Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Analysis

Takeaways from the Serbian election

  • Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has established a combination of autocracy and democracy — a so-called "hybrid regime" — whose efficiency is now evidenced by the latest election result (Photo: European Union)
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The result of Sunday's (17 December) Serbian elections will enable the country's president Aleksandar Vučić to dispel the narrative that his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is in decline.

Based on the projections of the Ipsos/CeSID pollster, the party is set to win around 47 percent of the vote, about four percent more than in the previous parliamentary election, held last year.

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Vučić, who was the president of SNS until this year and remains its de facto leader, abruptly decided to call early elections in September. His motivations for doing so have not been entirely clear.

Some analysts interpreted the decision as an attempt to delay the implementation of Serbia's obligations in the EU-mediated normalisation process with Kosovo. Others interpreted it in terms of domestic politics, as a tactical move to create positive momentum for the party heading into tricky local elections next year.

Whatever the reason, few careful observers of Serbian politics expected SNS to lose. The party has dominated the Serbian political scene for more than a decade, winning above 40 percent of the vote in each election since 2014.

The main question was whether SNS would be able to score a better result than in 2022, when it won 43 percent (down several percentage points compared to the previous election). Another drop of support, even a modest one, would have fed into the narrative of a slow but steady decline of the party after so many years in power.

In fact, the opposite scenario has happened — SNS improved its result. New SNS voters seem to have defected mostly from its junior coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which saw its support almost cut in half compared to 2022.

SNS and SPS, the former party of Slobodan Milošević, have been ruling the country together since 2012 and, according to most analyses, share a pool of voters. Last year, many voters SNS lost went to SPS; now, the reverse is the case.

During the campaign, SNS promised better living standards, including a €1,400 average monthly salary by the year 2027 (the current average is around €730) and handed out financial assistance to various social groups amidst the rising costs of living. Vučić particularly emphasised that the party would take more care of ordinary citizens.

"Some people told me 'I voted for you in the presidential election last year, but I was angry at a local party official, so I voted for somebody else in the parliamentary election'", he said repeatedly on the campaign trail, pledging more care for people's needs in the future.

Unfair electoral conditions

Effective campaigning was just one side of the SNS's success. The other was increasingly unfair electoral conditions. In all recent elections, observers noted the media dominance by the ruling party, pressures on voters and widespread abuse of public offices for conducting political campaigns.

These issues were once again on display during this snap election, with Serbian election watchdog CRTA finding that the ruling parties received 75 percent of the prime-time media coverage, while the opposition received only 25 percent.

Election day itself was marred with serious accusations of irregularities by the opposition, which are yet to receive an investigation.

The strong showing of SNS overshadowed the result of the Serbia Against Violence gropuing, a large coalition of pro-EU opposition parties.

Named after the anti-violence protests that broke out following two mass shootings in May, the coalition won more than 23 percent of the votes, according to projections. It is the best result of the opposition since SNS came to power in 2012.

Despite this fact, however, opposition voters were left disappointed. The years of polarisation, largely created by the ruling party, and the lack of success in any recent election, have left them dissatisfied with anything but an outright victory.

Nevertheless, this was never a realistic prospect in these elections.

The opposition put the spotlight on the fight against corruption, organised crime, authoritarianism and violence, all of which it attributed to the ruling party. However, as the results of these and previous elections show, these messages only work for a limited electorate, which is likely to vote for the opposition.

The most fluctuating part of the electorate remained the nationalist and pro-Russian opposition. Overall, these parties won around 15 percent of the vote.

Consipiracy kingmaker

A breakthrough result was achieved by the list around Branimir Nestorović, a pulmonologist doctor who came to prominence in 2020 for downplaying the seriousness of Covid-19 and then subsequently promoting various conspiracy theories. His list includes several frequent guests on popular YouTube channels focusing on current affairs from the conspiracy worldview.

Nestorović, whose list won almost five percent of the vote, is currently in the position of a kingmaker in the Serbian capital city, Belgrade, where a snap election was also held. While no list won the outright majority, SNS is projected in the first place, with around 38 percent of the vote, four percent more than the "Serbia Against Violence".

Even though Nestorović's political ambitions are unclear, it seems more likely at the moment for SNS to keep power by making a deal with councillors elected on his list.

The election was a victory for the status quo.

Vučić, whose presidential term expires in 2027, will hold on to power, backed by yet another parliamentary majority. He is expected to maintain his preferred foreign policy of balancing between east and west as long as he has the space to do it.

On the issue of Kosovo, Vučić has so far attempted to avoid major decisions such as openly recognising its independence, all the while making a series of smaller concessions in the dialogue.

In domestic politics, he has established a combination of autocracy and democracy — a so-called "hybrid regime" — whose efficiency is also evidenced by the latest election result.

Author bio

Aleksandar Ivković is the editor of Serbia Elects, a portal powered by European Western Balkans, based in Belgrade.

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