Perspectives | Politics

What’s the game behind the elections in Kosovo’s northern municipalities?

By - 26.04.2019

The art of winning, and winning again.

Strategy in political science theory is an idea explored to the brim. From the first of us to understand that people think in specific ways, political scientists of any age have tried to understand (and predict) how certain actors will play their hands in the political theater and how to predict said “hands.” This is an article that follows the same footsteps and will try to show how a seemingly insignificant idea can impact almost any faction of Kosovar politics and most importantly, how easy it is to pull off.

On April 8, President Hashim Thaçi announced that the extraordinary elections in the four municipalities in the north of Kosovo (North Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zvečan and Zubin Potok) would be held on May 19. The reason is well known and I will not bother you with the details you already know, but the shortest version possible is that the 100 percent tax on Serbian commodities, introduced by Kosovo’s government in November, created an impasse with the Serb party governing the north (Srpska Lista), which led them to leave all their positions within the government (local and central).

This is nothing new for Kosovo, as instability is almost a norm here, but my political senses started to tingle when I read a declaration by President Vučić made on April 10, where he stated that he’d wished for Serbs to (approximation): “…participate in the elections and when they win and show their strength to the Albanians, then they should resign again.”

You don’t need to be a political strategist to see that what the Serbian government desires is the lifting of Kosovo’s 100 percent tax on Serbian goods.

This idea may seem simple at first, but I’ll show you how it may create a fascinating position for Serbia to be in and a strategy for them (the Serbian government) to win the game without even playing it — which in political science speak is a perfect strategy.

So, what’s the idea here? Simple!

By looking into what the Serb players want, we can see how a simple idea — which I’ll go into a bit later within this article — accomplishes all the things they need to.

You don’t need to be a political strategist to see that what the Serbian government desires is the lifting of Kosovo’s 100 percent tax on Serbian (and Bosnian-Herzegovinian) goods. There could potentially be a different, underlying reason here, however the direct cause of this other reason would be the tax, therefore we can simplify our strategic theorizing by assuming that the underlying reason (if it exists) is predicated on the direct cause — so the tax it is.

Furthermore, Serbia has tried a lot of ways to resolve the tax. They tried pressuring Kosovo from all possible sides (political and diplomatic) but while they have not yet exhausted all that can be done (as I have explained in another article), the tax still stands! The primary purpose that any strategy has to accomplish in order to be “productive” in the Serbian sense, is for the pressure to increase on Kosovo and for the tax to be lifted as a result.

If we understand this point, there is only one more thing that we need to understand before analyzing what may happen. That is the strategic concern Serbia might have — what they cannot do.

President Vučić is a fascinating character that will need to be further studied to be firmly understood, but one thing is constant when it comes to Kosovo and his relations with Kosovo as a whole. He is not allowing anything — and I mean anything — to come between him and his government, and the 2013 agreement between Kosovo and Serbia reached in Brussels.

For now, Vučić cannot stop or block the elections in any way without impeding his own strategic goals.

By that I mean that almost all the pressure he can put on Kosovo relies on the premise that Serbia is an honest actor in these dialogues and that Kosovo isn’t. The only way he can maintain that concept is to point out the difference in the fulfillment of the one agreement he and the international community both consider primary, which is without a doubt the 2013 Brussels agreement.

The level of involvement here by President Vučić is insanely complicated, but we can be sure that whatever happens he will try to protect his facade of being 100 percent in line with this agreement, of which Article 11 states that Serbia will allow the organization (and participation) of elections in the north of Kosovo.

The Serbian constraints are simple: They will not (if at all possible) stop the implementation of the 2013 agreement, as that would limit their pressure on Kosovo. This may seem to be a simple constraint, but it is in reality very complicated to sustain and is extremely hard to strategize around.

We should now understand the strategic position of Serbia vis-à-vis Kosovo, but how does this affect the elections and the Serbian strategy?

For now, Vučić cannot stop or block the elections in any way without impeding his own strategic goals. He cannot further pressure Kosovo with the same tools that have worked until now.

What can he do instead? Simple — he can win the local elections in the north (with the Srpska Lista party that is his extended hand), then resign, win them again and repeat!

This is a simple, diabolic strategy that follows from his declaration and it is, simply put, brilliant.

We could potentially have elections every couple of months if the elected mayors don’t take their positions after winning.

According to Article 4 of the Law on Local Elections in the Republic of Kosovo, the president is required to announce local elections within a short amount of time (between five and 10 days) of the resignation of the mayor of a municipality, in accordance with the Central Election Commission and other political actors.

This can also potentially start a cycle that is fascinating to explain and is the basis of the potential plan the Serbian government might use (if they wish to). According to the same Law on Local Elections, it is stated that the elections have to be held between 30 and 45 days after the dissolution of a local government.

