3rd April 2017
By Alexander Rossen
Spontaneity is what makes life exciting.
I found this out in the best way possible through an election observation mission I went on with Silba to the Serbian capital, Belgrade. I hadn’t planned on going, but the night before the deadline for applications, I convinced myself it’d be a fun experience. I have many ties to Serbia, both from travelling in the region and from my mother’s side of the family, which is ethnically Serbian. If nothing else, I’d be able to visit my grandparents once the mission was over. I sent my application and luckily, I was accepted.
Despite some uncertainty as to whether the mission would even take place due to a change in the election date, I travelled to Serbia by plane on the 28th of March. Disregarding the normal complications of travelling by plane, the flight down was uneventful. As soon as I landed in Belgrade, I ran into another observer by chance, and we travelled to our hostel by cab.
Whilst our stay at the hostel was very enjoyable, the program put together by the coordinating team was what made the EOM an exceptional experience.
To truly appreciate the work, you’re to do as an election observer in any given country, you need to understand the context of your work, both politically and historically. It was clear to me this line of thinking had been an integral part of putting together the program for our week-long stay in Serbia.
We were to visit a wide range of people and places to get a feel for Serbia as a nation. Some visits were slightly more official in nature, such as our trip to the Serbian parliamentary building. Here we were introduced not only to important figures in Serbian history, but to the way in which the Serbian legislative branch of government operates. Similarly, our visit to the Danish embassy in Belgrade gave us an insight into the Danish work in Serbia, with a focus on how Denmark helps Serbia move toward EU membership.
We also visited several NGOs, such as the Humanitarian Law Centre. Here we looked at the bloody past of the Balkan region, and how Serbia and the surrounding countries are dealing with their past. Understanding the breakup of Yugoslavia and the political figures from that time is paramount to understanding Balkan politics today. Whilst the people of the region are moving forward, the scars remain.
Lastly, we were visited by several independent journalists whose perspective rounded out our own opinions of Serbian politics. On the outside, Serbia might seem like a relatively well-functioning democracy, but these journalists had many qualms with the current government. Press freedom and corruption were major concerns, and as we would later find out, these concerns were not entirely unfounded.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most important part of what made the EOM an amazing experience; the other observers. As this was my first time taking part in any sort of election observation, I didn’t know what to expect.
Whatever my expectations were at the time, I was pleasantly surprised. On the observation mission I was joined by an eclectic group of young people from all over the Western world. What truly made the mission stand out to me was just how enthusiastic everyone was to learn and to do a good job. There was a lot of time between visits to the various events on the program to explore the beautiful city of Belgrade and to get to know each other. Personally, I made several new friends whom I hope to keep in touch with in the future.
All our lectures, trips and studying lead to the reason we were in Serbia in the first place; election day. After having been paired in groups of three, two observers and one local translator, we left for our designated polling stations early in the morning on April 2nd. It was a long day, but ultimately very enjoyable. This was in large part due to my translator, Marco, who was extremely enthusiastic about sharing his culture and cuisine with us. Eventually the election day ended, and we could go back to the hostel. We didn’t find any evidence of major voting fraud during the day.
As was expected, Aleksandar Vučić, who was the incumbent Prime Minister, won the presidential election in the first round. What this means for the future of Serbia is uncertain. President Vučić clearly has a lot of support from certain groups of the population, but many in Serbia are disillusioned with the results. This was made clear by the ensuing protests in the streets of Belgrade, lasting several days.
In closing, I’d like to urge anyone who is considering joining an EOM to do it! It’s an amazing experience in many ways. You’ll meet new people, you’ll taste new food, you’ll experience a new culture and you’ll learn so much while doing it. I sent my application on a whim, but it certainly won’t be the last time I go on an election observation mission!