MINELRES: Roma in Serbia Reach Threshold to Participate in Direct Election of National Councils

minelres@lists.microlink.lv minelres@lists.microlink.lv
Tue Mar 9 20:03:41 2010

Original sender: LGI Research <lgiresearch@osi.hu>

Roma in Serbia Reach Threshold to Participate in Direct Election of
National Councils 

Press Release, March 9, 2010

In less than four weeks, the number of Roma registered to participate in
direct elections in Serbia tripled, from 15,000 to well over 43,000. As
a result, the legal criteria for direct elections to National Councils
has been met. This significant increase was the result of an intensive
campaign led by the Center for Regionalism, an NGO based in Novi Sad,
Serbia with support from the Local Government and Public Service Reform
Initiative of OSI-Budapest, and in cooperation with the Roma Information
Office (RIO) of OSI-Budapest, the Fund for an open Society-Serbia
(FOSS), the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights of Serbia, and a host
of local community leaders and organizations, representatives of
municipalities, media outlets,  and others. 

National Councils are envisioned as a mechanism to facilitate the
participation of national minorities in decision-making. They are tasked
with overseeing policies in several primary areas of minority rights,
such as education, the media, official use of language, and culture.
Councils, which operate at the national level, also appoint members of
local, multiethnic Council on Interethnic Relations. Nineteen national
minorities in Serbia have the right to found National Councils.

A new law on National Councils of National Minorities entered into force
in August 2009. The law requires the compilation of Unique Voter Lists
by the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights, based on data received
from municipalities. The number of voters on these lists must meet a
certain percentage of the total community (as identified in the National
Census). If this threshold is met, the national minority community is
eligible to participate in direct elections for their National Council.
If it is not met, a complicated process of nominations and negotiations
with the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights ensues. 

To be able to participate in direct elections, the Roma community needed
to register over 43,000 voters: 50% of the community, minus 20%
(representing those who are below the legal voting age of 18 years).[1]
In early February 2010, the number of registered Roma was far below the
threshold, at around 15,000.

One of the largest minority communities in Serbia, Roma face multiple
and widely documented forms of discrimination.[2] In recent elections,
voter turn-out among Roma has been low. Prior to this campaign, many
Roma were not registered to vote, lacked information about voting and
voting registration, or did not possess the documentation needed to
vote. Moreover, the majority were unaware of National Councils and their
significance. Without the ability to directly elect National Councils,
the Roma community was at risk of further disenfranchisement from
decision-making. This would have grave social, political, and economic
implications for their participation in Serbia's future. 

Seeing a treacherous situation, the Center for Regionalism initiated its
campaign in early February to mobilize Roma voters. As one community
leader explained to a member of the Center: "We need help . . . people
are frustrated and don't know to who to believe anymore." 

Working with partners in the field, the Center launched its campaign by
identifying several municipalities most in need: municipalities with
sizable Roma populations that were not politically mobilized, were
poorly informed about National Councils, and live in segregated or
isolated areas. Although municipalities in southern and eastern Serbia
were targeted (Bor, Negotin, Zajecar, Knjazevac, Boljevac, Vranje,
Leskovac, Bujanovac, Medvedja, Presevo, Vlasotince, and Nis), the
campaign's impacts reached across the country.

The Center mobilized local coordinators and teams of volunteers, who led
activities in selected municipalities, and carried out trainings on the
aims of the campaign, National Councils, and the technicalities of
registration. In the field, these teams conducted additional informative
seminars and events to extend the campaign's reach. In total, over 50
individuals were trained to register Roma voters. In addition, the
Center collaborated with representatives of local self-governments and
municipalities, local and national media, schools, community groups,
political parties, and international organizations. Partners distributed
informational leaflets, placed posters in public spaces, and made use of
local/national media to spread information about the campaign and its
significance. Materials were developed in both Serbian and Romani. 

Certainly, the campaign was challenging. Each of citizen who want to be
registered had to complete a Request (petition) for Entering in Unique
Voting List, which was made available in the municipalities and on the
webpage of the Ministry. A very large amount of data had to be processed
in a short amount of time. In many cases, only slow computer software
was available. Additionally, some potential voters were skeptical of the
campaign. Observers also described efforts made to raise fear among Roma
about registering to vote, such as by making claims that  the
"signatures for some special list and no one knows what will happen to
them later."

In addition to meeting the threshold needed for National Councils, the
campaign had the effect of raising awareness and skills among Roma, who
gained knowledge about participation in elections. Within
municipalities, a considerable amount of attention was drawn to the
situation in Roma communities. The campaign also exposed much-neglected
issues in the mainstream media and in government. Additionally, the
campaign helped generate a strong network to engage in community
organizing, canvassing, and other activities to mobilize voters.

In the coming days and weeks, based on date received from
municipalities, the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights will compile
the Unique Voter Lists. Elections for National Councils are expected to
be held in spring of 2010.


[1] For more on the Law, visit the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights
of the Republic of Serbia: http://www.ljudskaprava.gov.rs/

[2] See reporting and comments on Serbia from the Council of Europe
Framework Convention for the Protection of  National Minorities:

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