I wrote this analysis for Baltic Worlds, a scientific, peer-reviewed online journal, where the original piece is posted. Visit their Election Coverage for more great electoral analysis!
Serbia held early Parliamentary elections for the second time since 2012 on 24th April, together with regional elections in Vojvodina and local elections in a majority of communes.
The early elections were called by the Prime minister, Alexandar Vučić, with the argument that he needed a longer period to ensure stability to oversee the opening and first phases of EU membership negotiations. But the move has been widely interpreted as a cynical attempt to consolidate, or even increase power now when Vučić has managed to open EU negotiations and at the same time the opposition against the EU in Parliament is weak.
However, that was a move which backfired quite substantially. At first it looked like it was going to be quite an easy victory, but after the nationalist right wing leader Vojislav Šešelj was acquitted of all the accusations against him in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the electoral game changed quite radically.
But despite the re-entrance of anti-EU and pro-Russia forces in Parliament, the vote was quite substantially interpreted as a strong approval of the governments EU policy. In fact, the results of these elections are widely interpreted as a referendum on how Serbia should relate to the EU and the recently opened membership negotiations. From this point of view the governing SNS got a strong mandate from the population to continue the road towards EU membership and away from the past.
The elections were generally deemed as in accordance with international standards, efficiently administered and in concordance with the law. EU representatives have praised both the result and the electoral process. However, international observers took notice of the biased media coverage, which gave “undue advantage” to incumbency. The collected opposition asked to review the electoral material in protest to what they claim to be rigged elections, and promised to stage protests if they did not pass the 5% threshold to enter Parliament. Electoral irregularities were identified in 15 polling stations, and reruns were held on 4 May. The opposition parties eventually all entered Parliament with a tiny margin, two parties even with fractions of a percent.
This analysis of the elections is divided as follows: first a discussion on the EU integration and Serbia’s relation with the EU. That is followed by a discussion on the return of the ultra-nationalists in Parliament. Then the results will be discussed and the analysis will end with some words on the possible new government, the role of the divided opposition and the state of the Serbian democracy.
The given reason for snap elections: EU integration
Vučić campaigned on portraying himself and his party as the road towards the future, against extremists from the past. And this future is the EU, there is no other option. This became even more pronounced as the far right nationalist Vojislav Šešelj, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Yugoslav War of dissolution, was acquitted from all accusations in March. His return to politics showed clearly what Vučić claimed he wanted to leave behind.
The role of Serbia and its former nationalistic leader Slobodan Milošević in the wars that broke up Yugoslavia, and the crisis in Kosovo put the country at logger heads against the EU and NATO. Milošević ruled Serbia, and later the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, until 2000 when he was forced from power. His authoritarian regime and policies were consequently strongly anti-EU and anti-NATO, pursuing a nationalist rhetoric and politics along the lines of Greater Serbia in the region, seeing the EU and in particular NATO as the enemy which forced Serbia to give up on Kosovo and Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After his removal from power Serbia has struggled to find a new path, balancing the past and the challenges for the future. The process of democratising Serbia, leaving the authoritarian and nationalistic past has been difficult. The Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in 2003 when he challenged organised crime and the power of the former security structures under Milošević. The nationalists have preferred a pro-Russian foreign policy, in particular since Russia is backing the Serbian position on Kosovo and Srebrenica. Overcoming these forces and pursuing a pro-EU path is not uncontroversial in Serbian politics. This is an achievement to be recognised.
All along, the EU has worked hard to pull Serbia closer, to make both politicians and the population embrace democracy, rule of law and human rights, and the EU itself. It has not been easy, as both Serbian and member state interests have at times clashed. One such moment was when the Netherlands halted the Serbian Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2006 over disputes regarding cooperation with the ICTY. Today Croatia opposes opening negotiations on two central chapters of the Acquis and demand that Serbia strengthen the situation of the Croat minority and act stronger on war crimes.
