The Multi-Party Elections In Serbia In 1990 (II)

Part I

The Elections of 1990

The independent public opinion research on possible results of elections suggested that in September 1990 the most popular were three parties and their leaders. The highest numbers of votes could expect Miloshevic’s SPS (26%), the other two most supported were Dragoljub Micunovic’s DS (13%) and Drashkovic’s SPO (11%). However, almost half of the electorate (45%) did not have a clear opinion on which political force to favor. In the following months, the electoral support to SPS increased due to its position in power, control of media allowing minimizing the time for opponents on TV and radio for the electoral campaign and successful Yugoslav army operations against Croatian governmental forces. S. Miloshevic’s popularity grew up and left behind SPO and DS parties and their leadership.

The significant result of S. Miloshevic’s party’s growing popularity was the total control of informational channels, such as national Radio and TV of Serbia and daily newspaper  „Politika“.  The events of June 13th, 1990 showed that the ruling SPS rejected any dialogue with the opposition and practically manipulated the oppositional democratic forces to win the votes of the electorate. On June 13th, 1990 some oppositional democratic forces united under the Associated Opposition of Serbia called for public protest against SPS control over national media. More than 70,000 people of the peaceful demonstration were dispersed. Later in autumn the same Associate Opposition of Serbia again organized mass protests in Belgrade demanding fair conditions for each political force in the electoral campaign including 90 days of the campaign, two hours of television time per day during the election campaign and the round-table talks. Though the opposition demanded to agree with the leadership and ruling forces of SPS, these demands were not taken into consideration by SPS who continued their informational control over the electorate campaign.[1] Nevertheless, the government of Serbia granted few minor concessions to the opposition allowing the latter for access to the television during the electoral campaign and simplifying the registration for the candidates of president elections according to the Law on Election issued on September 28th, 1990. However, SPS did everything to stop the public appearance of opposition on TV.  The scheduled round-table talks among position and opposition broke down due to SPS leadership’s political ambitions. For the SPS leaders, the round-table discussions became the political platform to spread their virtues and achievements rather than a real exchange of opinions. As Vojislav Koshtunica (DS) argued, most East European countries provided fair conditions for all parties to address the voters and present the party’s agenda, but in Serbia, a few concessions rather than real negotiations and discussions were preferred[2].

Absence of the united oppositional block before the elections also contributed to the victory of SPS in the parliamentary and presidential elections. By debating the law on elections that introduced a “majoritarian” system, the opposition disagreed on whether to boycott the elections as non-fair for oppositional parties or participate and win though small but important voices in the parliament. Vuk Drashkovic and his SPO strongly argued that the united boycott of the elections would discredit the legitimacy of the new „democratic“ post-elections regime. Meanwhile, Zoran Djindjic, one of the leading figures at DS, argued that the opposition should take the opportunity in the election campaign in order to record the illegal actions of the ruling SPS and inform the nation of them[3]. Due to significant Djindjic’s political influence, DS decided to participate in the December 9th elections regardless of the resistance of majority DS leaders. The oppositional SPO party publicly declared their strong position to boycott the elections but had to change their tactics and join the elections at the last minute. SPO leadership had finally realized the plans of DS and other democratic forces to involve SPO in the elections, on the one hand, and the possible future of SPO to be marginal in state policies, on the other. Though SPO faced the problems of limited time and resources, their electoral campaign was based on optimistic views that Serbian citizens will not support SPS as the former Communist Party. Relying on the experience of Eastern and Central Europe SPO and its leadership believed that socialism will be swept out as a historically failed ideology and policy in this region as well. However, they did not properly evaluate the seriousness of SPS campaign, their control of media and strong organizational infrastructure.

Slobodan Milosevic
Slobodan Milosevic, 1990

The elections for the National Assembly (Narodna skupština) on December 9th, 1990 did not bring unexpected results. The majority of the voters (46%) gave their support to SPS. Due to the electoral system, that was structured by SPS (and finally recognized by the opposition with believing that such system will bring final electoral victory exactly to them but not to SPS), the party won 194 seats (77,6%) in the parliament out of 250. SPO with 15,8% got only 19 seats (7,6%), the Democratic Alliance of Vojvodina’s Hungarians (Demokratski savez vojvođanskih Mađara – DSVM), benefiting from the territorial concentration of their supporters, gained 7 seats (3,2%) with 2,6% of the votes, DS 7 seats (obtained 7,6% of votes). The rest of 13 political organizations, elected to the Parliament, won between 1 and 2 seats[4].

The results of the elections to the National Assembly had shown a twofold phenomenon. Firstly, a number of smaller parties and independent units did gain representatives in the National Assembly. Secondly, the gained voices of the oppositional parties were too small to compose a strong opposition. The elections to the National Assembly demonstrated the limits of democracy in Serbia when previous party system attributes were modified to introduce democratic elections and continue to control and maintain the real power by the same ruling (former Communist, currently SPS) party.