An election cycle can be counted from the moment someone wins an election, until the next election is held — this is a fact of utmost importance. The shortest timeframe for one such cycle (and the most reasonable estimate of it) is between 35 and 50 days. This means that we could potentially have elections every couple of months if the elected mayors don’t take their positions after winning, which is exactly the situation that Vučić has warned us that he will seek to achieve with his declaration some weeks ago!

Elections in the northern municipalities are not competitive, with the Belgrade-aligned Srpska Lista confidently leading everywhere. Srpska Lista won with extreme majorities in all these municipalities in the last elections, despite having other Serb parties to contend with. This is not the case for these mayoral elections, as Srpska Lista is the only Serb party to register with the Central Election Commission.

This means that an election that wasn’t competitive last time is this time around not even in question. Srpska Lista has no serious opposition in the north of Kosovo and it is just a question of how big their lead will be and not whether they’ll win.

As winning is not a question, strategic thinking leads us to the ingenious idea of pressuring Kosovo as a result of constant and renewed victory.

It serves to show the international community that Serbia is following the 2013 agreement by allowing the elections to take place.

Elections are expensive. These mayoral elections are costing Kosovo’s small budget almost half a million euros (475,000) according to a statement by the Central Election Commission. It also has a large cost when it comes to human power, political organization and simply creates distraction from governing for a short time.

But in a non-competitive election, when the strategy is to pressure Kosovo as much as possible while respecting the implementation of the 2013 Brussels agreement, Serbia and their allies here can simply continue to win and resign, forcing Kosovo to organize elections every couple of months, draining the Central Election Commission of their budget, manpower and will.

Furthermore, it serves to show the international community that Serbia is following the 2013 agreement by allowing the elections to take place, while at the same time showing that Serbs in the north are refusing to budge and are willing to make strong political protests in order to show their discontent with the Kosovar government.

We all know how political protest is viewed in the Balkans and what it represents here, so it surely represents a further powerful pressure point against Kosovo, as it would intensify the already existing international pressure on the Kosovar government.

It would also pressure the already weak and uncoordinated government to try to do something about it while lacking a good (legal) way forward. They would need to announce new elections in order to comply with the Constitution, they would need to make due with the increasing costs of holding constant elections, and they would need to find a way to manage the Central Election Commission, which is currently not in the best possible position (it’s barely functional).

Simply put, this would create a thousand new problems for a government that cannot make due with the ones they have now, maybe even becoming “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

I am afraid that there is no good (legal) answer to this.

This simple strategy could enable Serbia to uphold their pressure on Kosovo and drain the Kosovar government of significant political and financial resources, while simultaneously remaining within the bounds agreed upon by the Brussels agreement. All that with a simple strategy that is completely democratic, almost unavoidable and cannot easily be challenged by the Kosovar government.

That is why I, as a political scientist and strategist, see this possible move by the Serbian government as so damn diabolical and I hope that Kosovo can avoid it somehow. However, as you’ll see, I am afraid that there is no good (legal) answer to this.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the one “semi legal” idea being floated around by Vetëvendosje, which is to not certify Srpska Lista candidates for the mayoral elections. They even mention the problem I’m analyzing here as an argument as to why they should not be certified (if this strategy is proven true).

They do have the voting power to block the certification of Lista Srpska, since they have 2 out of nine of the current members (with eight or more votes required to pass a decision).

So, problem solved? No, I’m afraid not!

According to the Central Electoral Commission, regulation 08/2013 (Articles 4 and 6), if the commission fails to certify a candidate, the candidate has 24 hours to complain to the Election Complaints and Appeals Panel (ECAP), which has the last word on the subject.

As this would clearly be a political decision by the Central Election Commission, the ECAP would have no choice but to overrule the decision, which would bring us back to square one, a problem without a solution, with the benefit of a precedent in favor of Srpska Lista on top of all!

Furthermore, even if by some miracle the ECAP would accept the decision of the Central Election Commission as valid, the political backlash that would unleash on Kosovo is unimaginable.

If Kosovar Albanian political structures (as the Central Election Commission clearly is) would deny the only Serb party the possibility to register for elections in a part of the country populated by a massive Serb majority, the repercussions that would fall on us would be heavy and retaliation by Serbia would be considered fair game by international community standards.

It would thereby create an even better position for Serbia, enabling Belgrade to apply even more pressure against Kosovo without being considered to be pushing the limits.

That is why, even politically speaking, there is no winning. I don’t see how to avoid this problem, as the only proposed way to eliminate it is clearly worse than the problem to begin with. And we will not even look into the legal battle that would surely ensue if such a decision was made. It’s a catch 22 if I ever saw one and I cannot see a good way out.

There may not be one at all. And that is what makes it such a perfect strategy.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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