News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southeastern Europe Left (Mis)Calculations in an Eventful Year

What the results of the Serbian parliamentary elections mean for left-wing strategy in the country


Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić casts his ballot at a polling station in Belgrade, Serbia, 17 December 2023.  Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

The results of Serbia’s parliamentary elections on 17 December 2023 were, to a significant extent, expected. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) received more than 46 percent of the votes, giving it an absolute majority in the National Assembly. The Serbia against Violence coalition, made up of centrist parties and one left-wing party, won around 23 percent, while SNS coalition partner the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) won just over 6 percent. Apart from these electoral lists, only two other right-wing actors secured parliamentary representation with around 5 percent of the votes each: the New Democratic Party of Serbia (NDSS) and supporters of Dr. Branislav Nestorović, a conspiracy theorist who attracted attention with a cynical approach to COVID-19.

Filip Balunović is a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade and an associate professor at the Department of Politics, Faculty of Media and Communication at Singidunum University in Belgrade.

Prior to 17 December, the Belgrade City Assembly elections were regarded as an opportunity for the opposition. The capital city is undoubtedly where the SNS is at its weakest and the opposition at its strongest. However, Belgrade’s elections were coloured by numerous irregularities, with dual citizens from Bosnia and Herzegovina and other neighbouring countries voting in local elections despite not being eligible to do so. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have voted that way, and the preliminary results indicate that the SNS is ahead of the oppositional Serbia against Violence coalition by some 20,000 votes as a result. 

The electoral campaigns were marked by the same elements that defined the overall atmosphere in Serbian society over the past year. The key word was violence, which emerged as a dominant issue after the events of early May 2023. On 3 May, an unprecedented mass shooting at the Vladislav Ribnikar primary school in the heart of Belgrade by a 13-year-old student resulted in the death of nine children and one adult, a security guard. Five students and a history teacher were also wounded. The next day, in another massacre in the Belgrade suburb of Mladenovac, a 21-year-old man killed eight people and wounded 14.

While the pro-government public talked about the unfortunate circumstances that led to these tragic events, critics launched a wave of street demonstrations under the banner of Serbia against Violence. These protests served as a basis for the future political platform that gathered centrists and the left-wing opposition. They used it to articulate a mosaic of discontentment over numerous social, economic, and political ills. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the two columns, one on the far right and another on the conservative right, mainly stayed silent in the aftermath of the mobilizations that took place in May. They later justified this silence by saying that they did not want to engage in a political backlash on the backs of dead people and children. Their moralist card was only partially honest.

On the other hand, there was a whole set of conservative issues waiting to be instrumentalized for political purposes. Among them is the well-known issue of Kosovo, which is an inexhaustible source of the Serbian right-wing political agenda, be it in the opposition or in power. By claiming they were “not using tragic events for political purposes”, the Right carefully defended “big conservative themes” from marginalization.

Their assessment was justified. They have nothing to gain by engaging with centrists, particularly because the Serbian electorate is mostly conservative. So they campaigned on terrain that has mostly been covered by the ruling right-wing SNS and Slobodan Milošević’s old party, the SPS.

In the meantime, there was an escalation in Kosovo that, in the past, would usually have been the Right’s most effective political fuel. This time, however, the nature of the escalation went in a wrong direction for them.

The non-nationalist opposition went all in on the issue of violence due to the mass shootings in May.

In September of this year, a group of heavily armed Serbs were surrounded by Kosovo special forces near the Banjska Monastery in Northern Kosovo, which is mostly populated by Serbs. To date, the identities of the armed Serbs, the reason they had guns, and how they ended up there have not been officially confirmed, but three armed Serbs were killed and some were arrested, while the majority managed to escape to Serbia. Later, it was reported that the paramilitary group was organized and led by Milan Radoičić, a controversial “businessman” from Northern Kosovo who was a vice-president of Serbian List, the only relevant Serbian political party in that part of Kosovo — it has official support from Belgrade and the SNS.

The blurriness of the incident prompted the Serbian Right to declare President Vučić incompetent. But the wider public did not respond with its usual furore when incidents happen in Kosovo. This time, sentiments did not uniformly follow the narrative of Serb victimization. Even the Serbian right-wing public was somewhat uncomfortable defending Milan Radoičić. Right-wing politicians, on the other hand, kept pushing Kosovo as an issue, knowing that without it, they had very little to offer their voters.[1]

On the other hand, the non-nationalist opposition went all in on the issue of violence due to the mass shootings in May. Relatedly, the opposition electoral campaign was built around highlighting the close connections between the ruling party and organized crime. This linkage paints an image of systemic violence that has become visible on a daily basis. Corruption and inflation also emerged as accompanying themes addressed by the oppositional bloc.

