PAGE 1/3


NO 139-140

PAGE 1/3 ::: 1 | 2 | 3

INFO   :::  Helsinki Charter - PAGE1 > Helsinki Charter No. 139-140 > Text


Helsinki Charter No. 139-140

May - June 2010


National Minority Councils Elected


By Pavel Domonji

In early June 2010, members of Serbia's minority communities finally went to the polls to cast a ballot for their national councils. Out of 19 minority councils, 16 were elected directly and three at electoral assemblies. New elections will be called for only one minority council: a sufficient number of electors did not attend the electoral assembly for the Macedonian National Council. According to available information, more than one half of registered voters turned at the polls (237,792 out of 436,334 persons). Minister of Human and Minority Rights Svetozar Ciplic said the elections were held in "a democratic atmosphere" and "in the best possible way" (?). Candidates winning more votes than expected also expressed their pleasure with the outcome.

The June elections put an end to the dubious and irregular situation members of national minorities had found themselves in because of the state's incapability to duly pass an adequate law. Last year, when the law was adopted at long last a number of officials commented that it was not providing more minority rights but introduced special voting lists whereby Serbia introduced a precedent not only in the region but also in Europe as a whole. Hence, they claimed, Serbia became a minority "brand" and regional leader, and an equal to Western democracies.

    Under the law, there are two ways to elect national minority councils - at direct elections and through electoral assemblies. Direct elections are conditioned by electoral lists. Speaking of the latter, not all the members of minority communities considered them necessary or the law explicit in this matter - for, electoral lists are formed only on the grounds of free will of each and every member of a minority community. Besides, some minority representatives expressed their anxiety - and they were anxious with good reason as it turned out - that insufficient number of their own minority communities would register their vote and, therefore, demanded more activism from the state: a strong and convincing awareness-raising, motivational campaign. As the state failed to stage such a campaign, minority political and civil organizations - eager to have their minority councils elected directly rather than indirectly - begun distributing forms through their members and supporters, thus acting beyond the law and influencing the composition of electoral lists. The law nowhere refers to some activists who, say, circulate forms just to collect them the next day. No one is obliged under the Constitution to declare his or her national origin. And the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy even in the event of direct elections for minority councils. Rodoljub Sabic, commissioner for information of public significance, warned the authorities that the right to "the protection of privacy" could be violated in the process of formation of electoral lists. The Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and local self-governments, said Sabic, are authorized to organize the elections and no one else is entitled to collect information and draft electoral or any other list under the pretext of providing assistance.

In addition, some claimed that direct elections could aggravate majority-minority relationship and that the elections for the bodies of minority cultural self-governance could turn into a fierce political struggle. The latter was illustrated by the attempts to choke down the freedom of press, threats, bribes, violations of electoral silence, cases of hate speech and police intimidation of minority members. So, for instance, the police in Petrovac na Mlavi was interrogating citizens of Wallachian origin in the police station: they asked them whether or not they had registered themselves for the Wallachian minority list, about their membership in some Wallachian political party or, even, if they were aware that they were citizens of Serbia.

Sluggishness of the electoral administration only fueled minorities' dissatisfaction. Members of electoral committees were appointed with much delay, actually some of them were appointed on the night before the election (by email, at three in the morning). Hence, some polls were not opened in due time. In a number of cases, names of duly registered citizens were not on electoral lists, while those whose names were there in black and white were forced to go to some other, distanced polling places to cast a vote. There were cases of smashed ballot boxes during the elections and attempts at preventing voters from entering polling places. No wonder, therefore, that initial reactions by representatives of minority communities were so bitter. Muamer Zukorlic /of the Bosniak list/ spoke about "massacred lists," Srdjan Sajin /of the Roma list/ discrimination and dictatorship, whereas Ishtvan Pastor /of the Hungarian list/ about "a bitter taste in mouth." For the elections for minority councils are not only a minority issue but an issue of the state's legitimacy and the rule of law.

