Balkan Voters Send Mixed Messages

Balkan Press Analyzes Election Results

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo discuss the elections
Ethnic Albanians in Pristina discuss the Oct. 27 Kosovo elections, which were marred by record-low turnout (Photo: Armando Babani/AFP).

Balkan voters have sent the world mixed messages in a series of pivotal elections this fall. On one hand, Western powers and the United Nations have been given a sign that their efforts to pacify the region have yielded positive results. On the other hand, the election season has shown that such efforts were not universally successful and that more will need to be done to bring economic and political stability to the Balkans.

Until recently, it seemed unlikely that a region battered by a decade of bloody wars and the worst ethnic conflicts in recent European history would embrace political stability. But a huge step forward was made at recent elections in Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, where electoral processes were evaluated as the most democratic ever in the region, with almost no disturbances or violence.

The election results differed widely across the region. The defeat of nationalist parties in Sept. 15 elections in Macedonia, and Oct. 20 voting in Montenegro, suggested that voters are now concerned more with improving their standard of living through economic reform and membership in the European Union than in ethnic identity and ancient disputes. Conversely, the success of nationalist parties and low voter turnout in two rounds of presidential elections in Serbia (Sept. 29 and Oct. 13) and an Oct. 5 general election in Bosnia have proved that change can be slow and that much more remains to be done to heal the region’s divisions.

In Macedonia, the opposition social democratic coalition headed by Branko Crvenkovski convincingly won parliamentary elections, while ethnic Albanian voters massively supported a party led by the chief of the now disbanded rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), Ali Ahmeti. However, as the Serbian independent weekly Vreme wrote on Sept. 19, “The most surprising thing for both the nation and [international] observers was that the elections, the first in Macedonia after (last year’s) armed conflict, were peaceful.”

That elections were held without incident was “just as important as the election result,” Vreme cheered. But the weekly went on to note that “although a decisive diplomatic intervention by the E.U. and the United States… has stopped the ‘fall’ of Macedonia and persuaded clashing forces to sign the Ohrid [peace] accord that halted clashes, disarmed the NLA, and gave the ethnic Albanian minority in Macedonia more rights and more visible participation in power, interethnic distrust is still very deep and the economic situation extremely difficult.” Therefore, Vreme concluded, “nobody should be deceived that Macedonia has overcome its crisis through elections. New authorities will yet have to prove that they are capable of taking the country toward stability and economic prosperity.”

In Montenegro, which has been bruised by years of political instability and divisions, a pro-Western coalition led by President Milo Djukanovic won an absolute majority in Parliament, defeating an opposition bloc led by Predrag Bulatovic, once a close ally of former authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Following the election, “Montenegro can enter a phase of full adaptation to European standards with much more tranquility,” Slavoljub Scekic of the Podgorica-based private daily Vijesti wrote (Oct. 22).

Djukanovic’s coalition “was given enough time, objective power, and authority to continue reforms, clean up crime, corruption, and all other accompanying effects of transition,” Scekic said. In an Oct. 22 editorial, the Serbian independent daily Danas posited that “Montenegro is the only country in the region that has managed to raise itself above domination by nationalist parties,” which, the paper said, should be seen as “the most important value of this election.”

Unlike in Macedonia and Montenegro—where more than 76 and 77 percent of voters showed up at the polls, respectively—only 46 percent of Serbs cast their ballot in the presidential run-off on Oct. 13, leading the election to be declared invalid because fewer than 50 percent of voters had participated. Another election is expected before the end of the year.

Apparently, neither the incumbent President Vojislav Kostunica nor Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus excited a majority of 6.5 million voters enough to convince them to vote. Moderate nationalist Kostunica and liberal economist Labus were both part of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition that toppled Milosevic in October 2000, but the two have split since then over reform strategy.

As Belgrade’s independent Danas reported on Oct. 15, “The divided winners of the 2000 election, with all they have done during their rule, do not have the active support of more than half of the citizenry. Some of the majority that did not participate in the election support other parties and options, but most of them simply mistrusted politicians.”

The abstainers were “voters who wanted to send a message that they did not want to identify themselves with politicians who have been notable for their intolerance and quarrels, while neglecting the issues that matter most to the people,” Branislav Radivojsa wrote in the pro-government daily Politika the same day. But the passive protest was probably counterproductive. As the independent weekly NIN’s Batic Bacevic pointed out on Oct. 17, “Elections are usually the best [method] for solving a political crisis or calming tensions. Serbia might become the only European country in which elections produce another crisis.”

Bacevic also stressed the fact that ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, who came a surprisingly strong third in the first round with 23 percent of votes, was the most satisfied with the failed elections. Many politicians and analysts predict that in the next election, Seselj may even reach the second round, and face Kostunica in a runoff. Nobody expects Labus to run again, as in the Oct. 13 runoff he gained only half as many votes as Kostunica.

While nationalist sentiment was in evidence in Serbia, in Bosnia it was a dominant political option, as three nationalist parties that led the country into war in the early 1990s—the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ), and the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS)—won seats in the tripartite executive created by the Dayton Agreement to give each constituency equal importance. Under the terms of the agreement, the chairman of the presidency rotates among the three groups every eight months.

Writing in the Bosnian Serb independent daily Nezavisne Novine (Oct 11), Mirko Pejanovic noted that voter apathy had contributed to the nationalist party victories. “By failing to show at the polling stations, almost 50 percent of Bosnia’s citizens, intentionally or not, supported nationalist parties.”

Following the election, Bosnia has only two ways to go, Pejanovic wrote: “the way of further economic impoverishment and ethnic divisions, or the way of reforms, economic development and acceptance into the E.U.” However, the nationalist parties’ record over the last decade did not leave Pejanovic optimistic about the chances for reform over the coming years: “It would be smart if social democratic and civic parties in both entities stay away from a coalition with nationalist parties. They should unite and show nationalist parties that they are the best advocates of reforms and Bosnia’s admission into the E.U.”

What should the outside world make of these results? By sending such mixed messages, it seems that people in the Balkans might be asking for more help. Having passed through a hellish decade, countries in this region need more time, and support, to continue with their political and economic transitions to democracy. This fall’s elections may be an ambiguous but crucial moment, one that could determine whether the Balkans will join the community of democratic countries or go back to ethnic divisions and further instability. How world powers decipher the election results could be decisive for the future of the region.