N1 exclusive: ODIHR report on Serbian December 17 elections – campaign dominated by Vucic

N1

The ODIHR Report on the Serbian December 17, 2023 elections reads that necessary legislative amendments should be initiated well in advance of the next elections through an inclusive consultative process built upon a broad political consensus.

It says that observers noted frequent overcrowding and procedural inconsistencies on election day, underscoring the need for adequate training. Further, some instances of serious irregularities, including vote-buying and ballot box stuffing were observed. It adds that measures for ensuring vote secrecy were insufficient, at odds with previous ODIHR recommendations.

Observers also noted numerous instances of group voting, some cases of undue influence and unauthorized tracking of voters, as well as ballot photographing.

“Vote count at polling stations and results tabulation at LECs were generally efficient, yet procedural safeguards were inconsistently implemented,” said ODIHR in its Report.

Contributing to transparency, preliminary voting results by polling stations were promptly published online, in line with a prior ODIHR recommendation.

The Report says that, after election day, the opposition alleged widespread irregularities, including pressure on voters, vote buying, as well as organized busing of voters, and launched daily demonstrations in Belgrade.

“The protests were generally peaceful but violent incidents occurred on 24 December, which led to the arrests several protestors. The LECs received some 360 and the REC 36 complaints regarding the voting procedures and polling station results, mainly requesting the annulment of voting in polling stations; most of these complaints were rejected. Due to procedural irregularities, the voting was repeated at 43 polling stations on 30 December and 2 January 2024. The final electoral results were announced on 12 January, and the parliament was constituted on 6 February. The voter turnout was 58.69 per cent,” said ODIHR.

“If reconstituted, the inter-agency Working Group on Co-ordination and Follow-up of the Implementation of Recommendations for the Improvement of the Electoral Process should act in full transparency, with the inclusion of relevant stakeholders, such as civil society organizations,” says the ODIHR Report on Serbian 2023 elections.

It adds that, as previously recommended, to ensure consistent application of election day procedures and enhance the professional capacity of the election administration, standardized mandatory training could be considered for all Local Electoral Commission and Polling Board members and prospective members, including the extended compositions of these bodies.

“To enhance the effective exercise of voting rights, the Republic Electoral Commission should develop and implement a timely, comprehensive and targeted voter education programme, including on voters’ rights, the prevention of group voting, and the importance of voting by secret ballot. Detailed voter information and education materials should be available in various accessible formats,” the ODIHR said in its recommendations.

It noted that, to address concerns over the accuracy of voter lists and increase public confidence, the relevant laws, regulations, and practices should be reconsidered to enable access to voter registration data and facilitate the conduct of a meaningful audit of the Unified Voter Register with the participation of relevant stakeholders, including political parties and civil society, in line with data protection standards.

Election campaign dominated by Vucic

The overall subdued campaign, dominated by the incumbent president, was characterized by hardened polarization, aggressive rhetoric, personal discreditation, verbal abuse and inflammatory language.

Freedoms of expression and assembly were generally respected in the campaign, and the elections offered voters a choice between genuine political alternatives.

Yet, instances of pressure on public sector employees, misuse of public resources, and voter inducement schemes raised concerns about voters’ ability to make a choice free from undue pressure.

These practices, in addition to some challenges in accessing public venues for the opposition, tilted the playing field, and blurred the line between state and the party, at odds with international standards and paragraph 5.4 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

In the media, the diversity of views was reduced by hardened polarization and a strong influence of the government on most outlets. The ODIHR EOM received numerous reports about critical journalists subjected to verbal insults and attacks by state officials and pro-government media, to self-censorship; many ODIHR EOM interlocutors noted a culture of impunity of such actions.

Despite legislative changes extending the ban on coverage by broadcasters of public officials participating in public infrastructure inauguration events, the significant and undue advantage of incumbency through extensive promotion of governmental projects by non-candidate public officials remained unaddressed.

All monitored national channels covered campaign activities in line with the law, but positive coverage of the President and ruling parties dominated the programmes of most broadcasters further tilted the level playing field. The Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM) maintained a notably passive approach to regulating media conduct during the campaign.