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Serbia’s local elections well organised but marred by unlevel playing field - ODIHR

Jun 4, 2024, 9:58:18 AMArticle by Iskra Pavlova
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June 4 (SeeNews) - Serbia’s June 2 local elections were well run and freedom of expression and assembly were respected, but the dominance of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) as well as the fragmentation of the opposition reduced their competitiveness, while allegations of widespread pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources favoured the ruling coalition, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said.

Serbia’s local elections well organised but marred by unlevel playing field - ODIHR
Photo: OSCE/Katya Andrusz

Even though the legal framework is adequate to carry out democratic elections, several key issues have remained unaddressed, including on the misuse of public resources and oversight of media and of campaign finance, ODIHR said in a statement on Monday.

It noted that the parliamentary working group including representatives from the ruling and opposition parties and from the civil society, which was set up in April to address all previous ODIHR recommendations, had failed to agree on any draft proposals ahead of the election day.

"While these elections were well run, we nonetheless witnessed a dominance of the ruling party and misuse of public resources," the head of the ODIHR election observation mission, Lamberto Zannier, said in the statement. "I very much welcome the creation of the working group for working on the implementation of ODIHR’s recommendations to improve the election process. But now all members from across the political spectrum must show commitment to moving forward, not just for the benefit of one election or one party, but for the future of all citizens."

On Sunday, local elections were repeated in Belgrade and in 87 out of 145 municipalities across the country. The rerun was called after the main opposition alliance in the country, Serbia Against Violence, insisted that both parliamentary and local elections held in December 2023 were allegedly fraught with irregularities, sparking significant street protests. In December, SNS won 47% of the snap general election vote, while Serbia Against Violence coalition came second with 23.28%.

The populist conservative SNS party of president Aleksandar Vucic, won the June 2 election rerun in the capital Belgrade with 52.8%, securing the majority of seats in the city assembly. It also declared victory in dozens of cities and towns across Serbia, including Novi Sad and Nis - Serbia's second and third largest cities.

In Belgrade, I ja sam Beograd (I am Belgrade too), led by the opposition centre-right Kreni-Promeni (Move-Change) movement of lawyer Savo Manojlovic, came second on Sunday, with 17.7% of the vote, and the leftist green Biramo Beograd (We Choose Belgrade) was third with 12.15%.

ODIHR said on Monday that steps taken to reduce tensions following widespread concerns about the accuracy of the voter register from previous elections are generally considered still insufficient.

"The local election administrations worked efficiently, and there was generally high confidence in their ability to organize the vote. However, their dependence on local administrations that were dominated by the ruling coalition decreased trust. Election day went smoothly overall, but observers noted numerous problems with the secrecy of the vote as well as several instances of serious irregularities including vote buying, and isolated cases of violence," ODIHR noted.

"Public service media and national private broadcasters largely favoured public officials and the ruling parties, while coverage of the opposition on private channels was often negative. Media prioritized the national agenda over local issues, limiting the amount of information available to voters. Long-standing concerns including threats and intimidation of journalists, strategic lawsuits against investigative journalists, and impunity for crimes committed against them," the statement read.

ODIHR’s election observation mission included 126 observers from 28 countries deployed throughout Serbia. It took up its work on April 30.

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