Ideologically speaking, the Serbia against Violence coalition brought together a heterogeneous group of political actors. They range from the Green–Left Front (ZLF) and the Together party (the two former members of the now-defunct green–left We Must coalition from last year’s elections)[2] to the largest centrist parties, the Party of Freedom and Justice (SSP) and the newly established centre-right People’s Movement of Serbia, led by Miroslav Aleksić, one of the most popular opposition politicians.

Apart from its ideological heterogeneity, the biggest challenge for this coalition was its disproportionate internal power relations, given that the leader of the SSP, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas, was undoubtedly the most powerful individual within it. This became particularly clear when it came to choosing a candidate for mayor of Belgrade. Instead of the ZLF’s Dobrica Veselinović, who would have been a logical choice given his decade-long social and political engagement in Belgrade’s municipal issues, the SSP pushed little-known professor Vladimir Obradović. In spite of the fact that the former green-left coalition We Must was the second-largest opposition bloc in the Belgrade City Assembly after the prior elections, its supporters had to give in to their more powerful coalition partner when the opposition in Belgrade had the greatest chance of winning.

Given the experience of We Must, it appears that the Left subordinated itself too much to the concrete political events of 2023 and got lost in them.

The question now is: did the Left, like the Right, have something to defend in these elections? Was it worth it, and was this move towards Serbia against Violence necessary?

Unlike the Right, the Left had very little to defend until recently. On the contrary, they had something to build. In the absence of an authentic left-wing political platform, and with left-wing engagement rare, the political Left, or what appeared as the Left in context, has been loaded with liberal themes. In other words, in Serbia, “left” was mostly a term for non-nationalist political actors whose economic policies adhered to a liberal or even a neoliberal agenda.

Among the main reasons is the fact that Serbia is a mostly conservative country. As in any other transitional post-socialist society, a left-wing agenda could have worked, albeit with very limited success, up to the point when an actor decided to step out of the comfort zone and become politically relevant. If not embracing a nationalist narrative and agenda (which also happens from time to time), shifting towards the centrist liberal agenda has been an indispensable move. Joining forces with liberals, as appears necessary in a right-wing political community with authoritarian rule, results in coalitions such as Serbia against Violence, which has been predominantly coloured by centrist, rather than leftist tones, in spite of the fact that the first name on its electoral list was Green–Left Front co-president Radomir Lazović.

Given the experience of We Must, it appears that the Left subordinated itself too much to the concrete political events of 2023 and got lost in them. The imperative of responding to the mass killings in May was understandable, but the left-wing agenda was supposed to be a crucial element of a remedy for the overall social and economic situation. Instead, left-wing content was mostly displaced or, better said, postponed until “better times” after “we regain democracy”. The strategy of putting ideological differences aside due to clear authoritarianism and political theft neither re-established liberal democracy, nor strengthened the left-wing political platform. It turned out that the Left only lost a significant period of time accommodating itself to the existing context, rather than building the capacity to change it. 

Finally, the preliminary electoral results reveal the limitations of centrist politics in the present context. With very little or no political influence among the majority of the population, including in both rural and urban areas, or among the economically and socially disadvantaged working class, the liberal centre has no chance of winning against President Vučić’s manipulative and corrupt government. If the poor are ever going to change political sides, they will not move from the Right (where most of them are at the moment), to the liberal centre. On the other hand, without their support, no tangible social or economic change is possible.

The conclusion is obvious: the liberal centre, or a political platform that mostly relies on centrist themes, does not have even a theoretical chance of changing the corrupt right-wing regime. The only actors who have even a theoretical chance of doing so are the oppositional Right and the oppositional Left. Given that the oppositional Right keeps playing on right-wing, rather than centrist themes, it is evident that the Left should re-consolidate as soon as possible in order to catch up with their opponents. Otherwise, it might be too late in a very short period of time. 

[1] Eventually, this was enough for the right-wing coalition NADA, led by the New Democratic Party of Serbia, to reach the electoral threshold, but not for the other relevant right-wing coalition, made up of the parties Dveri and Zavetnici.

[2] The green-left coalition We Must, or Moramo, emerged from the municipalist and ecological social struggles that started in 2014 against the Belgrade Waterfront project, and continued over the last five years in the form of resistance against Rio Tinto and ecologically damaging projects and policies. Eventually, after the elections that were held in the spring of 2022, when this coalition became the second largest opposition bloc in the Belgrade City Assembly and secured parliamentary status at the national level, the coalition ceased to exist. Two parties came out of it: Together, or Zajedno, which was connected to ecological organizations and the left-liberal politician Nebojša Zelenović, and the Green–Left Front, or Zeleno–levi front, built mostly on members of the municipalist Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own (Ne da(vi)mo Beograd) movement.