COMMENT: Back to the future in Serbia after election

COMMENT: Back to the future in Serbia after election
Who will form a coalition with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s SNS?
By Alex Young in Belgrade April 28, 2016

The April 24 snap election was neatly described as either a referendum on Serbia’s European course, or its incumbent prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic. Such is the consistency of support for a regime accused of creeping authoritarianism, however, that Serbia’s third general election in four years was more about who would pass the 5% threshold and get into parliament. And, ultimately, who will form a coalition government with Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Despite retaining its share of the vote, the vagaries of the Serbian electoral system mean that Vucic’s SNS-led coalition will have 27 fewer parliamentary seats. Though consolidating his own mandate, Vucic has simultaneously facilitated the (re)emergence of political forces which may eventually challenge his own standing.

SNS successfully avoided the electoral complacency that was the undoing of the Democratic Party (DS) of former president, Boris Tadic. Voters were motivated and mobilized across Serbia. Severe pressure was exerted on civil servants and public sector employees. Food parcels were delivered, free medical checks provided and trips organised for pensioners. The “tabloidization” of Serbian media continued unabated. Former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, attended an SNS electoral rally, and the US embassy issued an enthusiastic press release about Serbia’s course under Vucic.    

The emerging paradox is how Vucic can balance electoral success premised on networks of patronage, whilst promising to dismantle those very networks. International Monetary Fund-stipulated structural reforms will likely see some 35,000 public sector employees laid-off in the coming months; pensions and salaries slashed: and 17 large state-owned enterprises privatised. SNS hopes that this renewed mandate will mitigate some of the blame for the inevitable pain and suffering ahead. Yet whilst the turkey’s may have voted for Christmas, Vucic’s ability to act as the Santa Claus of Serbian politics will be greatly inhibited.

To further dilute its share of responsibility, and reduce the incentives for internal party fragmentation, SNS – which itself holds only 98 of it's coalition's 131 seats in parliament – has already announced a coalition with the ethnic Hungarian party Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM). Its present partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), remains the most likely candidate to further supplement Vucic's majority, despite regular attacks on its leader, Ivica Dacic (the country’s foreign minister), during the campaign: videos of his meetings with organised crime figures when interior minister were leaked, whilst Vucic stated he “would not be surprised” if the Socialists, who he “does not trust absolutely”, sided with the opposition.

Vucic could, however, look for partners from Serbia’s more liberal factions. Looking on with envy at Vucic’s adoption and refinement of their own approaches when in power (pressure on the media, politicisation of the public administration etc.), the elections have had a rejuvenating effect on these parties. A coalition of Tadic’s new Social Democratic Party (SDS) and Cedamir Jovanovic’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) crept over the threshold thanks to the support of Nenad Canak's League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina. It has long-been muted that Tadic could accept a government post – a temptation for the former president that will likely test the resilience of a coalition between former political enemies, brought together by electoral pragmatism.    

The most surprising performance came from Dosta Je Bilo (‘Enough is Enough’), fronted by Sasa Radulovic. A former minister of economy during the SNS-led government, Radulovic resigned in early-2014 after being publicly attacked by Vucic for stalling several privatisations because of his concerns about corruption. The heavily-depleted and demoralized DS will take some solace from the 6% garnered, though they performed disastrously in their former stronghold of Vojvodina.

The return to parliament of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) was widely forecast, especially after the party’s leader, Vojislav Seselj, was surprisingly acquitted by The Hague of all war crimes charges and sent home. The Radicals’ return will allow Vucic to frame himself against the most ultra-nationalist of opposition parties – a tactic shrewdly once employed by the Tadic administration. With Europe fearing a Serbian pivot towards Russia, Vucic can hold himself up against the mirror of Seselj.

All for EU, and EU for all

Thanks to Serbia’s liberal forces, the country is no longer fundamentally divided between pro- and anti-EU factions (the so-called ‘Ukraine scenario’). The election reconfirmed the 15% or so nationalistic core that Serbia harbours, with a coalition of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), the former king-makers, and Dveri, a far-right political movement, creeping over the threshold. However, the vast majority of parliament supports EU accession. Tellingly, however, progress on the European front (Serbia opened two chapters with the EU in December) no longer provides the sort of electoral boost it once did, and faces further diminishing electoral returns.

These were elections where almost everyone succeeded (at least in terms of their own criteria of what constitutes success), but no one was entirely satisfied with the outcome. Each party has complained about voting irregularities, with several opposition leaders marching on the Republic Electoral Commission in the early-hours of April 25 to lodge complaints. Vucic too has called for recounts and suggested that the election should be repeated in certain places.

These elections may well be remembered for unintentionally revitalising the Serbian opposition, creating new intrigue about future political formations. To mount a concerted opposition to the SNS, ‘Liberal Serbia’ needs to coalesce around a shared leader and platform. Its history of fragmentation, and Vucic’s ability to exploit such fracturing, pose substantial obstacles in this regard. The horse trading required to maintain the coherent government means more time will be spent ‘doing politics’, with less focus on reform. Serbia’s democracy is unlikely to prosper from that.