By Irena Djordjević (Universities of Aveiro and Beira Interior)
On Sunday night, 21st of June, there was no unexpected news: Ruling center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) party won the parliamentary, provincial and local elections in Serbia. What should be surprising is that in “parliamentary democracy with competitive multiparty elections” such as Serbia according to Freedom House, one party (SNS) won about two-thirds of the votes (around 63%); that out of 21 competitors in this electoral race only three passed the recently lowered threshold of 3%, with the share of 10.9% for Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and 4,2% for Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS); and that only parties ruling (on national or local level) in the previous mandate will compete to form the new government. And all these along with the lowest turnout in this century – 48% compared to 56.7% during the 2016 elections. How things are going, SNS will have 191 out of 250 MPs, supported by additional 32 seats of SPS. SPAS will take 12, and the remaining 16 seats will go to the four minority parties. In order to better understand how did this happen in first national elections in Europe since the COVID-19 pandemic, two important elements should be examined in more detail: low turnout and SNS supermajority.
First of all, low turnout was celebrated as the victory of boycott by the opposition leading coalition – Alliance for Serbia (SzS), as it was the lowest percentage since the establishment of a multi-party system in 1990. Effects of boycott, as stated by the opposition officials, were most visible in the capital of Belgrade where, according to the IPSOS agency, turnout was around 35%, one hour before the polls were closed.
Secondly, Sunday elections were parliamentary elections, while the average Serbian voter does not truly comprehend the importance of power division, nor the role of parliament. Asking them what type of government would suit Serbia best? – 43% responded democratic in principle, but with an iron fist
(Westminster Foundation for Democracy, 2020). In other words, they want a strong leader. According to CRTA survey (2018), only 13% think that MPs represent the interests of ordinary people (vs. 18% in 2016), 19% that the Parliament efficiently oversees the work of the Government (vs. 24% in 2016), while only 10% think that the MPs are available to citizens who wish to contact them (vs. 18% in 2016). If these were presidential elections, the turnout percentage would be undoubtedly higher.
Additionally, the share of regular voting abstinent in Serbia should be taken into account: lack of interest in politics and elections is the main reason to abstain from voting, while more than two-fifths of respondents (43%) who did not vote in 2017 presidential election claimed being apolitical and completely uninterested in politics (CeSID, 2017).
Eventually, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the elections took place just shortly after the COVID-19 state of emergency was lifted, with several dozen new cases registered on a daily level in Serbia. Such a decision to, in spite of everything, organize parliamentary, provincial and local elections was considered irresponsible and endangering, and a legitimate excuse for voters not to go to the polls.
Second feature that marked these elections was the supermajority won by SNS. Such landslide victory could be explained as the consequence of high level of affective polarization. Even though Serbian party system can be classified as ideologically centrist or unstructured – meaning that voters do not make much difference on the left-right dimension – there is high partisan animosity, affecting negatively not only the party system but the entire society (Reiljan, 2020). Therefore, hate speech directly targeting political opponents on personal, and not political level, became the mainstream of the political scene in Serbia.
Moreover, these parliamentary elections brought high fragmentation and multitude of political options: 21 parties and coalitions were competing for their seats in the National Assembly. Among them, the list advocating for a change in the state system of Serbia – Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia – achieved surprising success of 2.7% votes, placing themselves right behind SPAS, the last one that passed the 3% threshold. Additionally, two far-right parties tried their luck on these parliamentary elections: Serbian Party Oath keepers and Leviathan Movement, both facing initial cancellation of electoral lists by the Republic Election Commission (REC). Even less radical candidates in this electoral race shifted towards right: e.g. The Souverainists and Serbian Patriotic Alliance, leaving a vacuum on the left side of the axis (except for perhaps United Democratic Serbia).
Finally, might not be crucial for, but contributing to this supermajority were irregularities and incidents during election day: according to CRTA, there were twice more irregularities compared to 2016, occurring on 8% to 10% of polling stations. These were mainly manifested in vote buying, taking photos of the ballots, parallel registration, multiple voting by a single person and voting without controlling the IDs.
Therefore, last election results are just an additional indicator of the democratic backsliding of Serbia (Bermeo, 2016), which in 2009 was considered liberal democracy, and a decade after being classified as electoral autocracy (V-Dem, 2020). This process, according Bermeo, implies “state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy”, and appears in different forms. However, Serbian case refutes his claim that “only amateurs steal elections on election-day”, effectively combining vote irregularities with strategic, thought-out manipulation (thwarting media access, changing electoral rules, etc.), making elections seem overall well run and fulfilling minimal standards (as it was eventually concluded by international observers from the ODIHR, as well as national CRTA).
