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Elections in Serbia - The Power of One Man Laid Bare

The result of the Serbian Parliamentary elections on Sunday 21st of June this year, can hardly be described as being uncertain. On the contrary, the the victory of the Serbian Progressive Party, the ruling party of President Aleksandar Vucic, was widely expected. However, even with the knowledge of the upper hand that the Progressive party held, many were surprised that their victory was so absolute.

Not only did the ruling party win 139 out of 145 counties [1] but they also won 60,7% of the vote in the national parliamentary elections. This will grant them 191 seats out of 250 in the Serbian parliament. Such victory is without precedent in Serbia since the end of the one-party rule of the Socialist Party in the early 1990s.

Out of 21 that were on the ballot, there were only two parties that also made it to parliament, (barring ethnic minority parties that have a lower threshold of entry). One of them was the socialist party, which formed a coalition government with the progressives in the previous parliament assembly. The sole opposition party to make it to parliament is the Serbian Patriotic Alliance, but its hold is inconsequential.[2]

Aleksandar Vucic and his rise to the top

What led to this overwhelming victory of the ruling party? In short – a boycott by most of the opposition parties. However, there is a longer story here that requires a more comprehensive knowledge of the key players and forces that shape Serbian politics. So, if one is to understand how a country in Europe went from a one-party state to democracy and then back to the absolute rule of one party, we need to start with one man. A man who is both a president of the ruling party and president of the Republic of Serbia - Aleksandar Vucic.

Vucic first appeared on the political stage of Serbia in the troubling years of the Yugoslavian wars. He joined the Serbian Radical Party, a far right-wing party which was, and still is, led by the convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj. As a young man with academic success, he quickly climbed up the ranks, becoming the general secretary of the Serbian Radical Party in 1995. Not long after, Vucic found himself a minister. He was put in charge of the Ministry of Information in 1998, as part of the coalition government with the Socialist Party of Slobodan Milosevic. Under his management, the Law of public information was passed, which resulted in draconian punishments for any media that did not conform to the will of the Milosevic regime. However, the regime soon fell under the pressure of the united coalition of the democratic opposition parties. When the regime tried to dispute the elections it lost, the people held massive protests, storming the parliament and the offices of the state TV.

The revolution did not result in any of the ministers losing their political carriers, and Vucic of today distances himself from this period of his life. After all, in 2008 Vucic made a sharp turn in his political views, leaving the Radical party to become the vice-president of the newly founded Serbian Progressive Party. It held generally centre-right ideas and had a pro-EU stance, a sharp turn from pro-Russian and far-right ideas of the Radical Party. In 2012 elections, the progressives won and replaced the Democratic party which soon fell apart into dozens of smaller political parties and movements. Since then, Vucic has become the prime minister in 2014. and then the president of both the country and the party[3]. The party now holds no clear ideology, instead, it centres around the personality of one man.

Vucic's method of control

That is the path of the man whose party won the most impressive victory in Serbian modern history… while using his name on the ballot, even though the president of the republic is officially above the political disputes of the parties. However, one must ask – how? How is his rule so entrenched? How is it that no opposition party has stood up to the rule of progressives?

A look at particular form of Vucics authoritarianism provides answers to those questions Aleksandar Vucic didn't forget his roots in the ministry of information. Almost immediately upon coming to power as the prime minister, he used every single opportunity to appear on the television. Soon enough, the state media portrayed Vučić similary to how they did Slobodan Milošević. However, his reach was greater than of his authoritarian predecessor. He made sure to entice private channels to broadcast overwhelming and blatant propaganda. Today, all the channels with national frequency, as well as a vast majority of local tv channels, broadcast nothing but words of praise for Aleksandar Vučić and accusations and denouncements of the opposition leaders.

As most people in the country still use traditional media as their main source of information, Vučić made sure he had an almost undisputed in these. Except for two or three traditional media sources (including the foreign-sponsored N1), no tv station or newspaper will post anything if it is not in agreement with the rulings party line.

