By Marta Vuković (City, University of London)
Election background and party programs
In Serbia, parliamentary, presidential, and in some municipalities, including the capital, Belgrade, local elections were held on Sunday, April 3rd. Parliamentary snap elections came less than two years after the last elections that were held in June 2020 when the ruling party won over 75% of seats in the parliament, something that has prompted pundits to call this government a one-party system.
Unlike the 2020 elections when many opposition parties decided to boycott the elections due to what they referred to as unfair conditions, this year’s elections offered voters a larger pool of coalitions to choose from at the ballot on Sunday – 19, to be exact. Even though one can argue that conditions for campaigning were merely better than two years ago, it is possible that ‘the failure’ of the boycott as the government was nonetheless formed, urged parties to play despite the uneven playing field. This has resulted in the highest voter turnout in the last 10 years, with 59% of the registered voters using their right.
Judging from the programs of the 19 lists that participated in this year’s parliamentary elections, most parties tried to cater to the median Serbian voter who is middle aged, traditional, and right of centre. Even most social democratic parties did not openly condemn Russian aggression towards Ukraine, keeping in mind the attachment of Serbian people to Russia and the widespread Russophilia among the electorate.
While the far left was scarcely represented, on the far right, there were more than a few options to choose from: Vojislav Šešelj, the head of the Serbian Radical Party, a veteran who spent time at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague for war crimes; Miša Vacić at the head of the Serbian Right (Srpska desnica) propagating ultranationalism – they are considered a satellite of the ruling party due to their positive representation in the mainstream media; Dveri as a Christian, anti-EU, anti-abortion, and anti LGBT rights right-wing party; Serbian Party Oathkeepers (Srpski sabor Zavetnici) is yet another russophilic party that opposes membership to the European Union and NATO. Of the plethora of far-right parties, only Dveri and Zavetnici secured their seat in the new parliament.
A breath of fresh air in these elections was the presence of the green coalition “We Must” (Moramo) that deviated with their program from others with the progressiveness of their agenda and their focus on environmental issues. The slogan of the coalition, perhaps intentionally, undeniably echoes the Spanish Podemos and the Croatian “Možemo!” coalitions. Their breakthrough in these elections is a surprise as this is the first time a green party enters parliament in Serbia – it remains to be seen whether the movement can institutionalize as a party and have a longer presence in the Serbian political scene, or whether, as many others over the years, they will be yet another flash party.
The coalition Moramo came together after a series of environmental protests that started in Belgrade and spread across other Serbian cities in 2021. The protests arose because of the adoption of the modified expropriation law and planned lithium mine investment in Western Serbia by an Australian investor Rio Tinto. Protesting citizens expressed their concern for the mine’s potential to contaminate soil, lead to biodiversity loss, and affect water supplies in the region of Western Serbia. The movement gained momentum, gathering thousands of people on the streets, and eventually prompting Aleksandar Vučić to withdraw the expropriation law that was sent by the National Assembly in December 2021. Some of the prominent figures from the protests such as Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta and Nebojša Zelenović later formed the coalition Moramo.
Finally, the biggest opposing block was Ujedinjeni za Srbiju (“United for Serbia”), initiated by the former Belgrade mayor Dragan Djilas, the ruling party’s greatest nemesis.
“The cleanest campaign in Serbian history”
Political campaigning was greatly affected by the geopolitical circumstances and the war in Ukraine. As a result, the ruling party’s slogan ahead of these elections was: “Peace, stability – Vučić”.
The Progressive Party with Aleksandar Vučić at its helm prided itself in this year’s campaign being ‘the cleanest in Serbian history”. During the four weeks of the campaign, Vučić and SNS leaders assured voters that they will not comment on opposition leaders and will focus on their own program instead. While this sounds like a noble endeavour, it is in the shadow of the last two years that many would classify as continuous campaigning of the ruling party where the media connected to the government engaged in acerbic attacks of opposition leaders. The main chosen culprit by the governing party and the media was Dragan Djilas, former mayor of Belgrade and former president of the Democratic Party (centre-left). For years, the media classified him as a foreign mercenary who left the country high and dry and became rich at the expense of ordinary citizens. Sensationalist media titles directed at Djilas were used to create the main culprit of why citizens of Serbia are living poorly. Some of those titles are the following:
“All the sins of the government led by Dragan Djilas: “Here’s what the money of the residents of Belgrade was spent on! (video)”; “There is no end to Djilas’ rude behaviour! He mocks Serbia because of the floods in Prokuplje, while hundreds of people lost their lives all over Europe! (PHOTO)”; “Đilas reveals his true face: He complains that there is no debate in society, but he wants to hold monologues on the national television”.
