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Elections and spin (Part 2): Ignoring arguments as a means of “cleansing” elections

Domestic and international observers have had their say – elections in Serbia were marked by the blurring of lines between party and state, misuse of public resources, pressures and intimidation of citizens, vote buying, media imbalance among participants, and organized voter migrations. The assessment of the quality of the electoral process was also provided by the President of Serbia and his closest associates from the Serbian Progressive Party. They stated that the campaign was “positive, as clean as possible”, and that the elections were “the cleanest and fairest” so far. However, this spin did not erase all irregularities, leading Serbian elections to be discussed in the European Parliament and resulting in a resolution calling for an international investigation.

“Thus far, these have been the cleanest elections (almost, you can never implement an electoral process to perfection), the cleanest and fairest elections. They know it, and everyone knows it. That’s why I’ve never received so many congratulations from people in the European Union, even though I’ve never been a fan of parliamentary elections”, stated Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić just a few days after parliamentary, provincial, and local elections were held in 66 cities and municipalities.

Finance Minister Siniša Mali shares the same opinion, as he assessed on the show “Hit tvit” that the elections were “clean as a whistle”, and questioned “when any future elections will be as clean as these ones”.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić also claimed that the elections were regular. Even before election day, Vladimir Đukanović, an MP from the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), viewed his party’s campaign as “positive, as clean as possible”.

As if nothing had happened and no one had pointed out the numerous irregularities, such assessments by the highest state officials for the most influential media became the only relevant narrative. Regardless of how pervasive this medal, which the authorities awarded themselves for the “fairest” elections to date, was in the public space, it has another side.


In the eye of the observer


The assessments of domestic and international observers did not align with the image that the state leadership and mainstream media created in the days and weeks leading up to the elections.

The electoral campaign, characterized as “positive” and “as clean as possible”, according to the report of the CRTA Observation Mission, actually ended “in a state of even greater media imbalance among participants compared to previous elections”. CRTA’s review of the campaign also pointed out “systematic abuses of institutions, public offices, and the most influential media, placing electoral actors in an unequal position”.

Intimidation and insults

As Istinomer previously reported, with the announcement of elections on November 1st, a new round of labeling political opponents and intimidating citizens began. Opposition candidates were described by state officials as “thugs”, “losers from the former regime”, “fascists”, and at every turn, we heard and read accusations that they were “destabilizing” the country, preparing for “chaos” and “civil war” and wanting to “set the country on fire”.

Among the findings of CRTA’s observation mission were numerous cases of forged signatures for candidacies, reports of pressure on citizens in the public sector, and instances of misuse of personal data.

International observers have also presented almost identical conclusions through their preliminary assessments.

“The overall subdued campaign was dominated by the incumbent president, and was characterized by hardened polarization, aggressive rhetoric, personal discreditation, verbal abuse and inflammatory language”, according to the preliminary findings and conclusions of the joint OSCE/ODIHR (OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and European Parliament mission.

Photo credit: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalović

In the same statement, observers also noted that “fundamental freedoms were generally respected in the campaign, but it was marred by harsh rhetoric, bias in the media, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources”.

And the 17th of December happened.

The CRTA Observation Mission assessed that “drastic abuses of voter rights, laws, and institutions escalated on election day”.

On Monday, December 18th, CRTA stated: “We express great concern regarding the quality of parliamentary elections, specifically their deviation from standards for free and fair elections. Due to the extent and types of electoral abuses in Belgrade, we conclude that the results of the Belgrade elections do not reflect the freely expressed will of the voters living there”.

Organized voter migrations

The CRTA Observation Mission drew attention to “numerous indicators observed during the campaign and on election day”, pointing to the implementation of “electoral engineering in the Belgrade elections, specifically through manipulation of voter rights and organized voter migrations aimed at shaping the election outcome in Belgrade”. CRTA subsequently conducted additional analyses that heightened suspicions of manipulations regarding residency and voter lists. Istinomer also reported on discoveries related to addresses with suspiciously high numbers of voters.

From the perspective of international observers who monitored the parliamentary elections, “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”. They noted several incidents and physical attacks on election day, highlighting an attack on an activist, members of the electoral board, and damage to a vehicle belonging to CRTA observers.

“There were multiple allegations of voters living abroad being organized and bused by the ruling party for to cast their ballots for local elections in Belgrade”, among other findings, stated in the conclusions of the international election observation mission.


