News | Europe - Southeastern Europe The 2020 Serbian Elections

A one-party state run by a one-man party?


[Translate to en:] Foto: picture alliance / REUTERS | Marko Djurica

Thirty years of parliamentarianism in Serbia were crowned by an unprecedented victory for the Serbian Progress Party (SNS) and its candidate list “Aleksandar Vučić—For Our Children” in the regional, local, and parliamentary elections held on 21 June. The letters of support and congratulations for this historically rare success of sweeping out the entire opposition from the National Assembly came from Vučić’s EU political allies: heads of state in Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia, along with Donald Tusk, the President of the European People’s Party to which the SNS is affiliated. These elections also marked a rare case of competition primarily between right-wing parties.

Based on 97.23 percent of the vote count, the Republic Electoral Commission (RIK) confirmed on Friday, 26 June that the SNS won an overwhelming majority of 60.68 percent and 189 out of 250 mandates in the National Assembly. By winning almost two million votes, Vučić consolidated the SNS’s power by taking total control over the legislature and executive state powers. This enables him to modify the constitution and make other legislative changes that serve his and his party’s interests.

Ana Veselinović works as a project manager at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southeast Europe Office in Belgrade.

The coalition led by the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) came in second place with 10.35 percent and 32 seats. Had the threshold not been lowered from 5 percent to 3 percent—setting aside four minority parties for which the different logic applies—all the seats in parliament would be taken by MPs from the ruling coalition. However, new circumstances brought a newcomer to Serbian parliamentary life: the Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS) led by Aleksandar Šapić, a former water polo player and the incumbent president of the municipality of New Belgrade who assumed a neutral political stance during the campaign, won 12 seats with 3.86 percent of the vote.

A week later, many open questions remain. It is unknown whether the turnout managed to reach even 50 percent, and only scarce information is available about the local and regional outcomes. On the other hand, massive complaints and voter objections to irregularities were filed with the Republic Electoral Commission (RIK). As a result, the elections will be repeated in 234 polling stations, where more than 200,000 people will be asked to recast their vote. These several percentage points of the vote, which are to be redistributed in the second round, can change the makeup of the future National Assembly, as two more right-wing parties only narrowly missed winning seats—the monarchist “Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia" (POKS) and the Sovereigntists, led by Saša Radulović, the former Minister of the Economy (2012–2014).

According to the same source, not even the half of the electorate exercised their right to choose their political representatives. Although historically the lowest, the voter turnout of 47.9 percent also seems to be extorted through various means used by the SNS in the campaign. As reported by the CRTA, an independent observer mission, election day was marked by numerous breaches of procedure. The number of election irregularities compared to the 2016 parliamentary and 2017 presidential election was higher, with more than 5 percent of total polling stations reporting an irregularity of some sort.

Election observers reported cases such as running parallel evidence lists at polling stations, organized trips to the polling stations in so-called “carousel voting”, failing to check voters’ ID cards, derogation of the secret ballot, and even vote buying. According to the CRTA’s research, every fifth person confessed that they were pressured in some way to cast the ballot.

The Advantages of Holding Absolute State Power?

The President of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, ran the election campaign for his party almost alone. As the elections process, which began in early march, was interrupted by COVID-19 epidemic, the campaign went through two different phases. The declaration of a state of emergency and dissolution of parliament concentrated all decision-making in the government and enabled Vučić to assume the position of the leader or “the boss”, as he would describe himself in the role of the president, more easily. Media monitoring reports show that Vučić and other public officials absolutely dominated television, taking up more than 90 percent of the primetime period during the lockdown from 15 March until 6 May.

In the same period, television consumption increased by 40 percent compared to the previous year. This opportunity was used to create an image of President Vučić as a powerful, capable, and confident leader—the man who gets things done. Courageous enough to declare the end of European solidarity and turn to China and Russia for help in expertise, medical equipment, and protective supplies, but also the generous leader of a small country who sends eight airplanes of medical supplies to Italy as an act of gratitude. He succeeded in presenting the government consumption subsidies of 100 euro for every adult citizen and an additional 35 euro for pensioners as his personal gift to the people, who suffered so much during the lockdown. In doing so, he exported the aggressive attacks on opposition leaders to the journalists of private media who serve as SNS propaganda machines. In smear campaign against Dragan Djilas, the most influential leader of the opposition coalition “Alliance for Serbia”, they went so far as to denounce him for being an “ally of the coronavirus”.

