The image of polling stations from the recent presidential elections is devastating. And I don’t mean the election results, but the control. At the end of the nineties and beginning of 2000s, Serbia established an election monitoring system based on many motivated and trained party controllers and professional and impartial non-partisan observers from election monitoring agencies. None of it exists anymore. During the last five years, the ruling coalition has managed not only to “domesticate” and compromise non-partisan observers, but also to almost completely destroy the opposition infrastructure by threats, pressure and misuse of state institutions and electronic and print media. Without resources, with shrinking and increasingly apathetic membership, it was evident that the opposition is not able to properly control the election process at the most critical point – the polling stations.
Other factors, all directly or indirectly connected to the Serbian regime of the last five years, also contributed to this state. First of all, for election control at the polling stations to be efficient, all, or at least a vast majority, of election board members need to be trained and motivated; only one or two of them are not enough, because the process of controlling election material, ID-ing and entering voters into the voters list and counting used ballots need to be based on team work, cooperation, and at least minimal trust between the board members.
However, this election had several “fake” candidates who ran as marionettes of the regime, without any ambition to win. Their observers were either demotivated, or unskilled, or both. Many of them were also chosen and delegated by the ruling coalition. By presenting marionette candidates, the regime not only misguided the voters, but also filled election boards with ineffective controllers, whose task was not to control anything, but to pose as extras in the staging of free elections.
Second, „funny” candidates or candidates who only entered to race to raise voter turnout, didn’t have the resources to train their own controllers. The majority of their controllers were inexperienced and unready for the task presented to them.
Third, „serious” opposition candidates, despite the infrastructure at their disposal, didn’t manage to gather enough serious controllers for all polling stations. Due to the pressure from the regime, it was even impossible to find controllers in some municipalities. Election headquarters of opposition candidates, but also the citizens who thought that all they have to do to change the government was to circle their favorite candidate on the ballot, are both responsible for this. In a country with strong institutions that guarantee free and fair elections, that may be enough. But in Serbia in 2017, it’s not. Anyone who thinks that the opposition didn’t do their homework, should first ask himself what he has done to contribute. Still, the greatest responsibility lies with the government which has been using every legal and illegal means for the last five years to destroy any possibility for opposition work, especially in small municipalities.
Forth, the ruling coalition itself has recruited a lot of people with insufficient experience as election monitors. Although they were more motivated than their opposition colleagues for obvious reasons, they were seldom more trained. Even in places without election fraud, ruling coalition controllers were seldom able to monitor the elections competently.
Deeper and more serious structural problem lie beneath this. In 2017, Serbia is a poor and devastated country of blackmailed citizens. Huge number of controllers undertook this task for the sake of a RSD 1,500 daily wage, without any motivation to secure rightful and disciplined implementation of elections. The responsibility for this, too, undoubtedly lies with the regime, whose rigid savings measures and decrease of social and labor rights brought citizens into economic dependence.
It would be easiest to say that this is a problem of the opposition and its voters. The regime has certainly won, the prime minister has also become “president-elect” (regime tabloids always mention his name with both “titles”) and he doesn’t see this as a problem, but as a confirmation of his triumph. The opposition is brought to the point where they can’t adequately control the elections – isn’t that the dream of any regime?
Even though this may be true, it is still just a dream. In reality, in a multiparty system, opposition is not only a competition to the regime, but also a guarantee of its legitimacy. Elections not controlled by the opposition are no longer a legitimate expression of the citizens’ will. The legitimacy of the election result, the reason why losers are also obliged to honor it, is based on the fact that they are decided by transparent and impartial counting of votes. The guarantee of transparency and impartiality of this process is the fact that both the opposition and independent agencies control them. Without these controls, election results are illegitimate.
Just like in Hegel’s story about a master and a slave, where the master pays for the slave’s obedience by not accepting his confession – only a confession by a free man is truly a confession – so does the regime which managed to beat the opposition, not in a fair and free election, but by destroying it through abuse of power, blackmail, and media lynching, pay the price of total submission of its opponents by losing its legitimacy. It’s possible that “the prime minister and president-elect” is not interested in such dialectics, but, as Trotsky famously said, it’s interested in him.
Two things emerge from everything I’ve written: 1) the prime minister is not a legitimate “president-elect” and 2) anyone interested in restoring legitimacy of elections in Serbia will have to start by restoring both opposition and independent resources for their control.
Translated by Marijana Simic