Serbia's draft constitution less democratic

In a referendum this weekend, Serbians may approve the draft, which boosts parliament's power.

Serbia's citizens will say yea or nay this weekend on a new constitution that could give even more power to the central government than it enjoyed under former President Slobodan Milosevic.

In addition to a declaration that the southern province of Kosovo – currently in contentious UN-backed talks about possible independence – is an integral part of Serbia, the 80-page document has also raised eyebrows over provisions to increase parliament's control over the judiciary and allow it to revise human rights laws.

"Even though the constitution guarantees human rights and minority rights, it also permits parliament to curtail these rights, so the parliament can rescind them," says Dr. James Lyon, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Serbia. "It creates the framework for a parliamentary dictatorship."

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights Executive Director Aaron Rhodes adds that the document marks a step backward for the rule of law. "The parliament has very, very strong powers in this constitution over judges," he says.

If the draft passes, it will replace the 1990 constitution created under Milosevic, who died in The Hague in March while on trial for 1990s war crimes. His replacement, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, backs the document, as do the other parties in Serbia's usually fractious ruling coalition.

The opposition is not as keen. Leaders in the Vojvodina province – a relatively prosperous farmland region bordering Hungary – are calling for an active boycott of the weekend poll. The constitution, says former Vojvodina parliament speaker Nenad Canak, cements the Serbian parliament's control over the province, and is "even worse" than the Milosevic-era constitution.

"At any time the parliament of Serbia can get rid of our rights," he says. "In the 1990 constitution, the president of the Vojvodina parliament had the right to call elections, and now it's up to the Serbian parliament. So they're taking away that right."

The new constitution would also give the Serbian government the right to remove locally elected municipal assemblies and to appoint new replacements.

But it's not only the content of the constitution's provisions that is coming under fire. The conduct of the poll has also been severely criticized. In Kosovo, for example, ethnic Albanians constitute 90 percent of the population, but they won't be voting.

For 25 years, Kosovar Albanians have boycotted Serbian elections because of the human rights violations that eventually prompted NATO's 1999 air war against Serbia, and put Kosovo under UN administration. But Serbian authorities didn't exactly encourage them either, waiting until the last week to call on them to register to vote.

"It was more convenient for the Albanians not to be included," says Marko Blagojevic, director of Serbia's elections watchdog, the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID). "Fifty percent of all registered voters have to vote for the draft constitution [for it to pass], and having 1 million more in your electorate would make it more difficult for the constitution to pass." In total, 6.6 million Serbs are registered to vote.

Mr. Rhodes, of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, also notes that the Serbian government has allowed only a tiny number of international observers to the weekend poll, and has not invited the elections-monitoring body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at all.

If Serbia's former junior partner Montenegro, which went its own way after a heavily monitored independence referendum in May, had tried the same tactic, he says, "The international community would have blown a gasket. But the OSCE and the [European Union] have in this case made no comment that I'm aware of about this constitution, which in any country is the most important piece of legislation."

Other areas of concern include that local election board members, rather than the police, will be tasked with securing ballot boxes over Saturday night in Serbia's 8,375 polling places.

"Can we trust a goat to guard a cabbage?" asks Vojvodina's Mr. Canak. Serbia's referendum commission head also recently announced that the poll would be declared valid and regular even if vote tallies revealed that there were more ballots cast than the number of people who voted.

"To have more ballots in the ballot box than voters who have voted is an irregularity," says Blagojevic, of the elections-watchdog group CESID. He also notes that opposition parties are only being allowed to observe polling places in limited numbers. But he warns that comparing this poll to those done during the Milosevic years would be "taking it a bit too far."

"There is no way that I can in any way compare the referendum or any other election that was organized after 2000 with referendums or elections organized before 2000," he says. "At that time no impartial monitoring was allowed – it was even banned – while that is not the case now."

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