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ODIHR Final Report on the elections in Serbia - Serious problems related to the abuse of public resources and campaign financing and recommendations for solving them

Transparency Serbia indicates that the ODIHR Observation Mission, in its Final Report on the April elections, confirmed the TS findings and warnings during the last procedure of amending the electoral legislation and monitoring the election campaign. The final report, published only in English on the ODIHR website, contains comprehensive findings on the past elections, as well as nine priority and 17 other recommendations that Serbia should fulfil so that the next elections could be held under conditions that correspond to democratic standards.

ODIHR assesses that despite the respect of basic rights, the combined impact of unbalanced access to media, undue pressure on public sector employees to support the incumbents, significant campaign finance disparities and misuse of administrative resources led to unequal conditions for contestants." ODIHR also recalled that many of their recommendations were not taken into account during the legislative reform, including those related to " access to media, enhanced transparency and accountability of campaign finance, and measures to tackle pressure on voters and misuse of administrative resources.." Among other things, they pointed out the presentation of numerous infrastructural projects in the campaign by the president and government representatives as an activity that made the conditions for competing in the elections unequal, "contributing to a lack of level playing field for contestants and blurring the line between state and the party."

In connection with the new Law on financing political activities, ODIHR reminds that their earlier recommendation to introduce a limit on maximum campaign expenses per electoral list/candidate was not implemented. In a public debate, Transparency Serbia reminded of this obligation and proposed that the cost limit, following the example of neighbouring countries, be 300 million dinars for parliamentary and 200 million dinars for presidential elections, but this proposal was rejected without explanation.

"The means for financing the campaign from the budget are paid only immediately before the elections, which makes it impossible for the participants of the elections to use them effectively," observes ODIHR. The newly introduced preliminary reports on campaign financing are given with the balance for 15 days before the elections. As a result, they do not cover a significant part of the expenses. In charge of supervision, the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption did not effectively respond to reports of irregularities, the Report states, among other things. This confirmed TS's warnings that the concept of preliminary reports would not provide adequate publicity of campaign financing data while it lasts, instead of which TS proposed the introduction of a system of "transparent accounts", which has already been tested in the Czech Republic.

In addition, ODIHR requests that the rules on campaign management by "third parties" be regulated in Serbia, that penalties for omissions in campaign expense reports be effective, proportionate and dissuasive, and that the provisions of the Criminal Code need to be improved. The method of distribution of budget funds for the campaign should be changed to provide reasonable opportunities for running the campaign. At the same time, it should be ensured that abuse of those budget funds is prevented - reads one of the recommendations.

No less important is the recommendation according to which "The Agency for the Prevention of Corruption should be obliged by law to promptly and proactively determine cases of violation of regulations, and to make formal decisions, which can be challenged in court, after reviewing the received reports." The Law

should prescribe expedited deadlines for the entire dispute resolution process related to campaign finance violations." This recommendation is related to the Agency's practice of rejecting specific applications due to rules violations during the election campaign without making a decision and the absence of deadlines for the decision of the Administrative Court in cases where the complainant contests the decision of the Agency. Due to the lack of deadlines, among other things, the lawsuits brought by the TS in connection with the applications from the 2020 elections have not yet been considered.

ODIHR says that a clear legal boundary must be established between the performance of public office and activities in the election campaign, and measures must be taken to prevent abuse of position and public resources. Competent authorities should work to prevent violations of these rules and impose penalties that will deter such behaviour. Adequate legal and institutional monitoring mechanisms must be established and implemented in order to avoid pressure on voters, including public institutions and companies employees." Among other things, it was recommended that the ban on the media from transmitting information about certain activities of public officials be extended to the entire campaign and not just the last ten days. Transparency Serbia indicates that this is one of the weak points in the otherwise excellent ODIHR report. Namely, the problem of the extensive "functionary campaign" must be solved at the root - by clearly prescribing what the regular activities of public officials are and what activities they may not carry out during the campaign. The right place for that is Article 50 of the Law on Prevention of Corruption, for the amendment of which TS also made proposals, and not media regulation. 

According to ODIHR assessments, public TV services covered the activities of campaign participants but broadly uncritically reported on the activities of public officials, who were also candidates in the elections. REM, despite its competencies, was "mostly passive during the campaign".

Concerning other issues, ODIHR indicates that despite numerous allegations of abuses and pressures, the prosecution received only seven reports during the campaign and did not file a single indictment. ODIHR highlights that the Administrative Court considered election disputes in closed sessions as a problem. The Republican Electoral Commission was recommended to publish the election results in an accessible format immediately upon arrival, as well as comprehensive information on the applications submitted to the electoral commissions. "The election administration should take measures to enhance the effectiveness of dispute resolution by substantive reviewing all election-day related complaints and facilitating the reporting of administrative and criminal offences to the competent authorities," reads another important recommendation from this report. 

An essential ODIHR note is that laws should be improved significantly before the next elections "in a consultation process that will be open and transparent." Bearing this in mind, Transparency Serbia proposes, as an initial step, that, based on these recommendations, the Finance Committee of the National Assembly organise a public hearing where the representatives of relevant institutions, political parties, and national and international organisations that monitor the elections and experts would present their views on how to improve the laws and their enforcement.