Woodrow Wilson scholar: elections were "not massively unfair"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Oct 4 09:25:18 MDT 2000

NY Times, October 4, 2000

OP-ED: Yugoslavia Can Trust Its Voters


WASHINGTON - Before Yugoslavia's elections on Sept. 24, most Western
leaders expected that President Slobodan Milosevic and his coalition would
win - through intimidation of opponents and voters, repression of
independent media and simple theft of votes.

They were wrong. Though the elections were full of irregularities, they
were not massively unfair. The opposition won overwhelmingly in local
elections and took many seats in the federal parliament (though not an
absolute majority), and its candidate for the president, Vojislav
Kostunica, a law professor, defeated Mr. Milosevic.

This last victory is of historic importance. Mr. Milosevic came to power in
Serbia in 1987, and in the late 1980's a large majority of Serbs accepted
him as the national leader. In the early 1990's his popularity began to
decline, and for the last several years he has enjoyed the support of, at
most, one-quarter of the Serbs. Yet, because of the opposition's inability
to unite, no one could defeat him. Now, the miracle has happened.

But Slobodan Milosevic would not be Slobodan Milosevic if he did not pull
out a new trick just when his bag of tricks should be empty. He
acknowledges that Mr. Kostunica received more votes but claims that it was
less than the 50 percent plus one necessary to win, so that a second round
of elections must take place this Sunday.

With the same self-confidence they had before the elections, Western
leaders now say that Mr. Milosevic is wrong and that Mr. Kostunica is the
outright winner. They are correct. Indeed, there is no reason to doubt
several independent institutions in Belgrade that show Mr. Kostunica won
more than 50 percent of the votes and that the second round of elections is
unnecessary. It is obvious that the state electoral commission has
manipulated the results to reduce Mr. Kostunica's edge by several
percentage points. Even Mr. Milosevic's ally, the leader of the extreme
nationalist Radical Party, has congratulated Mr. Kostunica on his victory.

But Mr. Kostunica and the democratic opposition are making a mistake in
boycotting the second round of elections and calling on the people to
engage in mass protests to force Mr. Milosevic to acknowledge defeat.
Though many have responded to these appeals and Serbia seems to be in
revolutionary turmoil, this turmoil is unlikely to turn into a revolution.
The strikes and other mass protests hurt ordinary Serbs more than Mr.
Milosevic and his clique, who have endured them many times before. The
strikes cannot continue for long. Admittedly, after demonstrations in the
winter of 1996 and 1997, Mr. Milosevic conceded the defeat of his party in
local elections. But now much more is at stake.

The turmoil in Serbia has thus far been nonviolent. Yet many Serbs are
afraid of civil war, and this is one reason why the participation in the
protests and strikes is not greater. Others do not understand what the fuss
is all about: Mr. Milosevic does not say he won, but just wants another
round. For many people, winning by a small percentage of votes is not as
significant as it would be in stable democracies where precise and
objective counting of votes has been routine for many generations.

By agreeing to the second round of elections, the opposition would not be
accepting the results of the state electoral commission. Nor should it stop
people from protesting. It is enough for the opposition to say that it does
not fear the ballot box and has full confidence that the Serbian people
will again vote for its candidate. All analyses show that Mr. Kostunica
would score a victory even greater than the one before.

I believe Mr. Milosevic has neither the will nor the ability to steal as
many votes as Mr. Kostunica is certain to win, and if he were somehow to do
that and proclaim victory, the anger of the people would be enormous.
Protests and strikes would be much larger than they are now.

If the opposition really does boycott the elections, Mr. Milosevic will
proclaim himself a winner. His legitimacy would be shakier than ever
before, and he would not be able to consolidate his power again. But the
democratic transition would also be postponed, and Serbia, which has lost
more than a decade to war, would lose even more time.

Aleksa Djilas, a Serbian historian, is a public policy scholar at the
Woodrow Wilson Center.

Louis Proyect
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