Similar tendencies of limited democracy were functioning in the presidential electoral campaign. The Serbian constitution (September 28th, 1990) introduced the system of a presidential republic in Serbia that was used by S. Miloshevic in his electoral campaign as the main advantage against his opponent-candidates and which finally allowed him to stay in power for the next decade. Having a wide scope of prerogatives of political power the presidency became, in fact, the crucial political institution. During two months of the electoral campaign, the presidential power was sophisticatedly wrapped into nationalistic clothes by mass-media. American sociologist Eric D. Gordy calls political system in Serbia in the 1990s as nationalist authoritarianism taking primarily into consideration a strong presidential position which was surviving in power due to nationalistic rhetoric.[5] There were two reasons for the strong presidential element in the constitution that was adopted exactly on the first day of the electoral campaign and thus became a part of it: 1) to provide an advanced position of SPS candidate to the post of Serbia’s president in comparison with opposition candidates; and 2) Miloshevic believed that his future election as president was already assured and that therefore he needed to safeguard his position against control by the parliament which might be dominated by united opposition bloc.[6] The new constitution of Serbia was promulgated on September 28th, and on the same day, multi-party elections were announced for the December 9th, 1990.[7]

For the post of Serbia’s President, a competition was between 32 candidates. The most chances to win had SPS leader Slobodan Miloshevic, SPO leader Vuk Drashkovic and Belgrade University professor Ivan Djuric. During the presidential electoral campaign, the SPS candidate – an actual Serbia’s president, Slobodan Miloshevic, had the most chances to win mainly due to privileged position in state media and combined rhetoric of modest nationalism and necessary reforms of social and economic life in Serbia. The tactics of avoiding rhetorics of aggressive nationalism on the public scene retained him popularity from the years 1987–1989. Formally advocating the values of civic society and propagating Serbia as the motherland of all of her citizens Miloshevic skilfully targeted his campaign towards ethnic minorities in Serbia.

The presidential election campaign of Vuk Drashkovic was mainly shaped within the framework of radical ethnic patriotic nationalism for national mobilization for defense of Serbian interests in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo-Metochia.[8] His democratic nationalism combined with a call to change illegitimate Miloshevic’s power structure in Serbia succeeded to mobilize a huge number of ethnic Serbs before the elections, but on the other hand, it showed the failure to cooperate effectively with other ethnic communities.

The third most prominent presidential candidate, Ivan Djuric, was a scientist, Byzantologist, professor at Belgrade University, humanist and one of the most critical democratic speakers against either Miloshevic’s or Drashkovic’s nationalistic policies, but not having any experience in the politics. He was a candidate of pro-western Serbia’s Reformists – a political association fighting for democratic Serbia as a member of the European Community/Union. Differently to Miloshevic and Drashkovic, Djuric enjoyed great respect by the majority of western governments and diplomats. However, on the other hand, he had lesser chances to obtain mass support by the electorate, necessary to win presidential elections, as he rejected nationalism from his electoral program.

Finally, the results of the presidential elections in Serbia showed more or less expected outcomes of the pre-electoral campaigns: the most votes won Slobodan Miloshevic (63%) followed by Vuk Drashkovic (only 16,4%).[9] The only other candidate who succeeded to obtain a significant proportion of the votes was Ivan Djuric (5,52% or more than 300.000 votes)[10].

Why SPS won?

The reasons for SPS triumph can be located in a number of structural and institutional advantages that they enjoyed over the opposition parties. The SPS had inherited from the Communist Party of Serbia (a real name the League of Communists of Serbia – LCS), largely intact, a structure of branches and membership extending across the whole country. After the Law of Political Organizations passed on July 19th, 1990 SPS succeeded to retain the biggest number of former 400,000 LCS members. The SPS presence in the factories by establishing its own “workplaces” served as an expression of the party’s dominance of economic as well as political life. The opposition parties, by contrast, had to create their new party local and national networks from the beginning and over a short time. As a result, by the time polling took place on December 9th, 1990, many of the opposition parties had organizational party structure developed only in a few specific locations – mainly big urban settlements. The opposition parties also faced severe financial problems which seriously inhibited their capacity to effectively conduct their election campaign. The SPS also enjoyed further logistical superiority over the opposition through their total monopoly of power in local and central governments, in the run-up to and during the election campaign.

