Serbia’s Elections: A Silver Cloud with a Dark Lining

  • Paul McCarthy

As expected, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) dominated Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Serbia by winning around half of the vote. 

Vucic had called early elections in January in order to continue his government’s reformist path toward European Union membership.  Indeed, the election results can be seen as a clear vote in favor of the EU.  However, radical far-right parties which espouse closer ties with Russia also appeared to have handily passed the electoral threshold thereby securing parliament seats for the first time in many years.  This extreme nationalist representation could prove an obstacle to Vucic’s efforts to advance his generally pro-Western policies and force him to adopt stances which respond to rising pro-Moscow sentiments among the Serbian electorate.

A key development leading up to the elections was the acquittal at the end of March of war-crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj, the founder of the Serbian Radical Party, by the International War Crimes Tribunal for former-Yugoslavia in The Hague.  Seselj had been implicated in numerous human rights violations during the wars that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  His acquittal allowed the Radical leader to campaign freely ahead of the elections and capitalize on the Serbian public’s dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, particularly in tackling the problems of unemployment and corruption.  It also provided Seselj with an opportunity to whip up anti-Western sentiment, by portraying the EU and NATO as the nation’s “enemies”, and call for Serbia’s reorientation towards Russia.  This stance took advantage of a tilt in Serb public opinion away from the EU and towards Moscow which had been growing in recent years.

During the election campaign, it was ironic to see Seselj trying to steal Vucic’s thunder given that the Prime Minister had been an ardent supporter of the Radicals in his youth, rising to the position of Party Secretary-General in 1995.  Vucic broke with his mentor in 2008 to form the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) which went on to win 158 seats in Serbia’s 250-member parliament in the 2014 elections.  This overwhelming victory allowed the 44-year old SNS leader to form a new government and effectively bury all opposition.  As Prime Minister, Vucic has been a staunch supporter of Serbia’s integration into the European Union and NATO, while remaining friendly with traditional allies Russia and China, and has sought to normalize relations with Kosovo, Serbia’s breakaway former province.  Vucic’s critics have accused him of overcentralizing power in his hands to the detriment of Serbia’s nascent democracy, in particular curtailing free speech by exerting control over most of the country’s media.  A recent progress report by the European Commission criticized the regression of the state of democracy in Serbia and the backsliding of media freedom under Vucic’s premiership.

According to preliminary results from Sunday’s elections, the SNS maintained its dominant position in Serbian politics by capturing just under 50% of the votes.  Vucic’s current allies in government, the Socialist Party of Serbia, founded by former authoritarian leader Slobodan Milosevic, have won approximately 11%.   Seselj’s Radical Party easily cleared the 5% electoral threshold by taking 8%.  The Democratic Party, a liberal party which held the presidency and premiership until 2012 but has since seen its support implode, received a mere 6%. 

It remains to be seen whether other anti-government pro-reform groupings, like “Dosta Je Bilo” (It’s Enough), led by the charismatic former Economy Minister Sasa Radulovic, and the SDS-LDP-LSV coalition, cleared the threshold.  Likewise, it is not clear whether a second far-right party coalition Dveri-DSS has managed to get over 5% of the votes, a significant result if true given the increased potency of the Radicals.   At the time of writing, partial results appeared to show that all three of these party coalitions had crossed the threshold to win parliamentary mandates.

In the end, the SNS is likely to get an absolute majority of between 137 and 156 seats in the 250-seat assembly, compared with the 158 they currently have.  Exactly how many seats in the parliament the SNS wins will depend on how many parties exceed the 5% threshold needed to get into the assembly.

What is clear is that SNS is going to face more opposition parties – ranging from extreme nationalists to more liberal and anti-establishment parties – than it had in the previous parliament.  Although the SNS’s victory is essentially a vote of confidence in the government’s pro-reform and integration policies, this increased parliamentary opposition could complicate Serbia’s EU membership talks by resisting concessions, such as further economic austerity demanded by the IMF or ending the claim to sovereignty over Kosovo.  Furthermore, the strong showing of the Radicals might increase pressure on Vucic to deepen political and economic relations with Serbia’s historical ally, Russia, a process which could slow his government’s reform drive and divert its pro-Western orientation.   Thus, Serbia’s elections might follow a worrying trend seen across Europe of the increasing electoral success of right-wing, nativist parties seeking to undermine Euro-Atlantic integration, thereby increasing the chances that their countries will fall prey to Moscow’s encroaching influence.  The clouds overhead may seem bright and silvery after this vote, but beware that ominous dark lining.         


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