia’s national interests. “The members of the State Election Commission could learn a few things about logic and the law, as the legal profession exists precisely because, from time to time, there is a need to interpret the law and how much sense it makes, given the circumstances.” Kovacevic-Vuco gave a good example: Even when someone applies for a job as a street-cleaner, he needs to prove that he is not under criminal investigation.

Lawyers who prefer Cicero to Slobodan Jovanovic claim that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Not a single person with a clear mind would challenge this. But we should not forget a simple fact: Voters are supposed to elect someone to represent them in Parliament, not in prison.

When it comes to the question from the beginning of the article, as to whether Serbia will become a normal country after the coming elections, there is no easy answer. Not even [Mitar] Tarabic, the famous [19th-century Serbian] soothsayer, could predict it. If the parties continue to form false coalitions, if we once again elect people who acted like mad dogs biting each other only to turn around and say that they would consider reconciliation in the name of the nation, then we may find, as the saying goes, that “the pitcher that goes too often to the well will be broken at last.”