The opposition found this to be their biggest problem. After the breaking up of the previously ruling Democratic party, opposition parties became numerous but small. Almost none of these made it over the 5% mark in the 2016. parliamentary elections. While Vučić systematically destroyed press freedoms, there was no strong party to stand in his way. NGOs and international organizations like the OSCE recognized this reality in the recent elections.[4] Without any means of reaching the public, the opposition finds itself constantly under the attack of the government sponsored newspapers and tv channels, while having no way to answer such accusations.They were turned the scapegoats for every failure of the ruling party and are seen by progressive party voters as responsible for all the problems that the Progressives supposedly inherited.

A fractured opposition

The opposition did attempt to battle this after the failure of the 2016 elections. A general consensus was made that Vučić was an authoritarian who had to be voted out by a broad coalition, similar to the one made against Milošević. However, this new coalition, “Alliance for Serbia” failed to encompass all of the opposition parties. Furthermore, there was infighting in the lead up to the 2020 elections around the controversial strategy implemented by the Alliance for Serbia.

Faced with elections fraud, large scale harassment, bribing and intimidation of the voters by the progressive party, lack of any type of media representation and lack of EU response, the Alliance for Serbia made a decision to boycott the elections, hoping to have it appear blatantly illegitimate. This was soon followed by accusations like “traitors” used against other opposition parties that decided to participate in the election process. This splitting of the opposition made it impossible for any opposition party to make it into parliament. The already small parties had an extremely poor showing with liberal, democratic voters since it was exactly this demographic that was most suggestible to the boycott calls.

The result? A landslide victory for the ruling party of Aleksandar Vucic. Media censorship, voter fraud, intimidation, bribery, and apathy of the opposition made it so that one party now can hold absolute will not only on the political actions of the state but also over the process of potential constitutional change. [5][6][7] That means that topics like Kosovo, judicial reform, and many others are now matters of the internal dialogue within the ruling party.

Hopes for a low turnout by the opposition were ill-founded. There are reports of people being forced to vote or being threatened with losing their job[8], both in the private and government sector. It is also fair to say that there was a genuine majority of voters that have chosen the progressive party, especially in the rural area where only national frequency television is available, which is laden with Vucic's propaganda.

Turnout is reported around 50%, but for Serbia, a country that never had above 60% turnout, this is not too surprising nor unusual. This holds especially true if the fears of Covid-19 are taken into account. Only Belgrade had a low turnout, marking the only place were boycot succeeded.

The Future of Serbia

So what comes next? Will Vucic reign alone or will he form a coalition to appear more democratic? It is hard to say. There are those who claim that he will find himself in a difficult situation. [9]A pretence of an open democracy in Serbia Vucic always pointed towards when faced with outside citicism is now gone. It will be impossible for him to claim that there are any laws he cannot make or things he cannot do due to the parliament resistance. The scapegoat is gone.

However, Vucic never failed to control the optics before. He has a clear pro-EU stance, while many opposition parties don't. This means that he is generally recognised as a suitable partner in EU negotiations, as a recent tweet from Donald Tusk confirms.[10]

Still, there is another danger looming in Serbia. If things don't change soon and a whole portion of society feels that it cannot be part of a democratic process then there are chances for conflict. Past months reflected this worsening state of the Serbian political discourse. More and more words like “civil war” are used. Such a dangerous choice of words could prove problematic, especially when the Alliance of Serbia unclear methods of fighting Vucics rule are considered.[11] [12]

Whatever comes next, one thing is clear. There is only one man that makes decisions in Serbia, and he holds no plausible deniability anymore. With media manipulation, bribes and threats against voters now very obvious, there can be no disputing the fact that there is no informed democracy in Serbia.[13]

Not all hope is lost, however. This is, as I pointed out previously, not the first time Serbia is faced with a authoritarian populist trying to dominiate the public mind through propaganda-filled media and intimidation. Milosevic was faced with almost a decade of mass protestes, culminating with the elections he lost to a organised, united front of liberal, democratic parties of both left and right that were ready to put an end to his reign. When he did lose yet fail to except, the people enforced their will with the demonstrations that took the capital by storm and forced Milosevic to accept defeat.

