Wednesday

20th Nov 2019

Opinion

Serbia election: EU grasping at straws

  • Vucic with EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini (Photo: Council of the EU)

Europe’s electoral calendar is gathering pace but not enough scrutiny has been placed on Serbia’s recent general election. Prime minister Aleksandar Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party emerged victorious from the 24 April vote.

Many analysts compared this election to a de facto referendum on EU membership. In a recent interview with Vucic , Politico described Serbia’s vote as a battle between extremist nationalist and pro-European forces.

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  • Former Macedonia PM Nikola Gruevski (Photo: epp.eu)

Indeed, this is how the Serbian PM would present these elections to the outside world: it is not just a victory for Vucic, it is a victory for Europe. At best this is wishful thinking, at worst wilful denial.

In reality these elections were about affirming Vucic as the undisputed leader of the country. Serbia’s EU membership is an issue that is largely distant from the concerns of large parts of the population.

It is enough to review the official slogans of the political parties running in the election. Unlike previous ballots, not a single one had the EU as the main motto of their electoral campaign.

When Vucic called for these unnecessary snap elections earlier this year, he had multiple objectives in mind.

Primarily, he hoped to remove the Socialist Party from his government coalition at the national level and still be able to allow to his own party to run most municipalities around the country, including the northern province of Vojvodina.

Next, he hoped to isolate members still loyal to the president of Serbia and founder of his party Tomislav Nikolic and win his inter-party battle.

Finally, Vucic counted that the Democratic Party and many of the smaller parties established out of a popular movement against Milosevic - would not be able to reach the 5 percent parliament entry threshold.

In those terms, Vucic’s victory is less than convincing. While he won more popular votes than in previous elections, the number of parliamentarians coming from his party dropped significantly (from 158 seats after the 2014 elections to 131 now).

As many as seven political parties or coalitions managed to enter the parliament, without even counting the minority parties to which the 5 percent threshold does not apply.

Despite a serious erosion of credibility and legitimacy since they came to power in 2000, the Democratic Party (the only member of the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists from Serbia) will remain in the parliament and will most probably lead the opposition.

The lethargic political scene will hopefully be invigorated by the new “It’s Enough” movement.

On election night, while almost the entire opposition was engaged in assessing a worrying delay in the vote count, European officials, mainly from or close to the centre-right family of the European People’s Parties, rushed to congratulate the Serbian PM on his victory.

Despite serious allegations of electoral irregularities, some of these well-wishers even visited the electoral headquarters of the ruling party. Such support was pre-emptive and misguided.

Zoran Djindjic, leader of the Democratic Party, the man who defeated Milosevic to then be brutally assassinated in 2003, could only have dreamt of such support.

Unconditional backing of Vucic might seem a logical choice for the European Union. His political transformation almost completely marginalised the anti-European right and reduced them to a convenient sideshow.

Vucic has maintained the EU-backed policies of his predecessors to gradually allow Kosovo an independent existence. He ensured a much-appreciated and responsible stance during the refugee crisis.

Yet, for large parts of the Serbian population these EU accolades do not really matter. On several issues of crucial importance for Serbs, such as economic growth, rule of law, social justice, media freedoms, Vucic’s government has failed to achieve any meaningful progress.

Instead of focusing on the over-wrought and over-loaded dichotomy ‘for’ or ‘against’ Europe, the EU should pay serious attention to the declining performance against the political criteria for EU membership across the Western Balkans.

Deteriorating media freedoms, political clientelism and cheap populism all over the region do not create the conditions for free and fair elections.

The EU is becoming predictable in its simple interpretations that belie the complicated political context in each of the Western Balkan countries - troubling details are glossed over if the EU stance is positive.

The political crisis in Macedonia is a telling example that once exemplary pupils may turn into troubling autocrats. Despite the congratulatory exaltations for Vucic, this election in no way guarantees that Serbia may not follow a similar path.

Srdjan Cvijic is a senior analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, a think tank in Brussels

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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