Serbia’s elections: what about democratic values?


The victory of Prime Minster Aleksandar Vucic’s Progressive Party in Serbia’s election enables the government to continue with its proposed reform and fiscal consolidation agenda, Fitch Ratings says.

But the ruling populists, who won last week’s election by a landslide, have demanded a vote recount after several smaller opposition parties made it to Parliament, AP reports:

The pro-EU Serbian Progressive Party won 48 percent of the seats in the 250-seat Parliament. That is 27 seats fewer than in the previous general vote in 2014.The official tally also shows pro-Russian nationalists winning seats in the legislature, as well as three pro-Western groups which marginally passed the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament.

Incumbent Prime Minister Vucic, who is accused by the opposition of seeking an authoritarian rule, said Tuesday “strange things happened” during the vote count on Sunday.

A vote analysis on Sunday night by the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (Cesid) indicated that the Serbian Progressive party (SNS) had won 48.6 per cent of votes cast, compared with 49.3 per cent in the previous poll in 2014, the FT reports.

The biggest surprise at the parliamentary elections was the success of the liberal, pro-European ‘Dosta je bilo’ (‘Enough is Enough’) movement led by former economy minister Sasa Radulovic, who was appointed to the cabinet by Vucic but resigned in 2014 due to the slow pace of economic reforms, Balkan Insight reports.

Opponents accuse Mr. Vucic of using European Union ambitions to mask traits that belong to the Milosevic era: centralizing power and enriching his inner circle. The European Union has particularly criticized constraints on media freedom, The New York Times adds:

Konstantin Samofalov, spokesman of the pro-European Social Democratic Party led by Boris Tadic, Serbia’s president from 2004 to 2012, accused the Vucic government of “erosion of media freedom, destruction of democratic institutions and devastation of the Serbian economy.”

Serbian civil society groups have warned of possible danger to investigative journalists examining high-level corruption, and are questioning Serbia’s media freedom in light of apparent state eavesdropping on reporters.

Vucic’s big win in Sunday’s elections can be seen as a vote in favor of his government’s reformist path toward European Union membership, writes the International Republican Institute’s Paul McCarthy. However, the corresponding success of radical far-right parties with close ties to Russia and Putin could prove an obstacle to Vucic’s pro-Western policies.

Boosted by the recent acquittal of its leader Vojislav Seselj by the UN war crimes court in The Hague, the Serbian Radical Party has seen 20 of its candidates win parliamentary seats, Balkan Insight adds.

“Seselj gained votes because of the tribunal. He returned to Belgrade triumphantly as someone who had defeated The Hague and this gave him a lot of leverage,” said Sonja Licht, president of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, a think-tank.

Analysts said that Mr Seselj offered voters a powerful cocktail of nationalism, conspiracy theories and pro-Russian sentiment that taps into enduring Serbian resentment at Nato’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999.

“Some of Seselj’s voters are former Progressive supporters who are disillusioned with Vucic’s decisions. They expected a more radical approach from him and they want closer relations with Moscow, not Brussels,” said Ivo Colovic, an analyst with the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy.

Vucic has projected himself as a strongman who can defend Serbian interests, long promised to fight corruption, and claims to be devoted to democracy, The Economist notes:

In fact, despite many high-profile arrests (especially of politicians connected to the Democratic Party), there have been few convictions for high-level corruption. The media is largely weak and cowed by government pressure; state television unfailingly reflects the government’s point of view. Stevan Dojcinovic (right), a prominent investigative journalist [and National Endowment for Democracy grantee] who recently began investigating Mr Vucic’s family wealth, found himself attacked in the tabloid press as a “French spy”.

Florian Bieber, a professor at Graz University, says Mr Vucic is one of a generation of Balkan leaders with no ideological underpinning, who run their countries through informal networks, by telephone, rather than via proper institutions. “It is all about personal power,” says Mr Bieber. As one Serbian official puts it: “The West has been primarily interested in whether these guys are nationalists in an explosive region. They have somehow lost interest in whether they are democrats.”

Furthermore, Vučić has been markedly omnivore in choosing his allies, notes analyst Tena Prelec:

While keeping western leaders happy with a more lenient approach towards Kosovo, he has never reneged the traditional partnership with Russia, nor has he backed out of securing new ties with the UAE, with China and with other foreign investors. Ultimately, this is not something he has ever attempted to hide, repeating on more than one occasion that economic interest is the number one criterion in his government’s line. This ‘Europe versus Russia’ narrative is therefore distinctly unhelpful when trying to understand the political dynamics in Serbia and the wider region – lest it ends up overshadowing more crucial issues.


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