Attention turns to Serbia’s next PM as Vucic cruises towards presidential election victory

Attention turns to Serbia’s next PM as Vucic cruises towards presidential election victory
By bne IntelliNews March 31, 2017

After an intense, and often offensive, loud and dirty campaign, voters in Serbia don’t expect the April 2 presidential elections to bring any change to their lives. The only change they are anticipating is for current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic - who already dominates the country’s political life - to move to the presidency. 

According to the latest polls, the candidate of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has a good chance of winning in the first round, since over 50% of those who plan to vote are expected to back him. 

Vucic has been the main political figure in the country since 2012, when his partner and SNS co-founder Tomislav Nikolic became president. Since then there have been two rounds of early parliamentary elections, with Vucic increasingly eclipsing Nikolic. The secret to his success appears to be his almost permanent campaigning in successive elections, to the extent that he is now viewed as the only person in his party able to win. 

"Vucic benefits from his populist rhetoric and an image of a strong-handed leader able to successfully maneuver Serbia’s interests between Russia and the West," writes Andrius Tursa of Teneo Intelligence in an analyst note. "He has also managed to secure undivided backing from the ruling SNS, the current President Tomislav Nikolic, as well as eight other political parties. At the same time, the opposition has failed to unite behind a single candidate."

Despite concerns that a fresh five-year mandate for Vucic could push the country towards authoritarian rule and a serious crisis of democracy, many ordinary citizens still believe he is the only one who could and should take on the tough job of president of the republic, especially at a time of rising tensions throughout the region.

“I’m voting for Vucic because I trust him. He has never lied to us and if he says now pensions are secure, I know they are,” says Nevena Bozovic, a retired primary school teacher told bne IntelliNews

She doesn’t hold the 10% pension cut made in early 2015 as part of fiscal consolidation steps agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) against Vucic, saying that while her pension isn’t big she at least knows it will arrive on time, unlike in neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina. 

Her former colleagues, retired teachers Aleksandar and Mileva Ristic who came to Serbia as refugees from Bosnia in 1992, are divided over their preferences for president. Mileva’s vote will go to Vucic while Aleksandar plans to not vote even though his choice would be the presidential candidate of the opposition Enough is Enough (DJB) movement Sasa Radulovic. 

“I gave up on voting because it has never made a change, but I like this guy Radulovic. He seems the most realistic and speaks to all social categories like in [former Yugoslavian leader Joseph Bros] Tito’s time and our decades of communism when we all had jobs, salaries, vacations…” Aleksandar told bne IntelliNews.

“How can you be so unfair! You know what I’ve been going through for the last couple years and you know very well that without Vucic all the doctors and even nurses would demand money or presents to take care of me,” Mileva argued with her husband.

She plans to vote for Vucic, saying it was thanks to him that she received medical treatment. “I know no one in this country will die on the street because they don’t have the money to pay a doctor or nurse to look at them."

Divided and conquered

Mileva is critical of Radulovic’s anti-Vucic campaign; his main slogan is “Vote for change - vote against Vucic”. 

Encouraged by his party’s entry to the parliament in the April 2016 elections, he decided to run for the presidency rather than backing a more popular opposition candidate such as former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic or former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who are seen as Vucic’s strongest opponents at the moment.

However, with the opposition divided, both have been overtaken in the polls by 26-year-old satirist Luka Maksimovic, aka Ljubisa Preletacevic or “Beli”. If the election goes to the second round, there is a good chance he would be the one to face off against Vucic. Even so, many Serbians are wary of casting their votes for the spoof candidate. 

“He is like kinder egg - nice outside but inside is a surprise and no one knows how it will be. It is too serious a moment to take that risk,” Valentina Milosavljevic, student of journalism at Belgrade university, told bne IntelliNews.

Demostat's latest poll shows that Vucic has the support of 56.2% of respondents who have decided who to vote for. In second place is Beli (9.5%), followed by Jeremic (9.3%), Jankovic (8.9%), and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj (8.8%).

