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Surprise Elections

This narrative is adapted from excerpts of "The New World of Power" in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (Palgrave, 2001).

In June 2000, Milosevic rammed a constitutional amendment through parliament, allowing him to run for re-election as president. On July 27, he set the election date for just two months later, confident that he could win, or at least rig the vote count. As with Pinochet who went ahead with a plebiscite in Chile, Milosevic "wanted a legitimacy," in the words of Teofil Pancic, a reporter for Vreme (Time), a Belgrade magazine.

Slobodan Milosevic signs papers calling for early elections.

U.S. funded poll monitors install ballot box seals.

At workplaces all over Serbia, official pressure to vote for Milosevic was fierce. But so was the campaign against him. Otpor pressured opposition parties to unify behind a single presidential candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, who was, in the words of the journalist Zoran Sekulic, "a man who was not compromised" — not a politician, but a scholar. Kostunica was hit with "attacks... slanders... defamations" from the controlled press, but that "homogenized" his support, he said later, so deep was contempt for the state media.

Kostunica's campaign was positive — focusing on a new way of life without war or sanctions. But the catchiest slogan of the campaign was a negative one. In the weeks before the election, Otpor flooded the country with nearly two million stickers. They read simply: "Gotov Je!" — "He's Finished!"

The persistent example of the Otpor kids was bearing fruit. "One of the opposition's final messages before the election was: We are not asking you to vote for us, but before going to cast your vote," Sekulic said, "you ask your children for whom you should vote, and then do just as your children tell you." Inherent in this was a larger choice about the future of Serbia; everyone knew that young Serbs were emigrating in record numbers, and Djindjic said the choice was simple: "We will be part of the world" — Serbia would reject the wars and isolation caused by Milosevic — or "your children, without you, will be part of the world."

With foreign support, some 30,000 poll-watchers were trained, mobilized, and fanned out to cover 10,000 polling places, to help prevent Milosevic from stealing the September 24 election. In Cacak, the opposition went further: on the night the votes were counted, 20,000 Serbs assembled outside the building to intimidate any would-be vote-stealers.