So Serbia held Round One of their presidential election yesterday.
A little background. It’s only three and a half years since the last election (June 2004), but the secession of Montenegro in May 2006 caused the Serbs to adopt a new constitution. That provided for a new Presidential term, which required a new election. But the constitution wasn’t very specific as to when. A long wrangle ensued, with Prime Minister Kostunica’s party trying to put the election off as long as possible, mostly because Kostunica has come to hate incumbent President Boris Tadic a lot, and he thought later elections would get caught up in the Kosovo wrangle, putting Tadic at a disadvantage. Which is pretty much what has happened.
Meanwhile, Kostunica is ostentatiously refusing to support Tadic. This is a pretty blatant violation of the coalition agreement Tadic’s party made with Kostunica last spring, but there it is: Kostunica doesn’t think he’s bound by that sort of thing.
(If I seem a little bit hard on Kostunica, well, he’s been rather a disappointment. He’s showing a long-term pattern of festering resentment towards rivals, especially rivals who are slicker, better-spoken, more popular and/or smarter. There’s no rule that politicians have to like each other, of course, but Kostunica is bending Serbian politics to serve his personal vendettas.)
So, the first round: Tadic got 35.4%, Radical Nikolic got 39.4%, and half a dozen minor candidates split the rest.
What does it mean?
Well, it’s not great news for Tadic. True, he’ll pick up most of the non-Nikolic votes. But Nikolic only has to get another 10.6 % to win the second round. That’s not very much. Also, turnout was heavy in southern Serbia (rural and depressed, and the Radical stronghold), less so in Belgrade (liberal and cosmopolitan, and Tadic’s natural base).
Tadic beat Nikolic before (that June ’04 election) and in much the same manner: lost by a few points in the first round, won by five points in the second. This one looks like it will be closer.
Meanwhile, Kostunica is still trying to play spoiler. He won’t come out and support Nikolic — that would be a little too much, and would probably alienate even his own party — but he won’t support Tadic, either. And he’s trying to push the Gazprom deal through next week, which will put Tadic in a difficult situation. (The Gazprom deal deserves a post of its own. Short version: Russia’s Gazprom wants to buy Serbia’s national energy company for about a third of its market value. This will be a really stupid deal for Serbia, but for various reasons it’s actually pretty popular.)
Tadic also lost a strong issue when the Dutch vetoed Serbia’s Stability and Association Agreement last week. A big part of Tadic’s appeal is that he’s a “European” politician who can “guide Serbia towards the EU”. If Serbia’s EU candidacy is in perpetual deep freeze, Tadic loses one of his strongest selling points. Personally, I agree with the Dutch position, but it comes with a price. It’s unfortunate for Tadic, since he has no control over cooperation with the Hague; that’s in the hands of the government, i.e. Kostunica.
Of course, at the end of the day the election will be mostly about local issues, especially the economy. Serbia’s economy has done all right in the last year, but most of the growth and action seems to be concentrated in Belgrade and a few other areas. Unemployment is still very high. So Nikolic’s economic populism has a lot of appeal.
Meanwhile Kosovo continues to inch towards independence. It’s a pretty open secret that they’ll make a declaration in February; they’re really just waiting for this election to be over.
The runoff will be on February 4 — Super Bowl Sunday, for our American readers.
And after? Well, it really is a crossroads. If Tadic wins, Serbia continues along much the same path. Kostunica will have a bloody nose, and Nikolic too — I doubt he’ll lose control of the Radicals, but two defeats in a row should drop his stock considerably. No great changes, but things could be worse.
If Nikolic wins… well, it’ll be a big deal. Nikolic, remember, is only the acting leader of the Radicals; the “real” leader, Seselj, is sitting in the Hague, on trial for war crimes. The Radicals are pro-Russian, economically populist, socially conservative, and loudly nationalist. They’ve also made it pretty clear that they don’t hold with liberal nonsense like a free press or an unbiased judiciary. The Serbian Presidency is not a very strong position, but it does carry a lot of prestige. A Nikolic victory would send a strong signal to the world that Serbia is… different.
Well, we’ll see in two weeks.