Apart from the fact that most national councils were elected directly, these elections will be remembered by the candidacy of the mufti of Sandzak, Muamer Zukorlic, and the attempts by political parties to get indirectly involved in the elections. Mufti's candidacy provoked opposing reactions - some welcomed it and supported mufti's decision to top an electoral list unlike some party leaders, whereas the others warned that a religious leader has never before been involved in an election. From now on, they added, we could expect politicians running for religious offices.

Zukorlic hardly paid any attention to this criticism. He sharpened his rhetoric in the election campaign and practically turned the elections into a referendum on which Bosniaks were supposed to choose their future course. One course, according to him, led towards the safeguard of Bosniak identity, while the other, a pro-Belgrade one, towards assimilation and disappearance. Once the attempt to marginalize mufti Zukorlic through a split in the Islamic community failed, he promptly seized the opportunity to impose himself as a national leader. The leadership role does not only indicate Zukorlic's hunger for power, as criticized by many, but also a crisis of political and secular authority among Bosniaks. "We used harsh rhetoric in the election campaign. But we shall be tolerant now that the elections are over," said Zukorlic, adding, "We offer our hand to Belgrade and call upon it to turn a new page, given that Bosniaks will be represented no longer through partisan and personal interests."

For their part, political parties presenting themselves as civilian were also not immune from the attempts to influence the articulation of minority interests. First, Jon Cizmas, president of the Rumanian community, said political parties agreed to divide among themselves minority councils to dominate and, accordingly, the Rumanian National Council went to the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats. Second, Istvan Pastor said the Democratic Party /DS/ had the control over several lists running for the elections of the Hungarian Minority Council. Bunjevci, too, were warning about the Democratic Party's intention to infiltrate minority councils and thus influence them. Alerting about "false promises," the Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians called the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians to withdraw its list and boycott the elections.

It goes without saying the DS officials denied all the allegations. On the other hand, the party head in Vojvodina, Provincial Premier Bojan Pajtic, said no one could forbid party member to run in the elections. "Everybody has the right to participate in the elections in accordance with his or her ethnic origin. But it is immoral to run for office on behalf of DS rather than to serve a minority community," retorted Pastor.

    No wonder that political parties are interested in participating in minority elections, this way or another, taking into account that minority councils are more than cultural self-governments: they are major channels for redistribution of resources, both symbolic and material. Besides, through elected officials and control over the media political parties can influence both relations within minority communities and attitudes of community members. Finally, their eagerness can also be seen as a measure of precaution: members of minority communities are mostly critical about the regime and would not always provide their support to every governmental motion. For instance, when the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians /SVM/ voted against the budget proposal, relations between it and DS firstly aggravated and then SVM found itself marginalized from local self-governments.

Besides Czechs and Ashkalia, Albanians also elected their minority council. Two Albanian voting lists were running in the elections and the winner was the one titled "Party for Democratic Action - Riza Halimi." With 24 seats in the council the latter will practically dominate it as its opponent, the list "Democratic Union of Albanians - Rahmi Zuljfiu" gained just 4 seats. Speaking about statistics, it should be noted that the Greek minority had the biggest turnout (77.05 percent), while Ashkalia the smallest (38.85 percent). The Czech minority participated with one list only. Hence, the list "Czechs Together" won all the seats in the council.

Until now minority communities were often criticized for deficient legitimacy. These elections neutralized such rebuke but did not remove other problems such as, say, national councils' independence from other centers of power within minority communities (minority parties above all), financing of councils and recruitment of qualified cadres.

Though the elections were not exactly promising at first, once they were over major actors overtly expressed their satisfaction with outcomes. "Most important of all is that minorities themselves are satisfied with these elections," said Minister Ciplic. On the eve of the elections the authorities kept stressing that minorities would demonstrate their political matureness and responsibility by casting a ballot. Unfortunately, this did not apply to the manner in which the state behaved. Many failures could have been avoided only had the state bodies prepared the elections with more seriousness, commitment and responsibility.


NO 139-140

PAGE 1/3 ::: 1 | 2 | 3







Copyright * Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia - 2008

Web Design * Eksperiment