The international observation mission of the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT INC from January 10 to January 18 participated in the National Referendum on the Act Amending the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia.
WEST SUPPORT thanks the people of the Republic of Serbia for the amazing patience and determination they showed during the.
WEST SUPPORT commended the efforts of the Republican Electoral Commission, citizen observers, media and voters to overcome the challenges that COVID-19 has created for holding a Referendum. Demonstrating their commitment to the democratic process, voters were not afraid of long lines and voted in a calm and peaceful atmosphere.
West Support Observation Mission has benefitted from close collaboration with other international observation missions, as well as from consultations with key Serbian election observation groups and other stakeholders.
This statement is preliminary; a final report will be published several months after the end of the electoral process.
The Republic of Serbia has generally sound and comprehensive legal framework for holding Referendums. The Referendum is governed primarily by the 2006 Constitution, the 2021 Law on Referendum and People’s Initiative.
The current structure of election administration includes the REC and 8029 Polling Boards.
The REC is a permanent body comprised a chairperson, 16 permanent members and their deputies, appointed for a four-year term by the parliament. The composition of REC is proportional to the number of seats held by the parliamentary parties. Eight out of 16 permanent REC members are women. As of 30 December, the REC is functioning in the extended composition with additional six members and their deputies from non-parliamentary parties. These members are appointed for conducting the 16 January Referendum.
Diaspora citizens will be able to vote only in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, Luxembourg, North Macedonia, Norway, Russia, Croatia, France and Switzerland.
Polling Boards include a chairperson, two members and their deputies and are composed according to the same principle of a permanent and an extended composition.
The right to vote was granted to all citizens who reach 18 years of age by Referendum day and have a permanent residence in Serbia, except those who lost legal capacity through a court decision. Citizens vote via the secret ballot method. The voter registration is passive. The Unified Voter Register is an electronic database maintained by the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government and updated continuously based on municipalities ’records, inputs provided by state institutions, and voters ’requests. Voters are entitled to request inclusion in the voter lists at their place of temporary residence and also abroad, in which case they are temporarily excluded from the original voter list. Special voter lists are compiled for military and voters in prisons and detention facilities based on the information provided by the respective institutions.
Most of West Support interviewees did not raise major concerns regarding the accuracy of the voter registration process and voter lists for the National Referendum.
Polling stations were opened from 07:00 to 20:00, and there were 6 510 233 registered voters in total. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Serbia and due to the increase in the number of infected, epidemiological measures were applied at voting stations. According to REC, voters infected with COVID-19 were able to vote near the front door avoiding direct contact with the voting assistant.
West Support observers reported that Referendum-day processes took place in a calm and peaceful atmosphere, and that the opening, polling, closing, and counting process were generally well-conducted. The REC for the biometric identification of voters functioned well in most polling stations, serving as an effective means to prevent multiple voting and to dispel concerns regarding the voter registry. West Support observers reported various procedural irregularities that may have been caused by insufficient poll worker training and civic education. West Support observers reported that these instances did not detract significantly from the overall integrity of the electoral process. Overall, West Support observers assessed polling as “very good” or “reasonable” in polling stations they visited.
Counting and tabulation
Polling stations closed at 20:00 in the majority of polling stations observed by the West Support and voters who were in line at that time were able to cast their ballots. West Support observers noted that, in general, the environment during poll closing and counting was peaceful and took place free from unauthorized interference.
West Support observers noted that in some polling places procedures were not consistently followed, although in most cases the validity of the ballots themselves was determined according to the established procedure. West Support observers reported that ballots were accurately counted in polling stations visited, and that the results were publicly posted in a consistent manner. The West Support recommends more timely clarification of such essential process in advance of the next election.
Civil society organizations
Civil society organizations played an important role in observing all aspects of the election process, releasing reports of their findings inclusive of recommendations for improvement of the electoral system. An international commitment that every citizen has the right to participate in the public affairs of their country establishes the right of all citizens to freely participate within civil society and domestic observation organizations. In general, domestic observer access to the polling stations and electoral process was not hindered and they could actually observe the process unfold.
Complaints and appeals
Complaints against decisions, acts or inactions of Polling Boards are filed with the REC. Complaints against REC decisions are filed with the REC and these can be appealed to the Administrative Court as final instance. A complaint shall be filed with the REC within 24 hours from when the decision was taken or the action performed. The REC must decide on a complaint within 48 hours. If a complaint is upheld, the relevant decision or act is annulled. Appeals against REC decisions are lodged with the Administrative Court within 48 hours of the receipt of the decision.
Such deadline seems to be overly restrictive as the persons concerned may have difficulties in providing adequate and serious substantial reasoning as well as evidence. In some cases, legal aid might be needed and within such deadline, it may be too difficult to submit the complaint or appeal. It is doubtful that deadlines for the decision-making in the field of referendums and peoples’ initiatives should be as short as for electoral disputes, because the results of the referendums, contrary to those of elections, affect only the issue(s) submitted to the people’s vote.
West Support observers reported that these instances did not detract significantly from the overall integrity of the electoral process.
The media environment is characterized by significant polarization, is driven by the political agenda, providing limited diversity of views. Television continues to serve as the main source of information, although online media are gaining ground. Numerous media outlets compete in a shrinking advertisement market and are influenced by political and commercial interests. The main television operators broadcasting nationwide are several private channels and the public service broadcaster Radio Television Serbia. Majority of West Support interviewees stated that television channels with national coverage promote policies of the government and self-censorship persists in both public and private media, limiting media pluralism.
West Support mission social media monitoring identified substantial amounts of Referendum-related disinformation, which frequently contained hate speech directed at ethnic and religious minorities.
Conclusions and recommendation
Despite the difficulties, the referendum was marked by broad political participation, a peaceful election campaign and an average voter turnout.
According to international standards, time-limits for deciding on complaints and appeals should be short. The law foresees very short deadlines for the submission
of and decision on the complaints and appeals (for referendums, 24 hours for appealing in first instance – competent electoral commission -, 48 hours for appealing in second instance – administrative court - and for taking a decision at both instances Effective dispute mechanisms are essential to ensure that remedies are available for the redress of violations of fundamental rights during the referendum process.
In order to intensify democratic processes, the mission of international observers of the organization West Support recommends that the REC apply to the Parliament with proposals for the following changes:
a reasonable extension of the deadlines of the complaints and appeals
extending the right to appeal to all voters; a reasonable quorum might be imposed for appeals by voters against the results of a referendum
provide for public hearings in case of complaints and appeals.
The work of the West Support mission has also been affected by COVID-19 prevention measures. The mission adapted its approach to enable observation activities while maintaining its core principles of independence, impartiality, and fact-based reporting. The mission could not access the process fully because of travel restrictions and therefore conducted dozens of meetings remotely. As the mission was not able to fully observe the campaign and referendum preparations directly, it is not able to provide a thorough assessment of all aspects of the process.
West Support assessment of the electoral process is based on the Republic of Serbia legal framework and on the international standards for democratic elections. West Support conducts its observation missions in accordance with the 2005 Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers.