Serbian Election a Muddle for Pro-EU Forces

There was jubilation in Belgrade on Monday as supporters of Serbian president Boris Tadic's pro-EU coalition celebrated their election "victory."

Unofficial results indicate that Tadic's bloc, led by the Democratic Party (DS), received about 39% of the vote, with their arch-rivals the ultra-nationalist Serb Radical Party (SRS) coming in second with just over 29%.

Former Prime Mister Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) received 11% of the vote, a drop of 5% from the last election. An unexpected winner on the night was the coalition led by the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), founded by Slobodan Milosevic, which won 9% of the vote. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) -- the only major party to support an independent Kosovo -- took 5%, down slightly from last year.

Turnout was surprisingly low, with estimates around 60%, significantly lower than February's presidential election (68%).

The election is being hailed as a clear victory for pro-European elements, and in many ways it is, but the reality is both more complex and more pessimistic.

It was a bad night for the Radical party and its allies. They not only failed to convert anger over Kosovo's declaration of independence into votes, they managed to actually lose seats despite operating in what must be considered the most favorable political environment they will every have.

Another big loser on the night was former Prime Mister Kostunica who has enjoyed the position of Kingmaker in Serbian politics -- the man able to decide who forms a government -- since the murder of Prime Mister Zoran Djinjic in 2003.

This election came about because of a gamble he took on Serb disaffection over Kosovo. When dissolving parliament he said that the mandate was being returned to the people. He then went on to take a hard-line stance against the EU (and Kosovo independence), rule out collaboration with Tadic (who he presented as a traitor) and cosy up to the Radicals. Kostunica probably expected to ride the wave of popular outrage over Kosovo that he expected would destroy the pro-EU parties.

It appears his gamble failed, with his party suffering a nearly 30% drop in support, the majority of those voters apparently defecting to the Serbian Socialist Party. The mantle of kingmaker is also now in the hands of the Serbian Socialist Party. Kostunica's only hope now is to join with the Radicals (on their terms) since both he and the Democratic Party have sworn not to form a coalition.

So what now?

The two blocs (Pro-EU bloc and the Radical Bloc) will seek to create coalitions that give them enough seats form a government.

Here is the breakdown of the parties and their seats in parliament. The ruling coalition needs 126 seats or more to form a government (total seats: 250):

Democratic Party/G17: 103 seats (Pro-EU bloc)

Serbian Radical Party (SRS): 77 seats (Radical bloc)

Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS)/NS: 30 seats (Radical bloc)

Socialist Party of Serbia/PUPS: 20 seats (independent)

Liberal Democratic Party (LDP): 13 seats (Pro-EU bloc)

Minority Parties: 7 seats (Pro-EU (Pro-EU bloc)

Currently the Pro-EU bloc fall short with only 123 seats. They need one of the Nationalist parties in the coalition if they are to form a government. Since Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia have ruled out a partnership with the Pro-EU bloc, it comes down to the Socialist Party of Serbia. If they refuse to join in a coalition with the Pro-EU block, then despite "winning" the election, the Pro-EU forces would find themselves in opposition against an ideologically resolute governing coalition of the three Nationalist parties.

The hopes of the EU block now depend bizarrely on the political ambition and principles (or lack of principles) of the Socialists Party of Serbia.

Their leader, Ivica Dačić, has said "all those seeking to form a post-election coalition could count on the Socialists, provided they advocated territorial integrity and social justice." This means their price is continued Serbian opposition to independent Kosovo and a commitment to his party's populist Socialist policies.

The Socialists have a tough choice. Join their ultra-nationalist ideological fellows as a minor coalition partner led by the Radicals or join the pro-EU coalition led by the Democratic Party as a major partner with significantly more power and influence.

The Democratic parties also face a test of their principles. Can they really form a coalition with a party founded by Slobodan Milosevic, an ultra-nationalist party that is the direct inheritor to ideologies and policies that contributed so much to genocide and war in the whole region and who they oppose on just about every issue?

Another problem for Tadic is the longstanding and extreme enmity between the Liberal and Socialist parties. It is nearly inconceivable that they could both be in the same coalition, which raises the possibility that the Liberal Party, traditional allies of the Democratic Party, could find themselves out of the coalition to ease entry for their detested opponents, the Socialists.

The situation is very muddled and the next few weeks will reveal the shape of the next government of Serbia. I am not overly optimistic. At best I think we may see some very strange bedfellows in the future pro-EU coalition paralyzed by the internal contradictions generated by trying to reconcile the Socialists agenda with that of the Democratic Party and its allies.

At worst we could see a unified Nationalist bloc with a tiny parliamentary majority drag a liberalising and increasingly European orientated Serbia into the Russian fold and return the country to the isolation and pariah status that it suffered in the 1990s.

Jonathan Davis is an Irish management consultant who lives in Belgrade, Serbia. He is founder of the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club and regularly comments on Balkan matters at his personal blog, LimbicNutrition.