Look in the [recent] past to comprehend the future
Nevertheless, these results should not be interpreted apart, focusing only on the election campaign period, but in order to grasp comprehensively the [continuation of] the backsliding of democracy in Serbia, one should step back and look at the background of 2020 elections.
Transition from democracy to hybrid regime: in the last 2020 report, Freedom House strongly criticizes Serbia for falling democratic standards, explaining that years of increasing state capture and abuse of power caused, for the first time since 2003, its classification as ‘hybrid regime’, and not democracy anymore. Such a conclusion was dismissed by the Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, claiming that the report presents a “negative bias” making “one-sided observations”, as other international ratings (EIU Democracy Index and the BTI Index) still classify Serbia as a democracy. However, even though politically impugned, Freedom House findings were not isolated, as V-Dem results aligned Serbia among the countries that have autocratized the most over the last 10 years. Trying to blur the facts, the truth does not disappear however.
Deterioration of media freedoms: Serbia also continued its downfall of three places in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, compared to 2019 (and 34 compared to 2016), as it is facing strong collusion between politicians and media, fake news is obtaining enormous popularity, there is increase in the number of journalists’ attacks, accompanied with the mistreatment of a whistleblowers. European Commission raised particular concerns on this issue in their last progress report for Serbia, while the President and government officials again maintain their own perception of reality. Different from the reality.
The ‘1 Out Of 5 Million’ Anti-Government Protests: for almost year and a half, from December 2018 until March 2020 (when COVID-19 pandemics prevented further gatherings) the weekly protests against ‘dictatorship’ of President Vucic, demanding freedom of the media and free and fair elections, took place in capital of Belgrade, as well in other cities (including Serbian diaspora). Although it started as citizens’ protest, soon after, several opposition parties joined the march, resulting in their Agreement with people, when opposition started a boycott of legislative bodies (since February 2019). Gradually, this boycott evolved in the boycott of the elections declared by the strongest opposition parties (according opinion polls), marking the failure of the 6-months long inter-party dialogue mediated by civil society and international organizations.
Electoral changes a month before elections: less than a month before the elections were called, electoral threshold was lowered from five to three percent, along with increasing the quotas when calculating the mandate for lists of national minorities by 35% and legalizing the obligation to have at least 40% of women on the electoral lists (CRTA, 2020). Even though these ‘inclusive’ changes seem positive, in the existing election conditions they put the ruling party in an unfairly better position, not leaving enough time for other players to adjust their strategies to the new rules of the game.
SNS campaigning during COVID-19 pandemics: despite the fact COVID-19 postponed initial date of elections scheduled for April 26th, on the other hand, it enabled additional time and new tools for ruling party to gain an unfair advantage: organizing daily media conferences by the President, demonstrating personal acquisition and delivery of medical equipment, and targeting previous government (nowadays opposition) guilty for poor condition in the hospitals. Culmination of COVID-19 campaigning was the introduction of the populist measure of granting one-time aid of 100 euros to adult citizens, characterized as “legalized vote buying” by the opposition Democratic Party.
What comes next?
Putting aside (but not forgetting about) the unequal start of participants in this election game, these results could be interpreted in two ways. From one side, it was a lifetime victory of SNS machinery, carefully built for eight years of ruling, by different tactics: providing public sector jobs for their members, threatening those who do not ally to lose their jobs, ensuring “capillary votes” and requiring the proof of vote – ID next to the ballot paper – on election day (Nenadovic, 2020). At the same time, it was the failure of disunited opposition, fragmented beyond recognition, without a capable leader to confront Vucic authority and with no common understanding how to make change (to boycott or not to).
Long story short: show must go on. Dark jokes circling around say that at least there are no tensions about forming the Government. The President of Serbia (and of SNS) generously declared that in Government formation, SNS “will take people from the lists that did not pass the census, to create a Government that will make key decisions and have an even broader consensus” (EWB, 2020). SPS leader (and SNS ex coalition partner) rushed to offer their cooperation, which would transform supermajority into almost a ‘totality’ (220 out of 250 MPs). Eventually, even if SPAS does not officially become a part of the coalition, it is difficult to believe that it will stand as the voice of the voiceless – of those who boycott or just left empty-handed. In such circumstances of steady democratic backsliding, it is almost unavoidable to conclude: Cautions, SNS is here to stay.