Flag of the Socialist Party of Serbia
Flag of the Socialist Party of Serbia

The greatest institutional advantage held by the SPS, however, was their almost total control over the electronic media. The opposition had, before the election campaign, won concessions regarding access to the media but the presentation of the party programs was within a uniform length and did not distinguish between those with negligible support and those, such as SPO and DS, who had a substantial following. By contrast, support for SPS permeated the entire news output of the RTS, main Serbia’s TV network covering the whole country. The broadcasting range of neutral and more balanced TV networks, like Belgrade Studio B, however, did not reach beyond the greater Belgrade area leaving huge parts of inner Serbia’s hinterland, and particularly the rural areas depended on the state-controlled media. Finally, during the election campaign, even the Yugoslav People’s Army was prepared to defend SPS staying in power. That was announced by top army officials’ statements (like of General Veljko Kadijevic) in a form to warn Serbia’s voters of the danger that civil war might break out should the opposition be victorious.

The tone of Miloshevic’s and SPS electoral campaigns contributed greatly to their electoral victory in 1990 followed by an establishment of the post-electoral one-party dominated National Assembly and state’s authoritarian one-man leadership (like in Tudjman’s HDZ Croatia). The SPS campaign emphasized “positive” values of Serbia and Serbian citizens such as economic development and prosperity based on domestic natural and human resources. Surprisingly, at the heyday of the campaign the nationalism, which brought Miloshevic to power in 1987, by contrast, played a distinctly subsidiary role; contrary to the SPO campaign. That was the main reason why SPS succeeded to win a majority of Serbia’s minority votes including even and some small numbers from Albanian electorate (while the overwhelming majority of Kosovo Albanian electorate boycotted the elections). Miloshevic opted not for insulting opposition leaders but rather for ignoring them on the public scene what left to the electorate an impression of opposition as a politically irrelevant part of the society. Oppositely to him, radical and fiery nationalistic rhetoric of Vuk Drashkovic and SPO alienated many non-ethnic Serbs and the majority of aged electorate for whom SPO leader was more like rock and roll singer or the Chetnik[11] propagator (with long hear and bear) rather than a serious politician. The clashes by SPO supporters and local Serbia’s Muslims in Rashka region after nationalistic speeches by SPO leaders were sophisticatedly used by Miloshevic’s propaganda machinery. However, probably the critical reason why opposition did not gain stronger electoral support among ethnic Serbs was the fact that its leadership openly propagated pro-western orientation of Serbia’s political post-totalitarian course at the moment when the European Community led by traditional Serbian enemy – (united) Germany advocated and supported the dissolution of Yugoslavia without living place for united Serbian state. Besides, propagating a liquidation of “Albanian independent state of Kosovo within Serbia” by SPS gave them great popularity as real defenders of Serbian national pride.

Finally, beyond the fact that SPS controlled all key features of the political life during the election period, it has to be also mentioned that their ideological message found an appropriate soil to be absorbed by a big part of a conservative section of Serbian society. The SPS had been able to revise their image presenting themselves as following a policy of reform, but without the systematic change (using the slogan “Sa nama nema neizvesnosti/No uncertainty with us”), and therefore disruptive upheaval, advocated by the opposition. The SPS was also able to combine its ideological formula with the promise of actual material gain (for instance, a living standard like in Sweden). The rural population was attracted by the SPS policy of the restitution of land confiscated from the peasantry after WWII (in 1946 and 1953).[12] In general, the Socialist voters have been mainly those whose degree of poverty within the socialist system was such that they feared any radical change (advocated by the opposition) would rob them of what little they had. This support group included not only Serbia’s significant rural population, but also workers from heavy industry factories on the suburban parts of the large towns (like Rakovica in Belgrade), low-level officials from the civil service, and old-age pensioners. It is more clear if we know that Serbia’s working classes were the product of the processes of mass urbanization and industrialization under socialism who largely continued to give their support to the successor of the political party which was their progenitor. The results of electoral policies in Serbia in 1990 showed not only a town/countryside division but also a strong regional differentiation. Support to SPS was particularly strong in the poverty-stricken areas of the south-east (Nish, Leskovac, Vranje) and was much weaker in the more affluent north. The opposition parties were also, in contrast to SPS, strongest in northern and western Serbia. For higher educated and materially better-situated population the prospect of change was more likely to be a source of hope than fear. At the time of Serbia’s first multi-party elections, however, this group remained a minority within the country’s electorate.


This article aims to investigate the nature and results of electoral politics in Serbia during the period of the beginning of the violent dissolution of ex-Yugoslavia and the first multi-party elections in 1990. Two levels of elections are taken into consideration: presidential and parliamentary. Oppositely to other Central and East European states, Serbia at the beginning of the 1990s has not been involved in the process of political transformation from totalitarian one-party elections controlled system into democratic multi-party free elections model.

