Fractured opposition to help Serbia's ruling SNS win Belgrade local election

Fractured opposition to help Serbia's ruling SNS win Belgrade local election
Dragan Diljas woos a Belgrade pensioner on the campaign trail. Polls show Diljas' list is the most likely runner-up after the ruling SNS.
By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2018

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is about to strengthen its political power, as thanks to the fractured opposition it will likely win the local elections in the country’s capital on March 4. 

According to the latest data from the local/municipal electoral commission (GIK) 23 electoral lists will participate in elections. However, most of the opposition parties participating have been fighting among themselves during the campaign, and most base their campaigns on anti-SNS rhetoric rather than a clear vision for Belgrade. 

The Belgrade elections are often seen as crucial for maintaining power in the entire country (which is why the election campaign is always rough and dirty), mainly because a quarter of the electorate cast their votes in the capital, which is also the most developed part of the country. 

This belief was reinforced when autocrat Slobodan Milosevic started losing his grip on power after almost a decade of his totalitarian regime shortly after the democratic opposition won local elections in Belgrade and other towns.

Expected turnout on March 4 is about 54%, according to the latest IPSOS polls. The polls showed that the SNS’s list will win about 44.1% votes and be followed by the list headed by former mayor Dragan Djilas with 13.4%. More than 1.6mn people are expected to vote for their local government.

Ahead of the election, the SNS has actively used all its available resources from holding the leading political position in the country. This includes the support of President Aleksandar Vucic, who polls show is currently Serbia’s most popular politician. 

A significant contribution to the SNS’s campaign came from support given by numerous prominent Serbians including doctors, artists, sportsmen, singers and university professors. The SNS’s list is led by the head of the children’s university hospital in Belgrade Zoran Radojcic.

The SNS’s coalition partner at national level, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which was originally founded by Milosevic, has its own campaign for the capital, supported by its coalition partner United Serbia (JS). However, the SPS openly says it hopes for a coalition with the SNS in Belgrade after the election. 

Its main rival Djilas, who was Belgrade’s mayor from 2008 to 2012, is a former member of the opposition Democratic Party (DS), who now heads a list composed of relatively new political parties on the Serbian political scene. All are headed by well known politicians including 2017 presidential election runner-up Sasa Jankovic and third placed Vuk Jeremic. Both Jankovic and Jeremic went on to found their own parties, which are now backing Djilas. Their campaign for Belgrade is mainly anti-Vucic. 

Democrats reunited 

Like Djilas, many of the main figures opposing the SNS’s list originated in the DS, which has a significant history in Belgrade since its former leader Zoran Djincic became mayor of the capital after mass protests against election fraud under Milosevic, which lasted for more than 100 days in 1996-1997. He held the position only briefly as his coalition partner later betrayed him in favour of Milosevic’s government, but he went on to become Serbia’s first democratically elected prime minister in January 2001, again after massive protests which finally forced Milosevic to withdraw after the military and police joined the protesters. 

Djindjic was assassinated on March 12, 2003, and while his party remained important in the 2000s, its rating is now low and it barely managed to pass the threshold to enter parliament in the 2016 general elections. 

However, the 2018 Belgrade election has seen a reunification of splinter groups whose leaders left due to internal disputes but have joined the DS list ahead of the election. While it isn't expected to do particularly well on March 4, this development could see it becoming stronger in future. 

Harking back to the downfall of Milosevic, the Democrats’ main slogan is “to liberate Belgrade”. Alongside its leader, former minister of defence Dragan Sutanovac, the list includes prominent names from the long fight against Milosevic, as well as the only university professor who wrote at the time about the local election fraud in 1996, law professor Vesna Rakic-Vodinelic.

Decoy candidates? 

Not all former DS politicians have returned to the fold, however. One time DS politician and former water-polo player Aleksandar Sapic, who currently heads the New Belgrade municipality, is running separately. But Sapic, while vocal, is not seen as a genuine opposition figure. 

The same has been said of other loud campaigners, the rather unnatural coalition of the leftist Enough is Enough (DJB) movement and far-right Dveri has given rise to speculation it could be intended to split the opposition vote and weaken support for the DS and Djilas’s list, which are seen as the main contenders outside the SNS camp.

Its two leaders have pursued an often rude and brutal campaign, not only against the current government, but against everyone else in the race too. Their campaign has also been characterised by naïve lies. On the last day of the campaign, for example, Dveri leader Bosko Obradovic pretended that he was invited to participate in a morning talk show with Vucic on Happy TV. He showed up in front of the Happy TV building to wait for Vucic, and even recorded Vucic’s arrival and posted in on his Facebook page. 

Yet another former DS member and president of the small Stari Grad (Old Town) municipality, Marko Bastac, is also running for Belgrade’s government with his citizens movement, “What are you doing, bre”. He recently left the DS claiming it has no platform to fight the SNS. However, his campaign’s focus is on animal rights, which is not well accepted in Serbia where most people believe that since living conditions are hard humans should be taken care of first, while animals can wait.

Also with roots in the DS is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has clear and consistent principles but ones that are not very popular among Serbs — such as recognition of Kosovo, membership of Nato and more distance from Russia. Its fight for Belgrade’s March 4 elections, based on new faces and an appeal to the youth vote, is likely already lost.

A future opposition force 

On the other hand, the Don’t Drown Belgrade initiative, while it doesn’t have the ability to form Belgrade’s next government, is seen as having the potential to become a new opposition force in future. 

Don't Drown Belgrade became popular after the demolition of buildings in Belgrade's Savamala district on the night of April 24-25, 2016, immediately after the general election. A group of masked men demolished several sites in Hercegovacka and Mostarska streets to make way for the Belgrade Waterfront development, and those responsible have never been brought to justice. Don’t Drown Belgrade was initially formed as citizens opposition to this project. Major demonstrations led by the initiative took place between May and September 2016, as citizens were angered by the demolition and the government's failure to sack the officials responsible, who are still unknown.

On the other hand, this is no longer a hot topic in Belgrade, especially after the start of the rough fight for power in the capital. Belgrade Waterfront is now seen in a more positive light as construction gets underway and the government continues to celebrate the development. 

Don’t Drown Belgrade also failed to form a coalition ahead of the Belgrade election. Its most natural partner would have been spoof presidential candidate Luka Maksimovic, aka Ljubisa Preletacevic or Beli,. His citizens’ movement will take a part in the March 4 elections in the same satirical manner as he ran for national office, but it doesn’t seem to have gained the same level of popularity as in the 2017 presidential race. 

Finally there is the mixed bag of fringe parties, from the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and Zvetnici to new titles such as the Russian Party, the Movement for Renewal of Serbian Kingdom and Enough Robbing, Corruption and Stealing.