The snap election Aleksandar Vucic has called, probably to be held April 24, will be won by his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) at a canter. But does the Serbian PM have his eye on another election in 2017, that for the presidency?
Vucic’s SNS – a collection of former ultranationalists, pro-EU economic liberals and other chancers – already holds a large majority in parliament together with its coalition partner the Socialists, but the PM has explained that with two years left of its mandate, he needs a fresh mandate before his government embarks on more difficult structural reforms that will result in further economic hardship and heavy job losses.
Those reforms are detailed in an International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme that Vucic reached with the multilateral lender last year, which over the next three years is designed to stabilize Serbia’s stretched public finances by reducing public debt from close to 80% of GDP and keep the economy out its periodic recessions. This will be achieved through cuts in public wages and pensions, the sale of about 17 large state-owned companies and the closing of dozens of smaller zombie ones, tax raises and moves to stamp out tax evasion, as well as shrinking the public administration by 35,000 – still by far the biggest employer in this Balkan country.
None of that will be easy or pretty. Vucic and his SNS are still very popular – a December poll put their support at 52% – though they have been in power for almost four years now, holding both the presidency and the reins of government. The previous centrist, pro-EU governments of former president Boris Tadic, who effectively ran the parliamentary democracy, were in power for eight years before people grew tired of them.
There have already been rumblings of discontent. “In recent weeks public sector employees have been threatening strike action and this move to early elections might move to derail that – indeed a miners' strike planned for later in January has already been called off seemingly related to the move to early elections,” notes Tim Ash of Nomura International.
Vucic also talks about four more years being necessary to put in place the kind of reforms that would make Serbia’s accession to the EU irreversible. 2020 is the stated target date to join. "My decision is that we will have elections... Serbia needs four more years of stability so that it is ready to join the European Union," Vucic was quoted as saying by newswires on January 17.
But will Vucic remain prime minister during those four years? There is some speculation that Vucic is looking to be president of Serbia when that 2020 date comes around. Next year is the presidential election, where Tomislav Nikolic – a dour, grey former ultranationalist who defected from the Radicals with the youthful Vucic to set up the more mainstream SNS in 2008 – is expected to run for a second and final five-year term.
Well-respected and trusted, though unexciting – his nickname is “the undertaker” after all – Nikolic over the past four years has kept strictly to the idea of his being a largely ceremonial post and stayed clear, unlike his predecessor Tadic, of the day-to-day running of the government. Even so, Vucic has spent the four years busy undermining Nikolic and sidelining his people in the party (as president, Nikolic was required to resign from the SNS).
Nikolic has remained above such grubby politics, which is exactly why Vucic, some speculate, might be interested in pushing him out of that post completely. As president, Vucic could avoid getting the blame for the unpopular reforms that are inevitably coming – the new prime minister would be blamed for those – while continuing to conduct foreign policy such as the crucial talks over relations with Kosovo and the drive to join the EU.
Another reason why Vucic might be tempted by the presidency is to do with the fact that populists like him are good at campaigning, firing up voters and talking straight to the people while disparaging the elites, but less good at governing with all its attendant compromises and fudges. “The dominance of one individual over the government and country represents an advantage in the context of campaigning, but is a weaknesses in relation to governing, as the cadres of the party are weak and often incompetent, lacking the popularity of the party leader,” notes Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies and director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria.
If Vucic decides to run for president, he would be joining another such populist in the region attempting to hold sway over party, government and country through the presidency: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is pushing for constitutional amendments that would move Turkey towards an all-powerful executive presidential system.
Of course, to achieve any of this, Vucic would need to convince Nikolic to step aside, while also finding a suitable candidate prepared to be PM without challenging Vucic in government or within the party. Perhaps Nebojsa Stefanovic, minister of internal affairs, fits the bill, or is he too ambitious?