Namely, even prior to the 2020 elections, the ruling party has been accused of media monopolization and curtailing media freedom. Through monopolization of the media, the governing party used media outlets to cast acerbic comments towards the opposition leaders and to glorify its successes, emphasizing the incoming foreign investments, and road and railway construction. As a result, in August of 2021, Twitter marked various Serbian newspaper and TV channels, among which also the national broadcaster of Serbia (“RTS” – an equivalent of BBC in the UK), as “government and state-affiliated media” to indicate that these media are prone to distribute pro-government propaganda. The list includes most of the mainstream TV channels and newspapers such as RTS, B92, TV Prva, Tanjug, Kurir, Srpski telegraf, Informer, Pink, Politika, and Happy TV. Prior to the campaign, people without cable TV could not see any form of critique of the government or the ruling party leaders in these media outlets. Instead, on TV, people were bombarded with news of the president opening new factories and roads across Serbia, presenting data that show Serbia as the economic leader in the region and beyond.
Opposition presidential candidate Zdravko Ponoš appeared on TV Pink for the first time as guest during the campaign. Former president of Serbia, and a leader of the Social Democratic Party, Boris Tadić, also appeared for the first time in one of the talk shows on TV Pink. This was a result of the effort of the SNS to present this campaign as ‘’the cleanest ever’’. Constrictive plans on how goals of the campaign would be achieved were not popular neither among the opposition nor the governing parties. The opposition leaders made appearances mostly on cable TV programs not affiliated with the government, emphasizing that, unlike the current president, they would follow the constitution, and basic democratic principles. The governing regime focused their campaign on socio-economic questions, reiterating that, under their wing, Serbia will continue to grow, more factories, roads, and hospitals will be built, and the average salary will reach 1000 euros.
Despite the relative media representation of the opposition candidates, after years of intense media villainization of the main opposition leaders, paired with media glorification of Aleksandar Vučić, and constant coverage of new factories, roads, hospitals opened by the president around the country, the last few weeks of actual campaigning were not likely to change people’s minds, but were wisely used as a signal to the west that Serbia respects democratic principles.
If one adopts Stewart Lockie’s definition of a post-truth politician as someone who “asserts whatever they believe to be in their own interest and they continue to press those same claims, regardless of the evidence amassed against them”, leaders of the Serbian Progressive Party have proven to be quintessential post-truth politicians. The re-elected president is insistent on presenting data that speak favourably of the work of the government such as GDP growth, but neglects to point out that inflation has climbed to 8.8% as of February 2022 – highest reading since June 2013. He and his fellow party members wantonly call out their opponents as the greatest ‘thieves’ and ‘thugs’ in their media appearances. Responding to a question from the reporter of N1 TV (not state-affiliated), Aleksandar Vučić said to the reporter that “the people you support are accused of the greatest crimes of selling drugs to our children”. In another instance, speaking of the opposition leader Dragan Djilas, he said that Djilas is “a professor of robbery. If there were an academy of sciences for theft and corruption, he would get a title of an academic immediately”.
These claims are not backed up by any facts, and certainly are not easy for those behind the screens to check – leaving an average citizen in rural Serbia with the idea that Vučić is a builder of Serbia and the opposition are thieves who stole hard-earned citizens’ money.
Election results: winners, losers, and surprises
What were parties able to do in the uneven playing field? These elections did not result in seismic shifts that some opposition leaders expected when they compared the importance of the 2022 elections to the elections of September 2000. Nonetheless, more opposition parties participated, and passed the electoral threshold, leading to a more diverse composition of parliament.
Eleven coalitions will participate in the next parliament, including the four lists of national minority parties that have won seats along the so-called “natural threshold”, which is below the threshold of three percent needed by other parties. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won close to 43% of the vote, with over 1.5 million voters entrusting the party with their vote. While 43% is by no means a low score, particularly for a system of proportional representation, the party lost 17% of the vote (around 400 000 votes) compared to the 2020 elections – their record high. Whereas the ruling party had a clear majority in parliament in 2020 and did not need to form coalition with any other parties, this time around, with 120 parliamentary mandates, the party is 6 mandates short of majority. Even if six mandates can easily be found in one of the minority parties, this result is a far cry from the supermajority and 188 mandates won in the 2020 elections.
The second-best ranked coalition in these elections is the main opposition United for the win with 13.6% of the vote. The coalition consists of social democrats (Stranka Slobode i Pravde or “The Party of Freedom and Justice”), liberal conservatives (Narodna Stranka or “People’s Party”), social liberals (Demokratska stranka or “Democratic Party”), and other smaller parties located on the left of centre. Their participation in parliament will certainly contribute to diversification of parliamentary voices that have come to be known as ‘the choir’ in the past two years due to the uniformity of MPs messages, and the lack of dissonance. Given that this coalition consists of figures of slightly different political orientations, it remains to be seen whether their time in the national assembly will help solidify this union, or whether it will wane like many others before them.
