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Useful, but insufficient suggestions from the dialogues on election conditions

Transparency Serbia points out that the proposals from the two inter-party dialogues on election conditions published so far do not offer clear solutions to some of the most important problems of election campaign financing and the use of public function to promote political entities. Bearing in mind that the precondition for improving the electoral environment is a change in regulations, and that there is less than half a year left until the beginning of the election campaign, there is a real danger that the changes will take place without a public debate. We remind you that in parallel with these dialogues, the working group of the Government of Serbia for cooperation with the OSCE/ODIHR in June this year has already sent the ODIHR a draft amendment to the Law on Financing Political Activities, which has not been published or presented for public discussion, although it is a legal obligation.

Draft working document dated 7.9.2021. developed by the EU Parliament facilitators[1], contains some useful but insufficiently elaborated proposals. As such, the proposal for the media to publish price lists of advertising in the election campaign can be pointed out. It would be equally important to have information on how to calculate the discount, but also clear rules or restrictions for broadcasting promotional materials free of charge. A major shortcoming of the EU parliamentarians' proposal is that it envisages the adoption of a binding rulebook only for RTS and RTV, and only a recommendation for private broadcasters. It is proposed that the rulebook stipulate "which activities of public officials during the election campaign may be considered abuse of their position." However, what is considered an abuse of public function can only be regulated by law. The rulebooks, which should apply to all media and not only to public services, could only regulate the manner of media coverage of the activities of public officials, in order to reduce the harmful effects of an intensive functionary campaign.

It is also insufficiently clear how a “temporary oversight body” consisting of REM representatives and members proposed by dialogue participants could oversee, given REM's legal competence over electronic media and the absence of legal competence of any state oversight body over compliance with obligations by other types of media. For the same reason, it is unclear what would be the consequences if the media monitoring shows out that reporting was unbalanced.

It is good that the proposal of the EU parliamentarians reminds of the need to improve the transparency of campaign financing, for which Transparency Serbia has already given numerous concrete proposals. However, when it comes to campaign financing, there are other, even more important issues that this document does not address - the need to change the way the campaign is financed, to regulate campaign financing by third parties and to improve control over compliance with campaign finance rules. The document proposes a reduction in the amount of allowed contributions for the campaign, while the limitation of the total campaign expenditures, for which there is a greater need, is mentioned only as a possibility.

Significantly, EU parliament facilitators are urging state authorities to provide full protection to whistle-blowers who would point out at the pressure which is on voters and public sector employees. As Transparency Serbia has already pointed out, it is necessary to specify which state authorities’ whistle-blowers should contact in such cases (e.g., REC, public prosecutor's offices, the Agency for Prevention of Corruption), that these bodies promote reporting of irregularities and provide secure channels of communication, and they are obliged to inform the public about the outcome of the examination of applications as soon as possible.

The same document reminds of the obligation for the media to inform the citizens about the election programs of the parties in an adequate way. However, there is currently no legal precondition for fulfilling this obligation - because election participants have no obligation to develop election programs at all.

When it comes to the "proposal of the agreement" which was allegedly offered to the participants in the dialogue without mediators from the EU Parliament[2], an interesting proposal is to limit one type of “functionary campaign” - organizing ceremonial openings or starting construction of infrastructure and other facilities. However, there is no justifiable reason for such a ban to apply only seven days before the election, nor to apply only to presidential candidates and MPs. Namely, the works on the infrastructure can be successfully started and completed without the presence of any politician, both in the election campaign and outside it. In addition, the monitoring of the functionary campaign that TS has been conducting regularly since the 2012 elections shows that public officials are intensifying promotional activities in a number of other ways that should be legally restricted.

The proposal to distribute 30% of the money from the budget equally to the participants in the elections would provide somewhat more equal conditions for the presentation of electoral lists (now, in this way, 20% is distributed for parliamentary and 50% for presidential elections). Transparency Serbia, however, reminds that the main problem regarding the distribution of budget money is not the percentages of distribution, but the fact that the purpose of budget allocations is not clearly defined. It would make sense for citizens to finance from the budget costs that are sufficient to enable each electoral list and candidate to be represented in a reasonable manner. In contrast, in the current system, how much each party will get depends on how many electoral lists there will be and what the total budget of the Republic, Province or municipality is, and on the future uncertain circumstance - the number of votes won.

The proposal to increase the remuneration of members of polling stations (from 1,500 to 2,000 dinars) can contribute to better control of elections by participants. However, in order to avoid a significant increase in budget expenditures, Transparency Serbia proposes that those parties that already delegate members of the permanent composition of the polling board do not have the right to appoint another member to the expanded composition of the polling board at the expense of the budget.

The proposals that Transparency Serbia submitted to all participants in this year's dialogues regarding campaign financing can be downloaded here:

https://www.transparentnost.org.rs/images/dokumenti_uz_vesti/Dopis_politickim_strankama_ucesnicima_dijaloga_o_izbornim_uslovima.pdf

Proposals regarding a number of other issues related to election conditions, which the TS gave during the Dialogue 2019, can be downloaded here:

 

[1] https://rs.n1info.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/07/1631047844-Nacrt-radnog-dokumenta-Medjustranacki-dijalog-7.9.21.docx-KONSOLIIDOVAN-SRPSKI.pdf

[2] https://www.euronews.rs/srbija/politika/15165/predlog-sporazuma-vlasti-i-opozicije-izbori-na-svim-nivoima-3-aprila/vest

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