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18 December 2023

Serbia’s opposition takes to the streets claiming election fraud

18 December 2023

Serbia’s weekend snap election was held in “unjust conditions,” with multiple reports of irregularities, international observers said on Monday, as opponents of populist President Aleksandar Vucic took to the streets claiming the vote was rigged.

Political tensions spiked in the Balkan country over the parliamentary and local elections on Sunday.

In Belgrade, several thousand people gathered in front of the election commission headquarters, chanting “thieves”, as opposition leaders lodged formal complaints claiming fraud in the city election.

“We have hundreds and hundreds of complaints,” said opposition politician Marinika Tepic.

She and several other opposition politicians will camp inside the building which is the seat of the state election commission. “We will stay here for a while,” she said.

At one point, protesters broke through a fence surrounding the building and one woman tried to storm the entrance. Protesters threw eggs, tomatoes and rolls of toilet paper at the building.

The ruling party of Mr Vucic won the parliamentary vote, an early official count said.

However, in the Belgrade local election, an opposition group said it was robbed, would not recognise the results and would demand a rerun of the ballot.

The Serbian president appeared on state RTS television on Monday, saying the “election was fair” and he wanted “to tell the people not to worry, peace, law and order will prevail”.

In a preliminary statement, a mission made up of representatives of international rights watchdogs said the vote was “marred by harsh rhetoric, bias in the media, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources”.

Election day was smoothly conducted but was marked by numerous procedural deficiencies, including inconsistent application of safeguards during voting and counting, frequent instances of overcrowding, breaches in secrecy of the vote, and numerous instances of group voting,” the conclusions said.

Mr Vucic, who has been in power since 2012, has dismissed criticism that his government curbed democratic freedoms while allowing corruption and organised crime to run rampant.

Under Mr Vucic Serbia became a candidate for EU membership, but the opposition accuses the bloc of turning a blind eye to the country’s democratic shortcomings in return for stability in the Balkan region, still troubled after the wars of the 1990s.

The election pitted Mr Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party against the Serbia Against Violence opposition alliance, or SPN.

Mr Vucic’s SNS party won some 47% of the ballots in the parliamentary vote, followed by Serbia Against Violence with 23%, according to a near-complete preliminary tally by the state election commission.

Several other smaller parties also competed in the election, which was held only 18 months after the previous presidential and parliamentary vote.

If confirmed in the final vote count, the result means that the SNS party will have an absolute majority in the 250-member parliament and will form the next government on its own.

Officials results for the city hall in Belgrade are yet to be announced, but projections by polling agencies IPSOS and CESID said SNS won 38% of the ballots, while Serbia Against Violence received 35%.

Irregularities also were reported by election monitors and independent media in Serbia.

Local independent Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability said the abuses were of such “scope and diversity” that “the results of the Belgrade elections do not reflect the freely expressed will of voters living in Belgrade”.

“Irregularities that directly compromised election results were recorded at 5% of polling stations in parliamentary elections and at 9% of polling stations in the Belgrade elections,” said the centre.

One report claimed ethnic Serbs from neighbouring Bosnia were taken en masse to vote in Belgrade. Serbia Against Violence said that 40,000 identity documents were issued for people who do not live in the Serbian capital.

Another report said a monitoring team was assaulted and their car was attacked with baseball bats in a town in northern Serbia. Allegations have also emerged of voters being paid or pressured to vote for the ruling party.

“We brought evidence about flagrant theft in Belgrade,” said Ms Tepic. She said voters were brought in from abroad to “decide how citizens of Belgrade will live”.

“That is unseen in the world,” Ms Tepic said.

The international mission report further “raised concerns about voters’ ability to make a choice free from undue pressure”.

Pressure on voters and misuse of public offices “tilted the playing field, and blurred the line between state and the party”, the observers added.

Serious irregularities included cases of vote-buying and ballot box stuffing, said the joint conclusions by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

Mr Vucic and his party have denied the allegations.

The election did not include a vote for the president but governing authorities backed by the dominant pro-government media ran the campaign as a referendum on Mr Vucic.

Serbia Against Violence, a pro-European Union bloc, includes parties that were behind months of street protests this year triggered by two back-to-back mass shootings in May.

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