In the media noise about the ruling coalition’s intention to reduce the parliament entry threshold from 5% to 3% of the vote, one important thing concerning national minorities remained almost unnoticed. The bill on amendments to the law by MPs submitted by the ruling Serbian progressive party (SNS) parliamentary group to parliament (so we can safely expect it to be adopted, unless the distinguished speaker of the assembly forgets to press the bell at the right moment), includes one interesting detail which can also be viewed as granting certain minority parties an opportunity to eliminate their political rivals.
According to the ministry of public administration and local self-government, a total of 115 parties are registered in Serbia. Out of these, almost two-thirds are national minority parties. The group contains all sorts of things, from a supposedly Slovak national party called the War veterans of Serbia to the European Green party, which is declaratively a Russian minority organization. No one has ever heard a word spoken in Hungarian by Nikola Sandulovic, the president of the Republican party, even though his organization is registered as a political party of the Hungarian national community. (The official website of this party uses only Serbian language and Cyrillic script). Similar examples are too numerous to count.
The rampant abuse of the status of minority parties on a mass scale is obvious. It is easier to register a minority party – 1,000 founders are enough instead of the 10,000 needed to form a regular political party. And, more importantly, minority parties are not subject to the threshold of 5 (or under the new proposal, 3) percent of the vote to enter parliament – just reaching the natural threshold is enough to get one or more MPs from the list of a national minority political party into parliament. For example, the “Slovak” Green party won one seat in the 2016 parliamentary elections with 23,890 votes, while the electoral list “Borko Stefanovic – Serbia for all of us”, although it got almost 12,000 more votes, did not win any seats.
Although current electoral law clearly defines exactly which parties may be considered as national minority parties (“National minority political parties are all those parties whose primary objective is to represent the interests of a national minority and to protect and improve the rights of persons belonging to national minorities, in accordance with international legal standards.”), the National election committee (NEC), which decides whether an electoral applicant qualifies as a national minority party, or a coalition of political parties of national minorities, did not make much effort to determine that position.
In Serbia, it is almost a rule that instead of laws being enforced and institutions strictly adhering to their powers and obligations, amendments are introduced into the laws to complicate matters and provide opportunities for various interpretations and abuses. In our example, it would be sufficient for the NEC to do its job and, on the basis of the program, that is, the statements of individual leaders of each party, determine whether or not it can be considered a minority organization. But no, someone has come up with a solution that will also put national councils into play and give them a political task that is beyond their basic powers (in the fields of culture, information, education, and the official use of the language and script).
According to the SNS proposal, the NEC should still decide whether the candidate of the electoral list holds the position of a minority party, or a coalition of political parties of national minorities, but from now on “on the basis of a certificate issued by the relevant national minority council to the applicant”. This would mean that national councils would de facto decide which list could be considered minority and which not, because if the submitter of the electoral list does not receive a “minority stamp” from the appropriate national council, the NEC will automatically reject that list as non-minority, i.e. declare it as regular.
Why is this dangerous? Most national councils, by direct election procedure and by structure, resemble parliaments where MPs are divided into the ruling majority and the opposition. They, therefore, belong to different political options, they come from a number of different electoral lists. National minority parties (primarily referring to parties of larger national communities such as Hungarians, Bosniaks, and Albanians) who are interested in running in the parliamentary elections on their own or as a coalition may be deprived of the opportunity to participate in elections as minority parties or coalitions by their political opponents in power in the appropriate national council. They simply will not get confirmation from their rivals that they can submit their minority list to the NEC. Minority parties that govern national councils will be given a legal basis to dispose of their competitors.
Of course, this is only a hypothesis, but an additional suspicious element is the fact that this proposal was addressed to parliament at the last minute. If one chooses to appeal to the constitutional court, pointing out that such a decision is unconstitutional, since national councils cannot in any way decide issues beyond their powers and scope, they are likely to win (we also have a precedent from 2014 confirming this). But that decision will certainly come a few months after the elections.
It seems to me that this is a one-off solution that is unlikely to be in force in the next parliamentary elections in 2024 (or even earlier, in some early elections – one never knows in Serbia). But it could now be of great use as a tool to eliminate political opponents in minority communities.
The author is a journalist from Novi Sad, Vojvodina.
Translated by Marijana Simic