As the virus spread it revealed the acute problem of labour emigration, prompting the SNS to focus on it in the second phase of campaigning. In his five-year vision, Vučić promised a bright future with one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. In a (later banned) TV commercial, he promised to bring a little girl’s daddy back from “Arbeit” abroad and that the national average salary would almost double by 2025, reaching 900 euro. In the meantime, the CRTA submitted eight complaints to the Anti-Corruption Agency, citing misuse of public resources and violation of funding regulations mostly by SNS members.

A great deal of resources were invested in “get out the vote” campaigning. SNS election headquarters used telephone surveys of citizens for propaganda purposes throughout Serbia. The party set up two large call centres and employed hundreds of young volunteers whose main task was to call people to check if they had voted. Controversy arose around the question of from where they received the information. Many people felt it was a severe violation of their privacy. It is telling, however, that the SNS used only landline and mobile phone numbers operated by MTS, the state-owned telecommunications company—a realm where the party’s clientelistic network is well-established.

When asked why the party decided to place the president’s face at the fore of the parliamentary, regional, and local elections campaign, Vučić explained that marketing experts had advised them to focus on “the party’s best product”.

The Opposition’s Boycott Campaign

The decision to boycott the elections was taken back in January 2019, when a majority of the influential but ideologically diverse opposition parties jointly signed an “agreement with the people”. They demanded a free press and that the government establish conditions for free and fair elections.

The focus of the campaign was to question the legitimacy of the elections under the authoritarian regime of Aleksandar Vučić, banking largely on international pressure. Given the balance of political forces in the EU and the current coronavirus crisis, this represented a highly risky bet indeed.

As electoral conditions had not significantly changed, the majority of the opposition stayed consistent, while one of the signatories, the “Movement of Free Citizens” (PSG), reconsidered the decision and took part in the elections, but only won 1.5 percent.

The boycott succeeded in bringing down the overall voter turnout by 8 or 9 percent. In Belgrade it reached around 36 percent, which is the lowest turnout ever. It also managed to influence the image of the state of democracy and rule of law in Serbia. Though it helped some political underachievers such as the Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia (POKS) to potentially win some seats, the decision to boycott also had more serious political consequences. It stripped all the major opposition parties of public financial support and cut them out of institutional politics.

The “Alliance for Serbia”, the backbone of the boycott coalition, consisted of what was once the strongest but is now a severely delegitimized liberal and “pro-European” Democratic Party (DS) and its spin-offs. When the DS lost the 2012 elections, it was still strong and enjoyed the support of more than 20 percent of the electorate. However, in the following years internal disputes, conflict among the leadership, and corruption scandals knocked the organization down. Some of their cadres were co-opted by Vučić’s regime, such as Belgrade’s city manager Goran Vesić, while other DS leaders decided to make a fresh political start, each in his own organization: these men included Dragan Djilas, Boris Tadić, Zoran Živković, Vuk Jeremić, Borko Stefanović, and Zoran Lutovac. Needless to say, this dynamic completely destroyed the political strength of the liberal opposition and placed all those “old aces” on the very margin of political life.

Bigger Problems to Come

The day after the elections, the image of Vučić’s “successful” coronavirus management broke into pieces when BIRN, an independent investigative journalist network, published an article proving that the official COVID-19 statistics were most likely skewed. The evidence showed a large gap between official data on the total number of daily cases and related deaths and those submitted to the government’s central information system.

The uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus became apparent several days after the elections and revealed the real weaknesses in Serbia’s healthcare capacity and infrastructure. Several cities declared a state of emergency and returned to strict epidemic measures. At the same time, heavy rain flooded all of western Serbia beginning last week and caused huge losses in agriculture, but also in communal infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Lastly, due to the lag in the reform process and concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, EU accession negotiations have been blocked until improvements in these fields can be seen.

It took only one week after the elections in which the SNS scored an unrepeatable victory for a conjuncture of circumstances to reveal serious cracks in the regime. Faster than anyone from the opposition could have expected, the situation brought new evidence against the authoritarian rule of Aleksandar Vučić. However, who from the ideologically diverse spectrum of Vučić’s opponents will become politically relevant as the SNS’s counterpart will largely depend on political actors’ capacities to articulate alternatives by working on the ground—directly with the people.