9% of those eligible to vote, participated in a referendum on constitutional amendments that the government, deemed as populist, says are needed for the Balkan country to advance in a bid to join the European Union. About 6.5 million Serbian citizens were eligible to vote in the referendum. A simple majority of those who turn out decide on the outcome. The referendum precedes elections in the country which are scheduled for April 3rd.
The ballot focuses on the changes in the election of judges and prosecutors that authorities say are aimed at boosting their independence in the country where the judiciary is widely seen as corrupt and politically controlled.
Balkan Insights reports “The referendum on Sunday (focuses) on a judicial reform package that, among other things, will scrap parliament’s role in electing judges and prosecutors, but experts say this alone will not rid the courts of political influence. The proposed changes to Serbia’s 2006 constitution have been broadly welcomed by the European Union and the Venice Commission, a constitutional advisory body of the Council of Europe, but few believe they will magically end the long-standing practice of meddling by the Serbian political elite in the work of the judicial system.)
The referendum has been hailed by the United States, the European Union and some Western countries as a step in the right direction. But critics at home say the changes are insufficient.
Some opposition parties and independent experts also have argued that the referendum was organized in a generally non-democratic atmosphere, too hastily and too soon before an election that is due in early April.
President Aleksandar Vucic’s government has faced accusations of curbing democratic freedoms, which they have denied. Vucic and other officials on Sunday urged voters to support the amendments and help the country move forward.
Official results were expected on Monday.
The government has urged the Serb minority in Kosovo — a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 — to come to nearby towns in Serbia to cast ballots after Kosovo authorities refused to allow for the opening of polling stations there.
Dozens of Kosovo Serbs on Sunday held a protest in the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo. No incidents were reported.
Serbia doesn’t recognize the independence of Kosovo, which has been backed by the U.S. and most EU countries. Serbia and Kosovo must normalize relations to be able to advance toward EU membership.
Serbia – along with 5 other Western Balkans countries – was identified as a potential candidate for EU membership during the Thessaloniki European Council summit in 2003. In 2008, a European partnership for Serbia was adopted, setting out priorities for the country’s membership application, and in 2009 Serbia formally applied. In March 2012 Serbia was granted EU candidate status. In September 2013 a Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Serbia entered into force.
In line with the decision of the European Council in June 2013 to open accession negotiations with Serbia, the Council adopted in December 2013 the negotiating framework and agreed to hold the 1st Intergovernmental Conference with Serbia in January 2014.
On 21 January 2014, the 1st Intergovernmental Conference• took place, signaling the formal start of Serbia’s accession negotiations. So far, Serbia has opened eighteen chapters and provisionally closed two chapters.
AP / CDEIU