But despite these difficulties, the EU and Serbia could open membership negotiations through the adoption of a negotiating framework in 2013. This process started in earnest in 2013 as some important hurdles regarding Kosovo were agreed to be dealt with. Many Serbs feel that Kosovo is an integrated part of Serbia, and it’s possible, indeed highly likely, separation from Serbia through an EU membership has kept many against the EU. Many EU members have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, adding fuel to the fire. This is the most sensitive issue in Serbian politics, perhaps in all Western Balkans, and it has taken finely calibrated diplomacy mixed with geopolitical realpolitik to come to the conclusion that Serbia is better off in the EU than outside in partnership with Russia.
Given this background, the strong support for the pronounced pro-EU is a huge success for the EU and pro-EU forces in the country.
The return of ultra-nationalism
However, that victory was somewhat clouded by the return of the ultra-nationalists in Parliament. Ultra-nationalism has a long history in Serbia, with several prominent politicians and parties in parliament coming from either Milošević’s SPS, or Šešelj’s SRS. Both Vučić and the President Nikolić come from the SRS, and the SPS is the second biggest party in Parliament. But the most extreme party, the SRS, which is anti-EU and pro-Russian, have been pushed aside the last couple of years, losing their seats in 2012. After that they have almost been considered a force of the past.
However, Šešelj, who has been under trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the ICTY, was cleared from all charges in March 2016. The acquittal surely overturned Vučić’s calculations completely, and he has in fact accused the ICTY to be biased against Serbia politics by acquitting him so close before the elections. The timing of Šešelj’s return to Serbian politics made it possible to get maximum media coverage before the elections without needing to make a strong effort or to pay much advertisement. His release naturally made the headlines without him needing to do more than being visible.
Commentators have warned that Šešelj’s release could be seen as a possibility for other politicians, the PM Vučić included, to clean their pasts and even legitimising some of their nationalist stands, as there will always be the more radical SRS to compare with. That is indeed something which needs to be monitored by the opposition and analysts in Serbia, particularly in the light of the fear that the quality of democracy is weakening.
The right wing parties have fed on the growing discontent with Vučić’s pro-EU stands and the austerity policies coming in the heels of a poor economy. The SRS and the DSS/Dveri coalition will not be strong enough to substantially challenge Vučić, but would be able to voice their anti-EU and anti-NATO opinions in Parliament and give Vučić considerable trouble at times, in particular regarding deals concerning Kosovo.
Vučić, in turn, does not turn the back on Russia, rather the opposite. He is actively pursuing a sensitive balancing act, perhaps leaning towards his former political preferences, but being clear that an EU membership is the strategic goal of Serbia. Vučić, has managed to balance the EU and Russia in a delicate equilibrium allowing Serbia to continue towards the EU without upsetting either Russia or the nationalists substantially. Serbia even participated with troops in the traditional Russian military parade celebrating the victory in the Second World War on May 9 2015, recognising the common foreign policy interests in some areas and the domestic dynamics in Serbia.
The final results, as announced on May 5, were as follows (it should be noted that the coalitions are not exactly the same from one year to another):
|Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) coalition
|Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) coalition
|Democratic Party (DS) coalition
|Social democratic Party of Serbia (SDS) coalition
|Serbian Radical Party (SRS)
|Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) coalition with Dveri
|Enough is Enough
The category “others” is made up of parties representing ethnic minorities and which do not need to pass the 5% threshold.
The governing SNS and its (former?) governing party Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by the former Milošević protégée Dačić did both lose seats, together as many as 43. It is thus very clear that rather than strengthening his position in Parliament, Vučić has actually lost ground. And he lost to his former party and leader, the Serbian radicals under Vojislav Šešelj, plus a new reformist minded movement, both representing diametrically different views of how Serbia should be governed. The outgoing, and very likely incoming, Prime minister is having a very different hand to play with than he could have imagined when he declared that the snap elections were needed.
The opposition parties, which stood against Milošević during his time in power, the Democratic Party (DS), led by Pajlić, and its splinter party Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDS), led by the former President Boris Tadić, also lost ground, and holds not even 30 seats together. They have been the effective pro-democracy, pro-EU force in Serbian politics until that role was taken by the SNS.
In this sense, the majority of parties represented in the 2014 Parliament were all losers in this election. The winners were those who entered at the expense of the parties already present, in particular the SRS which won as many as 22 seats.