Engineer Bane Zlatanovic (40), who didn’t vote in the 2016 general election, says he is ready to support Jeremic. “He is the only person who really did something for our country at the international level. He served as president of the UN General Assembly, was a runner up in the race to become the next UN secretary general. It is more than anyone anytime has done for Serbia,” Bane told bne IntelliNews

However, others have been deterred by the dirty campaign and Jeremic’s harsh rhetoric against Vucic. 

Meanwhile, Jankovic is backed by so-called “urban Serbia” and by most pro-democratic parties and voters opposed to Vucic. 

Maja Rakic (34), who works for a foreign bank, says she cast a blank vote or “white ballot” in 2012 when the choice was between Nikolic and the Democratic Party’s Boris Tadic. “Now, it is time for Vucic to be stopped. Currently, Jankovic is my choice as he looks like a decent citizen, with dignity and principles,” she says. 

While she admits the former ombudsman seems to have swerved to the right, she believes his recent announcement that he plans to attend the controversial Republic Day celebrations in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska are “just part of the campaign … I don’t think he’ll do anything to raise nationalism in Republika Srpska. Even if he doesn’t have a real chance to win, it is good to have him as a warning to Vucic that we are here.”

Another factor undermining the opposition candidates is the growing instability elsewhere in the Western Balkans. The lengthy political crisis in Macedonia, in particular, which has recently become a debate over the rights of the Albanian minority, has worried Serbians, making them more likely to vote for a tried and tested leader. 

“They are all crazy and want to drag us all into their problems. Vucic is the only one who can maintain peace and stability, not only in Serbia but in the entire region,” economist Sreten Popovic told bne IntelliNews. “Do you see what is going on in Macedonia? Do you want the same scenario here? Do you want Albanians blackmailing us too? Us on one side and Western countries on other side?”

“I support Vucic because his pride is not bigger than his reality. He is not ashamed to go and beg foreigners to come and invest here in order to create jobs. It shows he really works for people and not only for his pockets,” Radmila Trajkovic, who works in a flower shop, told bne IntelliNews

Musical chairs 

Vucic’s decision to run for the presidency, given that the prime minister enjoys more powers, perplexed many Serbians. By contrast the presidency is more of a formal role. 

However, people’s memories are short. When Democratic Party leader Boris Tadic was president between 2008 and 2012, he eclipsed his Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, whose name is barely remembered today.

Vucic’s own argument is that he is the only candidate certain to win the election, and he doesn’t want to risk either the SNS’s ruling position or Serbia’s further economic and political progress. He says he will only consider his job to be finished when Serbia hits GDP growth of over 4%-5% and becomes an EU member. 

Assuming Vucic does win - whether it’s on April 2 or in the second round on April 16 - the presidential elections will be followed by the appointment of a new prime minister. 

Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic is already angling for the position. He and his Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) backed Vucic for the presidency, even though traditionally all major parties field their own candidates in the first round of presidential elections to prove they are serious players on the political scene. It is widely believed that Dacic would be more than happy to sit in the prime minister’s chair again even if he will have to dance to Vucic’s tune. 

Besides Dacic, several SNS officials are potential candidates for the prime minister position. Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic does not have a prominent position in the current government, giving rise to speculation that he was being lined up to become prime minister as early as spring 2016. Selakovic is one of Vucic’s most reliable people within the party. 

Some of the more modern and western oriented SNS supporters would like to see Minister of Infrastructure Zorana Mihajlovic replacing Vucic. Mihajlovic is another close and loyal Vucic associate. Minister of Finance Dusan Vujovic did a good job on improving public finances and the country’s economy. He is seen as the candidate who would be favoured by the international community. 

The choice of prime minister is not expected to have a significant impact on future policy. Tursa anticipates no major overhaul after the election. "The country would continue a gradual implementation of the IMF-mandated reforms, which include the optimisation of the public sector, the restructuring and privatisation of state-owned enterprises, as well as a broadly disciplined fiscal policy. In the international arena, Serbia would hold its highly balanced foreign policy course," he writes. 

As for Vucic, he once said that if he loses the presidential elections, it would mean the end of his government. However, he is seen as being unlikely to give up his current position even if he fails to become president, given his mandate will not expire until 2020. Whatever the outcome of the April 2 election, Vucic is expected to remain in charge.