By Ilija Gavrilović (University of Belgrade)
Yesterday, parliamentary and local elections were held in Serbia, the third in the previous three years in Serbia. Turnout in this election (59%) was slightly higher than the previous ones, although the turnout trend during the day indicated that it could be much higher than usual. This seems to have had some effect on the result itself. Before the elections, the opposition hoped to achieve the best results in the last 10 years, primarily due to the creation of a bloc of political parties “Serbia against violence”, composed of one part of the opposition parties, but not all of them. They believed that these elections could trigger a wave of changes that would culminate in their victory in the next elections, in four years, when presidential elections and, next, parliamentary elections are expected. They especially hoped that at the local level the change could begin already, especially in more urban areas where, traditionally, support for opposition parties has always been higher than in rural areas. However, the changes didn’t happen this time.
The ruling party, Serbian Progressive Party (SPP), according to preliminary results, won 47% of the votes and a majority of seats in the Serbian Parliament (129 out of 250 seats), while “Serbia against violence” (SAV) achieved excellent results (24%), but not enough to defeat the SPP or lead to changes at the local level. Apart from Belgrade, where it is still not known who the future mayor could be (only 2% of votes difference between the ruling party and the main opposition bloc “Serbia against violence”), in all other cities in Serbia, where the elections were held, the SPP won. In addition to them, only three other political parties passed the electoral threshold of 3% – Socialist party of Serbia (7%), coalition of parties – “Hope” (5%), “We – voice from the People” (4%).
Pre-election polls gave hope that the opposition could initiate the changes (the SPP was projected to win 40% of the vote; Vreme, 2023), but at the end, just 3 opposition parties passed the electoral threshold – SAV, “Hope” and “We – voice from the people”. These elections, like several previous election cycles, have passed in suspicion of opposition parties of fraud and various machinations during election day carried out by the ruling party. This shouldn’t be surprising, having in mind that, according to the latest Freedom House report, Serbia is rated as a partly free state, characterized as a hybrid regime, with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party the main culprit for the derogation of civil and political rights (Freedom House, 2023).
The main factor for which these elections were held are the protests “Serbia against violence”, which began as a response to the situation in society that arose after the tragic events of the beginning of May this year, after the two mass shootings (school shooting in the center of Belgrade and mass murders in villages near Mladenovac) in which almost 20 people lost their lives. It was a great tragedy, unprecedented in Serbian history so far. For the first time in Serbia, a murder took place in an elementary school in the city center of the capital, as well as in the small and, until then, almost unknown villages.
Despair and shock. This is how one could describe the mood of citizens in Serbia, and they were particularly tormented by the problem of violence, which is often openly promoted through television programs and through various obscure reality programs. Just a few days after the mass killings, a series of protests “Serbia against violence” began with more than 100,000 revolted, desperate, and frightened citizens against violence and the situation in the country’s major cities.
The protests were a huge shock to the regime, but also to the opposition parties. Although the opposition parties invited citizens to come to the protest, they themselves were shocked by the huge response of citizens. It was an attempt to change the value system that has been nurtured in society for decades and culminated in mass killings. After two months number of protesters began to decline as time progressed, but the government realized that the political system and society were in crisis and that the best option for them was to organize new elections as soon as possible. That was one of the main demands of opposition parties as well, as a way to get out of the social and political crisis. Thus, Serbia again found itself in the pre-election campaign.
On the wave of these protests, as mentioned before, there was a unification of several opposition parties into the political bloc “Serbia against violence” (Left-Green Front, Party of Freedom and Justice, Movement of Free Citizens, People’s Movement of Serbia, “Together”, Democratic Party and other pro-European parties, mostly left-liberal), which was a great success, but similar opposition movements were in the previous elections. What is now specific is that this political bloc achieved great success – they won almost 65 seats in the National Parliament (about 15 seats more than in the previous election). As mentioned, it was a bloc of a part of the opposition parties and the largest challenger to the ruling party, but there were other opposition parties that were not part of this bloc – The People’s Party, “We – voice from the people”, “Hope”, “Good Morning Serbia”, “Dveri-Zavetnici”. These are mostly right-wing parties, Eurosceptic, traditionalist, and even prone to conspiracy theories. On the right political spectrum, there was no creation of a single opposition political bloc, and this affected the result of these parties – except for the party We – voice from the people, which is the biggest surprise of these elections, and Hope, the other parties did not pass the electoral threshold. The party “We – a voice from the People”, is led by the controversial doctor Branimir Nestorović, known to the citizens of Serbia when he made scandalous statements during the COVID-19 pandemic, characterizing it as “the funniest virus in human history”, and after being removed from the state body that fought against the pandemic, he began to spread fake news and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. It is very worrying that such a political option received 165 000 votes.
