Elections were held in Serbia last Sunday. The ruling party of the authoritarian, currently incumbent president Alexandar Vucić won, or claims to have won. According to national and international observers, there were numerous indications of electoral fraud that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election and therefore its result. Mila S. (name changed), a long-time activist with our partner organisation LINK in Sombor who was active as an election observer together with other volunteers, summerizes her experience below.

(Author: Mila S.) Since 2016, election observation in Serbia has been organized by the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) – a non-profit, independent, and non-partisan civil society organization. In each district of Serbia CRTA organizes a group of people who are in charge of observing the election process at pre-allocated polling stations. If the observers notice irregularities, they call CRTA’s legal team, which reports the irregularities to the local police department that comes to the polling station, and if there is evidence that electoral fraud has occurred, the police closes the polling station and cancels the votes from that polling station. Thats how it should look like in theory, but this time, more than ever, practice has proved to be different.

During the reacent election in December 2023, I was CRTA’s Coordinator for Wes Bačka District. I had a total of 36 observers deployed in our district. According to a pre-selected sample, there are observers at the assigned polling stations. One observer will be in the first shift at the polling station, the other in the second shift until the votes are counted at the same polling station. In addition to the observers inside, there is also a mobile team of two people who observe two polling stations in front of the polling stations to keep track on what is happening outside. Given that among the volunteers of LINK we have young adults, they were also engaged in the observation mission.

Around noon on the election day, LINK volunteer – observers of the mobile team located in the Municipality of Odzaci, noticed electoral fraud, i.e. the delivery of ballots to the room of the Serbian Progressive Party across the street from the polling station in the village of Karavukovo. The mobile team immediately called CRTA’s legal team, who called the police. The mobile team waited for the police for an hour and a half before they finally received a call from the police department in Odzaci that a fellow policeman in civilian clothes would arrive in a few minutes. At that moment, three men appeared in a black jeep, got out of the car, and headed towards the car of the mobile team. They started shaking their car with their hands and threatening them. The mobile team somehow managed to escape. On the road between the villages of Karavukova and Odzaci, they called me to tell me what had happened, and during the conversation, they noticed that people in a jeep were following them. In panic, they fled to the yard of the police department in Odzaci. A black jeep with three male persons entered the yard of the police department behind them, where three men – I repeat – IN THE YARD OF THE POLICE DEPARTMENT, took  out batons and smashed their car while they were sitting in it. No one from the police station came out to help them. When their car was broken, they ran away, and two people who were in the mobile team entered the station visibly upset, strewn with glass from the broken windows to report the case. After that, they were taken to the local clinic for examination. The polling station was not closed! Only one person was detained. The other two men who committed the crime were not detained. As this happened for the first time in 7 years of election observation, the incident was reported by media all over Serbia.

Apart from this case, there were many other cases of violence also against controllers from opposition parties. On election day, videos appeared on social networks showing vote rigging in all cities in Serbia, especially in Belgrade. They bought votes, handed out blank ballots, introduced unknown persons to polling stations where they were not allowed to – to see who came to vote for the Serbian Progressive Party, blackmailed people into losing their jobs, beat, followed, and tortured opposition controllers and observers of the election process. For the first time in seven years of election observation, CRTA stated at a press conference that it could not present voting statistics in the Belgrade elections because of electoral fraud and that the result did not represent the electoral will of the citizens.

Our conclusion is that people went to the polls en masse and voted for the opposition and that controllers and observers defended every vote of each citizen in the entire country with literally their lives. The opposition submitted a complaint to the City Election Commission for the annulment of the Belgrade elections, which rejected the appeal, so protests are currently taking place in front of the National Election Commission in Belgrade.

The election of 2023 in Serbia will remain in my memory as one of the dirtiest fights of the ruling party and as a bloody feast. I am deeply hurt, traumatized, and very angry because I think that Serbia will be a real hell in the coming years where the „law of the stronger“ rules and where a party membership book is necessary for survival.

Photo: © picture alliance, EPA, Andrej Cukic