„Transition without transition“ – that was a formula implied by the ruling party to the political life of Serbia during the process of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Political life has seen the adoption of some of the formal attributes of democracy but without the stable institutional support to that system. The ruling Socialist Party of Serbia, led by Slobodan Miloshevic, imposed its own rules and control over the presidential and parliamentary elections in order to discredit the democratic values. As a result, the authoritarian political system was thriven to serve the interests of the former ruling nomenclature rather than represent the majority of Serbia’s citizens.[13]

However, the final decision by the opposition political parties’ leaders to take active participation in the elections practically gave both legal and moral verification of the whole political system. The results of elections are not unexpected taking into consideration the starting positions of all participants and the political atmosphere within the whole ex-Yugoslavia at the moment. In the other words, elections in Serbia (and Montenegro) came into agenda after all Yugoslav republics already elected their nationalistic leaderships and it is no secret to say that elections of Slobodan Miloshevic and his SPS party in December 1990 were at a great extent an answer to Tudjman’s and his HDZ victory in Croatia in May of the same year.

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[1] Tanjug, 1990-09-12.

[2] Milan Andrejević, Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty Research Report, 1990-10-19.

[3] Dragan Bujošević, East European Reporter, autumn/winter 1990.

[4] Od izbornih rituala do slobodnih izbora, Beograd: Institut društvenih nauka, 1991, p. 284; Robert Thomas, The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 74.

[5] Eric D. Gordy, The Culture and Power in Serbia. Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives, The Pennsylvania State University, 1999, pp. 8–9.

[6] The constitution was adopted by the national referendum held on July 1–2nd, 1990 under the strong ruling party propaganda in favor of “national interests” and “united Serbia” tasks which had to be defended by the new constitution. Whoever was in opposition to the proposed constitution was labeled as a “national traitor” by Miloshevic’s controlled state’s informative service. However, the people believed that referendum upon a new constitution was in fact plebiscite about Kosovo – to whom this province belonged: to Serbs or Albanians [Kosta Čavoški, „Lex Milošević“, in Ustav kao jemstvo slobode, Beograd: Filip Višnjić, 1995, p. 134]. In fact, the voters put aside the danger for democracy of a constitution drawn up by the one-party assembly and the SPS government gained 97% approval for its right to formulate the constitution prior to elections, ignoring the call by democratic opposition to boycott the referendum. The result of the referendum demonstrated the continuing ability of SPS to control the process of transition in the form of “transition without transition”. See [V. Stevanović, „Demonsko ogledalo vlasti“, Borba, Beograd, November 24–25th, 1990, p. 5]. About the transition and nationalism in East Europe, see [Ruth Petrie (ed.), The Fall of Communism and the Rise of Nationalism, London–Washington: Cassell, 1997].

[7] The first great success of a strong presidential position within the political system in Serbia has been visible by the December 1990’s presidential election results.

[8] About the radical nationalism in Serbia in the 1990s see [Lenard J. Cohen, The Politics of Despair: Radical Nationalism and Regime Crisis in Serbia, Working Paper No. 1, The Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe, 1999]. About the ideology of Serbian nationalism see [Др Војислав Шешељ, Идеологија српског национализма, Београд: Српска радикална странка, 2003].

[9] Od izbornih rituala do slobodnih izbora, Beograd: Institut društvenih nauka, 1991, p. 278.

[10] Robert Thomas, The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 74.

[11] The Chetniks have been Serbian nationalistic guerilla fighters established in 1904. During the WWII they fought against the Germans, Communists and armed forces of Independent State of Croatia taking acts of revenge against Croatian and Bosnian Muslim civilians for their atrocities against the Serbs within the territory of Independent State of Croatia (which included Croatia, parts of Serbia and the whole portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Yugoslav Titoist historiography presented the Chetniks deliberately wrongly as the pro-Fascist collaborators in order to discredit them in the eyes of the common people as they have been the main political opponents to J. B. Tito’s partisans for taking political power in Yugoslavia after the war. See more in [Branko Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije, II, Beograd: NOLIT, 1988; Коста Николић, Историја равногорског покрета, I–III, Српска Реч: Београд, 1999; Милослав Самарџић, Борбе четника против Немаца и усташа 1941−1945., Први том, Крагујевац: Погледи, 2006].

[12] About this period of the Yugoslav history, see in [Алекс Н. Драгнић, Титова обећана земља Југославија, Београд: Задужбина Студеница−Чигоја штампа, 2004].

[13] The general result of democratic elections in all the six Yugoslav republics in 1990 was that republics’ political elites got democratic legitimacy [Чедомир Антић, Српска историја, четврто издање, Београд: Vukotić media, 2019, 290]. About the post-Communist democratization process in Serbia, see in [John S. Dryzek, Leslie Templeman Holmes, Post-Communist Democratization: Political Discourses Across Thirteen Countries, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 57−76].

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