The electoral campaign
During the electoral process, the initiative of prominent non-political figures from academia, artists, judges – ProGlas, was particularly interesting. They wrote a charter in which they called on citizens to democratically, by going to the polls, fight for change, not only of the ruling party, but of the entire system of values, and not to allow themselves to be silent observers of the moral, economic and political decline of the society. Citizens were invited to sign their support to the initiative, and by the time of the elections, almost 200,000 citizens of Serbia had signed the text of this initiative. Its initiators did not participate in the elections, but, by organizing forums and debates throughout Serbia, they talked with citizens about everyday problems, urging them to actively engage in political processes and go to the polls.
When it comes to the ruling party, Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) it has appeared in a coalition with 12 other smaller parties called “Aleksandar Vučić – Serbia Must Not Stop”. During the campaign, they mostly emphasized the successes of the SPP in the infrastructure and economic development of Serbia, but they primarily relied on the charismatic personality of the President of Serbia, which is why the coalition itself bears his name. Vučić actively participated in the campaign and gave support to his party more than ever before. President of Serbia addressed the citizens 46 times during the 44 days of the pre-election campaign (Danas, 2023). That would be perfectly fine if it were a presidential election, but he is not a candidate in either parliamentary or local elections. Such a situation is not new, but it is problematic that the President of Serbia, who represents all citizens of Serbia, provides open support to only one political party.
Also, something that was particularly interesting was the use of social networks more than ever before in this campaign, and specifically Tik-Tok. Just before the elections, Vučić and Minister of Finance Siniša Mali opened accounts on this social network, trying to reach young voters with rather funny posts and try to get them to vote for the ruling party. Young people in this campaign, in addition to pensioners, were the main target group of the ruling party which once again turned to “helicopter money” tactics to attract young people and pensioners to vote for them – each high school student received 85€ and pensioners got 170€. Campaigns to attract young people to vote in elections were also carried out by opposition parties, as about 82% of young people do not trust any politician, 30% of them believe that there is no one to vote for (KOMS, 2023).
On the other hand, the coalition partner of the SPP in the previous government of Serbia, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), participated in the election campaign quite ambitiously – their slogan was “Ivica Dačić – Prime Minister of Serbia”, thus emphasizing the demand that the current foreign minister become prime minister of Serbia. The SPS has great coalition potential, but the preliminary result was somewhat weaker than usual, so the question is whether the SPS will remain part of the ruling coalition after these elections. What was particularly interesting was highlighting Milošević’s party heritage, which was not so pronounced in previous election cycles. Thus, one of the candidates on the party’s list and the grandson of Slobodan Milošević, Marko Milošević, who also became a member of the SPS Main board.
A large number of parties of national minorities, representatives of the Hungarian, Albanian, Bosniak and Croat communities, also participated in the elections (7 out of 18 political parties in these elections were parties of national minorities). It is very important that almost all parties of national minorities have passed the electoral threshold and will have representatives in the future composition of the Serbian parliament.
To sum up, although there was a great hope of the opposition parties that the changes would start already now, as one of their campaign slogans otherwise said, this didn’t happen. There were almost no major changes, but still the main opposition bloc “Serbia against violence” achieved a good result. Particularly surprising was the defeat of the opposition parties in the local elections, but they remain hopeful that they can win power in Belgrade. This would indeed be a great loss for the ruling party, and in that case these elections could be seen as the beginning of changes. Certainly, the biggest surprise of the elections is the entry into the parliament of the party We – voice from the people and it remains an open question in which direction they will act and whether they will support the ruling party or be part of a group of opposition parties. Nevertheless, it is obvious that wind of changes has been postponed for another four years.
Photo source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-67742032