The right wing nationalists, represented by Serbian Radical Party (SRS) with Šešelj as its most prominent member, and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by the former prime minister Koštunica, which entered into coalition with the pro-Russian group Dveri, together won 35 seats, giving them a substantial platform in parliament to disturb the SNS in its negotiations with the EU and the necessary reforms to conclude the negotiations, but not enough to effectively block legislation.
The second new force in parliament is the party Enough is Enough led by the former minister for economy, Saša Radulović. They did not pass the threshold in 2014, and took a substantial leap forwards in these elections. This party based their campaign almost solely on digital platforms and social media, as they felt excluded from and discriminated by the traditional media. Nevertheless, they took 16 seats and represent a different political force in Serbia. They are pro-EU and pro-reform, and accuse Vučić of not being able to solve the real problems of the country: that of corruption. Radulović has vowed to never enter into coalition with the SNS, nor its partners.
Setting up a new government
It seems like one of the aims of Mr Vučić with the snap elections was to distance himself from the governing partner SPS rather than making a reshuffle of the government. The game to form a government has started, and while Vučić was initially hesitant to invite the SPS for talks, it seem like he eventually will need to in order to secure their backing on regional and local level, in particular in some key communes, where it in certain areas is crucial for the SNS to get an absolute majority to be able to pursue their policies. Such a move would go against the pre-election indication given by Vučić that he did not necessarily trust the SPS and its leader, and also against post-election statements that the sole coalition partner in government for the SNS would be the Alliance of Vojvodinan Hungarians, holding four seats.
There will surely be some political dancing back and forth before a government is settled. But given the SNS’s actual loss of seats in Parliament and the need for SPS backing locally, the SPS will most likely eventually be invited by the SNS and will probably accept the invitation after having strapped some desirable posts as ministers or other political positions.
A divided opposition
With the democratic opposition from the early 1990’s decimated, the return of right wing nationalism as a political force, and a third pro-reform party entering Parliament, it is obvious that the opposition is divided. Although they did get together to protest against alleged electoral fraud, it is unlikely that they will pose a strong, efficient, united opposition against the SNS and its possible future coalition parties.
Boris Tadić is making an effort to unite the opposition, which may have only one single point in common to unite around: the wish to weaken the SNS and Vučić. Šešelj, however, is showing few signs of wanting to cooperate with the rest of the opposition, or indeed to attack Vučić, as of yet.
But at the same time as we conclude that the opposition is weak and fragmented, it is important that they function efficiently. Vučić has been accused of being a Putin-like leader, and under his watch the press freedom has considerably weakened, and he is named in person by the Freedom House as putting pressure on media. He and his government have also been noticed to be sensitive about criticism in general, including by civil society and watchdogs like the Ombudsman. These are developments which have prompted the growth of Enough is Enough and similar movements protesting against the high level of corruption and the attacks against free speech and media freedom.
Commentators notice that Vučić has been good at talking the talk on issues such as the fight against corruption, but has achieved little. There are those who fear that this strong pro-EU mandate will give him the opportunity to show good results on EU reforms and negotiations, while at the same time close an eye regarding democratic standards. Some even predict a scenario similar to that in Hungary: weakened democracy and rule of law but without a significantly weakened EU commitment. Although he has a weakened position in Parliament, the SNS coalition still holds an absolute majority. A weak and divided opposition will have little to set against the government, and that may be a bad prospect for Serbia and its level of democracy.
From this point of view, Vučić may not be the ideal partner for the EU, although they have solidly backed the Vučić government and have expressed their satisfaction with the electoral results. Given the strong pro-EU mandate given by the electorate, the EU should be able to afford to be somewhat critical towards Serbia, in particular regarding press freedom and the general state of democracy and rule of law. It is true that the Radicals and their partners are pro-Russian, and it is true that Russia is particularly offensive regarding foreign policy at the moment, but that should not steer the EU away from being tough on the core EU values for the fear of pushing the country towards the nationalists. There are other forces to collaborate with in the country and to strengthen, such as Radulovic’s party. That is a potentially good platform to build on, and which can function as a further lever of democratic norms into the Serbian society. That would be good not only for Serbia, but for the entire region.