Serbians Waste a Bullet: Regime change will have to wait

Miloš Pavković , Fernando Casal Bértoa

7 mins - 19 de Diciembre de 2023, 07:00

Only a year and a half after the previous (presidential, parliamentary and local) elections, new parliamentary, provincial and local elections took place in Serbia on Sunday 17th December 2023. This was a good opportunity for the opposition to break the ruling majority in several fronts, especially after the government’s position had been weakened by the difficult economic situation (Serbia has one of the highest inflation rates in the continent), unprecedented mass murder shootings, which galvanized the main opposition parties leading them to unite under one electoral list (SPN or “Serbia against violence”), and EU pressure for the de facto recognition of Kosovo (This designation is without prejudice to the status and is in line with the UNSC Resolution 1244 [1999] and the ICJ Advisory Opinion [2010]). Still, preliminary results published by relevant Serbian agencies, such as CRTA, Cesid, and IPSOS, have shown that the President Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has won a landslide majority in national and provincial (Vojvodina) elections but, interestingly enough, not in Belgrade.

SNS Wins an Absolute Majority, But the Opposition is Also Growing
At the national level, SNS won 46.9% of the votes (and 128 seats), followed by SPN with 23.1% (and 65 seats) and the Socialist Party (SPS), SNS’ current coalition partner in government, just 6.7% (and 18 seats). This means a decline of almost 5 points (and 13 seats), leading to calls for SPS’ leader, Ivica Dacic, resignation. In fourth place with just 5% of the votes (and 13 seats) we can find “Hope for Serbia” (NADA), an electoral coalition of right-wing and monarchist parties. The biggest surprise though has been the list “We, the voice of people” (MI-GIN) led by a populist doctor (Branimir Nestorovic) known for his conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination stance, which after getting 4.6% of the votes will obtain 13 seats. The final 13 seats will be distributed among representatives of various minority parties: namely, Hungarians (6 seats), Bosniaks (3), Albanians (1) and Russians (1).
As a result, and in clear contrast to what happened in 2022 when they had to form a coalition cabinet with SPS, SNS will be able to form a government on its own. But not only SNS made important wins (145 thousand votes more), but also the united opposition (SPN) achieved a noticeable result becoming the first opposition party since 2012 to reach more than 20% of the votes. Unfortunately, it was not enough to challenge SNS’ rule, and Vucic’s grip on power. Surprisingly the far-right (both National Gathering and Serbian Radical Party) will not make it into parliamentary this time, but neither Good Morning Serbia (led by former Serbian president Boris Tadic) nor People’s Party (led by Vuk Jeremic, former foreign affairs minister).

Belgrade’s Local Elections: Inconclusive results
While the opposition was not able to challenge SNS’ victory at the national level, it had better luck in Belgrade where expectations were high since the last 2022 elections when the results were quite tight.

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Trying to take advantage of the popular discontent in the capital, especially after the two mass murders that sparked the biggest protests since the Milosevic’s overthrow in October 2000, SPN managed to improve their results and obtain 35% of the votes, but finished again second to SNS which, however, did not manage to win a governing majority (38%) this time. With the support of both NADA and MI-GIN, who respectively came third (6%) and fourth (5%), SPN had a chance to finally change the political face of Belgrade. Happiness for the opposition did not last long though, as MI-GIN’s leader, Nestorovic, soon already ruled out a potential coalition with SPN and NADA that would help to oust SNS from the capital. As a result, and despite stating he is not interested in forming an alliance with SNS, Nestorovic may well end up supporting Belgrade’s current ruling (SNS-SPS) coalition. At the end of the day, birds of a feather (i.e. populist) flock together.

Fair, But Not Free Elections: Too many many irregularities
While the votes are still counting, SPN leaders have refused to recognise the electoral results in Belgrade and have already called their supporters to organise a protest in front of the Electoral Commission’s Headquarters. They have accused the ruling majority of falsely registering 40.000 voters from Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina to vote in the capital and, consequently, shift the electoral will of capital citizens.

This seems to put into question ODIHR’s initial positive assessment of the conduct of elections in the country. The Center for Research Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), which - deploying the biggest observation mission - extensively monitored not just the election day but also the pre-election period, concluded that the elections were held in an environment of (1) marked irregularities in favour of the government, (2) mass violations of the secrecy of voting, (3) alarming number of parallel voter lists in and around the polling stations, (4) manipulations of voting rights and organised migration of voters with the aim to influence the final outcome, (5) mass abuse of citizens' data for the sake of political marketing, and (6) vote buying. Consequently, and taking into consideration the intensity of electoral irregularities, CRTA concludes: the results of local elections in Belgrade do not represent the democratic will of the people. In line with that, it has not only called the public prosecutor to investigate violation of the Residence Law, but also ask from the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Governance a revision of the electoral lists while amending the Law on local elections in order to establish requirement of at least 6 months residency prior for a voter to obtain voting rights. Given such serious accusations and Nestorovic’s reluctance to back any party, a repetition of local elections in Belgrade is still a credible possibility.

Vucic Wins the Day… Again
President Vucic once again demonstrated his dominance of the Serbian political system. This, his critics should realise that - whether they like it or not - his success is a mix of genuine popularity reinforced by bribery, coercion and, above all, a firm grip on political strategy. Moreover, opposition leaders should not hide behind the electoral irregularities, but take a long look at the mirror instead. If they want to stand a chance in 2027, they should find a way to take over part of SNS electoral body. This will also mean that some should pursue a career change and retire from politics to give way to a new blood of young and skilled leaders capable of mobilising the youth vote.

But not all are bad news for Serbia. After last Sunday elections pro-European opposition parties will be much stronger than anti-European ones. Additionally, the ruling party (SNS) will have to face a united opposition, making the prospects of an easy victory during the next elections in 2027 gloomier. All this will certainly have a positive impact on Serbia’s European integration process.
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