Some potential outlooks

Vucic is aware of his predecessor's downfall. He lived through it and has seen similar demonstrations happening every year in Belgrade and other larger cities like Novi Sad and Niš as well. He refrains from strong police response, much more content to dominate the optics by smearing the protestors through his tv and newspaper channels while the army of bots fights it out online. [14]However, even this kind of response might not serve him well forever.

If the opposition finds a way to unite under one coalition. Should they successfully contact the people in the rural places where there is only the word of the ruling party to listen to. If they energise the liberal youth into sprouting another round of protest that would actually continue to the election day… should all of this came to be, one can imagine the Progressive party authoritarian government being left with just two choices. Either go down peacefully, risking their many financial crimes and generally illegal behaviour being made public, or try to hold on to power at any cost.

There is no saying which one of these options it would be. There isn't even a hint of an organised political opposition forming to challenge Vucic in the elections.

As we have seen in the past few days, Serbia was rocked by its first violent protests in 20 years. These protests initially started from frustration regarding new COVID lockdown measures and a report that suggests that the numbers of infected were high during elections, football matches and other activities permitted by the authorities who nevertheless proclaimed “victory over coronavirus”. Very fast they grew to encompass the fears about constitutional change concerning Kosovo, lack of media freedom, censorship, bribes, various scandals that connected the Progressive party to organized crime, and many others. These demonstrations are still disorganized, refusing to be claimed by any opposition party and are comprised of groups who are ranging from the far-left to the far-right. In other words, they have no clear objective other than a sheer statement of dissatisfaction and anger towards the rule of Vucic.

However, they are a reminder of the fact that Serbian society remains deeply divided, even if the elections show a political consensus. It is safe to say that stability is not something anyone can guarantee for the Serbian people in the foreseeable future.

[1] Local elections: Municipality in which SPP won, in N1 info, 22. June 2020, http://rs.n1info.com/Izbori-2020/a612544/Lokalni-izbori-Opstine-u-kojima-nije-pobedio-SNS.html

[2] Serbia President’s Party Scores Landslide in Election Boycotted by Opposition, in BalkanInsight, 21. June 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/06/21/serbia-presidents-party-scores-landslide-in-election-boycotted-by-opposition

[3] https://www.predsednik.rs/en/president/biography

[4] Serbian parliamentary elections well run, but ruling party dominance and lack of media diversity limited voters’ choice, international observers say, https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/serbia/455173 22. June 2020

[5] Media reform stalled in the slow lane, Soft Censorship in Serbia, report by World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, https://serbia.mom-rsf.org/fileadmin/Editorial/Serbia/Documents/SoftCensorship_Serbia_2015.pdf

[6] Media Freedom in Serbia, by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, https://www.kas.de/en/web/balkanmedia/media-freedom9

[7] Ahead of Elections, Serbia' Democracy Is a Dead Man Walking, by Italian Institute for International Political Studies, https://www.ispionline.it/en/publication/ahead-elections-serbias-democracy-dead-man-walking-26584

[8] Corruption in Serbia: BRIBERY AS EXPERIENCED BY THE POPULATION, UNODC, page 30., https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/corruption/Serbia_corruption_report_web.pdf

[9] Why Everyone Lost Out in Serbia’s Elections, in the BalkanInsight, 25. June 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/06/25/why-everyone-lost-out-in-serbias-elections


[11] Opposition joins new protest in Belgrade, in N1 info, 8. July 2020, http://rs.n1info.com/English/NEWS/a617804/Opposition-organises-new-protest-in-Belgrade.html

[12] Tepic: Serbia is on brink of civil war, in Direktno.rs, 14. February 2020., https://direktno.rs/politika/253098/tepic-srbija-je-na-ivici-gradjanskog-rata.html

[13] Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/country/serbia/nations-transit/2020

[14] ‘Vox Populi’: How Serbian Tabloids and Twitter Bots Joined Forces, in Balkan Insight 10. April 2020, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/10/vox-populi-how-serbian-tabloids-and-twitter-bots-joined-forces