Governing party’s coalition partner and a veteran of Serbian party politics, the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), received 11.48% of the vote. The Serbian Socialist Party has been one of the most stable parties on the political scene, securing around 10% of the vote for the past ten years, and some pundits declare them the biggest winners of these elections. They are known to have been kingmakers in government formations with both Progressives and Democrats in the past, and as it seems, this will continue to be the case after these elections. Their strong election results, paired with mandate loss for the governing party put them in a position to have more leverage when negotiating a coalition with the Serbian Progressive Party. Given the party’s slogan in these elections – “Ivica Dačić – Serbian Prime Minister”, it is not unlikely that the party leader, Ivica Dačić, will ask to be the next prime minister.
Coalition NADA (“The National Democratic Alternative”), a proponent of national conservativism, led by Miloš Jovanović, received 5.38% of the vote. In their campaign, they opposed legalization of same sex unions, proposing a referendum on the question, and supported the restoration of the monarchy in Serbia.
Far right parties have proven to be popular among the Serbian voters as coalitions Dveri and Zavetnici also entered parliament receiving 3.83% and 3.73% of the vote, respectively. Unlike some of the newer coalitions, Dveri was formed in 1999. They are a nationalist, right-wing party that opposes gay rights and believes that marriage is a union between man and woman.
Perhaps the only far left representative in parliament will be the first Green party in parliament in the history of Serbia as the movement Moramo received 4.65% of the vote.
In summary, these elections have shown that, while a part of the Serbian electorate is thirsty for change, many are still in favour of strong leadership. Rural and urban divide is visible, as in some of the biggest cities such as Belgrade and Novi Sad the opposition won more votes than the ruling party. These elections have shown that popularity in the bigger cities is not sufficient, and that the opposition parties will have to find a way to get through to the voters in the more rural areas if they want to achieve better results in the future. As seen from the Serbian Progressive Party and the Serbian Socialist Party, the concept of party as an organization with hard-working party activists all throughout the country has proven to be important, and this is something that the opposition might want to focus on in the future.
Media that are not affiliated with the government reported many irregularities during the election day, including a physical attack on one of the opposition leaders.
While voters shared many irregularities from different voting polls on social media, the National Electoral Commission (Republička Izborna Komisija – RIK) noted no notable irregularities. Additionally, RIK announced after the closure of polling stations that they will not have any other announcements for the media until the next day at 8pm – this is unprecedented in the history of Serbian elections, as RIK is always the first to share the results of the elections around midnight on the day of the elections. Such an unprecedented decision begs the question of whether voters should be suspicious of the electoral process.
Photos and videos of people holding parallel voter lists were shared on social media. A parallel voter list is a list of voters who promised to give their votes to a certain party (in this case the governing party). A member of the commission at the polling station can pull out a parallel voter list to compare it to the original voter list and see who of the promised voters has not yet voted, in which case the party activists call, or directly visit these voters to ensure they vote. On the election day, a notable opposition leader, Pavle Grbović, caught a young Progressive Party activist holding a parallel voter list, and captured the incident on camera. He was later attacked by the activists of the Serbian Progressive Party.
There were also videos showing what looked like vote buying – people showing photos of their ballots and receiving cash afterwards . One video shows a person in Apatin complaining that he was told he would receive 5 000 RSD (around 43 euros), but that he was later told he would receive only 3 000 (around 25 euros) .
It is difficult to gauge how widespread vote buying, parallel lists, and other forms of vote rigging were on the election day, but they show the ruling party’s insecurity in their win, as well as fear that still exists, particularly in smaller towns, that not voting for the ruling party will result in job losses.
The Aleksandar Vučić regime has not been overlooked by international media and academics – quality of democracy has significantly dropped according to the Swedish Institute V-Dem and Serbia is today classified as ‘electoral autocracy’ which means that the country has institutions that emulate democracy but that fail to pass the threshold of democratic quality and authenticity. The question remains whether with a more diverse parliament, Vučić will be pushed to give way to more democracy, or whether, in footsteps of his counterparts in Russia and Hungary, he will curtail democratic freedoms and grasp onto power even more. It also remains to be seen what the opposition coalitions will do with the newly received trust from the citizens, whether they will use it to solidify their party structures, or whether they will dissipate like many before them. Regardless of whether the Serbian Progressive Party forms government with one of the ethnic minority parties, or with the Serbian Socialist Party, their majority will lead to a less stable government than in 2020, and we might see snap elections sooner than earlier anticipated. On the bright side, these elections saw an increase in voter turnout – this shows that those who were apathetic before found a compelling reason to turn out to vote on Sunday. For the benefit of Serbian democracy, it is important that politicians signal to voters in times ahead that their effort is not wasted.
Photo source: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/4/5/serbias-vucic-proved-that-he-is-here-to-stay