New constitution staves off government crisis

DUSANphoto.jpgIn mid-May, then Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and G17 Plus party leader Miroljub Labus resigned, citing the government’s failure to meet Brussels’ conditions for continuing pre-accession talks with Serbia — notably the arrest of Ratko Mladic. But Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic managed to persuade the party’s majority to stay in the cabinet through October 1st, giving authorities another chance to locate the war crimes fugitive.

The government then unveiled an action plan to complete co-operation with the UN war crimes tribunal, but the plan has yielded no concrete results.

In the meantime, focus turned to the adoption of a new constitution. Quick action was taken because of the Kosovo issue: Serbia wants to enter the endgame of the Kosovo status process with a declaration that the province will “forever remain an inalienable part of Serbia”. That message was included in the draft constitution.

However, analysts also say that the G17’s announced walkout triggered the constitution’s hasty adoption in parliament, a move widely criticised by the public.

Serbs now wonder why work on the new constitution — whose adoption was a major promise of the new government following democratic changes in 2000 — was completed so suddenly and without public debate. The remaining disagreements were resolved over the last week, with drafters working late into the night. The text reached parliament’s agenda late on Saturday (September 30th) and lawmakers adopted it without further discussion.

Given the clear promise they gave in May, government ministers from the G17 ranks had no choice but to tender their resignations to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. “We leave the government disappointed because co-operation with the tribunal in The Hague has not been completed and because negotiations with the EU have not been resumed,” Dinkic said.

However, the party’s move has been rendered meaningless, practically speaking, by events surrounding the constitution’s adoption. The G17 ministers will continue to perform their duties until members of parliament acknowledge their resignations. But lawmakers are unlikely to convene again before the constitutional referendum, to be held on October 28th and 29th.

Elections at all levels will then be held by the end of the year.

In effect, political stakeholders have reached a deal that should make everyone happy. The G17 will save face, the prime minister’s referendum campaign will be untarnished, and the Democratic Party and the opposition Radical Party will get early elections.

In theory, parliament’s work could be blocked if lawmakers attempted to replace G17 ministers. But it is more likely that the political parties will concentrate on the election campaign rather than raise the issue of government stability in the short transition period to come.

Even though parliamentary parties have reached an agreement on the constitution, it remains to be seen whether the document will actually get enough votes in the referendum. Over 50% of the electorate must give the thumbs-up for it to take effect. Parties representing ethnic minorities, regional parties and some non-parliamentary parties have severely criticised the draft, describing it as conservative and anti-European.

If it fails at the referendum, the only way out would be to call elections for a constituent assembly. Politicians believe such a development would be dangerous for Serbia’s negotiating position on Kosovo. Accordingly, the government has announced the launch of a fierce “Yes” campaign, with the slogan “The Best for Serbia”.

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