Alarm in the European Parliament


The elections in Serbia and the irregularities that marked them were also discussed in European Union institutions. In mid-January, a debate on Serbia was included in the agenda of a plenary session of the European Parliament, and on Thursday, February 8th, Members of the European Parliament also voted on a resolution calling for an international investigation.

“The European Parliament calls for an independent international investigation by respected international legal experts and institutions into the irregularities of the parliamentary, provincial and municipal elections, with special attention to the elections to the Belgrade City Assembly, as certain allegations, including those regarding organised voter migration at local level, go beyond the scope covered by the OSCE/ODIHR reports”, as stated in the European Parliament Resolution on elections in Serbia, adopted with 461 votes in favor and 53 against.

Campaign against the Resolution, MEPs and observers

Even before the day of the vote, the state leadership began a campaign with the media to discredit the EP resolution and European MPs.

President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić stated as early as the end of January that he was not “particularly interested” in the EP resolution, as the previous one had recommended countries that had not recognized the independence of Kosovo to do so. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić echoed his sentiments closely. As reported on a national television station that referenced her tweet, Brnabić questioned “why Đilas’s opposition eagerly awaits the European Parliament’s resolution when the past recommendation was to recognize the independence of so-called Kosovo”.

In addition to statements from officials, there are also videos circulating publicly targeting European MPs who highlighted various controversial aspects of the electoral process in Serbia. These MEPs are “accused” of marking the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide last year, with the video claiming they “want to bring their favorites to power and declare Serbs a genocidal people”.

Such rhetoric was merely a continuation of the same approach previously used by the authorities, where all findings from domestic and international observation missions were labeled as “lies”, “harassment”, “direct destabilization of Serbia”, and “an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order”.

In the same document, the European Parliament evaluates that the parliamentary and local elections held on December 17th “deviated from international standards and Serbia’s commitments to free and fair elections, owing to the incumbents’ persistent and systematic abuse of institutions and media in order to gain an unfair and undue advantage”.

It is also noted that these elections cannot be considered as conducted under fair conditions due to reports of “widespread and systematic scale of fraud that compromised the integrity of the elections in Serbia”.

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Unlike government representatives, the European Parliament took into account the findings of domestic and international observers, which pointed to activities before and during election day. As stated in the document, these activities “may have altered the outcome of the elections and may have critically impacted the results of the Belgrade municipal elections, in particular, and seriously undermined the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections”.

“The overall campaign was characterised by even more extreme polarisation, aggressive rhetoric, personal discreditation, verbal abuse and inflammatory language. Cases of pressure on public sector employees, misuse of public resources and voter inducement schemes raised concerns about voters’ abilities to make a choice free from undue pressure. These practices, in addition to some challenges in accessing public venues for the opposition, tilted the playing field and blurred the line between the state and the governing party, at odds with international standards”, as stated in the document.

The European Parliament also expressed regret over the lack of response from institutions to “the serious allegations of the incumbents’ involvement in electoral manipulation and abuse, which contributes to an atmosphere of impunity and ensures the continuation of these practices”.

The Resolution also condemned “orchestrated attacks by Serbian officials on election observers, including Members of the European Parliament” as well as “unsubstantiated claims that EU Member States were involved in organising post-election protests”.

Members of the European Parliament also called for the suspension of EU funding to Serbia “if the Serbian authorities are unwilling to implement key election recommendations or if the findings of this investigation indicate that the Serbian authorities were directly involved in the voter fraud”.


According to the CRTA Observation Mission, media outlets that consistently favored the ruling majority and President of Serbia throughout the campaign also played a significant role in post-election spin. After December 17th and the protests by citizens in the streets of Belgrade, many of these media continued as the strongest tool for discrediting observers and denying all electoral irregularities. They celebrated the results of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and accused the opposition of seeking to seize power through force.

We have heard and read that “Serbia has spoken” and how Vučić, who was not a candidate in the December elections, “swept aside all others” and “cleared out the opposition for the seventh time”. According to the media perspective, this opposition has been portrayed as remaining on the dark side of these elections. Political opponents of President Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party have been labeled as “haters” who “call for Maidan” and who, among other things, “have taken to their own country with knives and sticks”.

Despite the synchronized efforts of the media and the leadership of the Serbian Progressive Party, including all attempts to create the illusion of democracy, none of the numerous manipulations succeeded in altering the reality that is evident both within and beyond Serbia’s borders. The obstacles to holding “the cleanest” and “the fairest” elections were firmly in place before and during voting day. They remain. Only the mechanism of governing through spin prevents their removal.