Latest deadline to form Serbian govt looms as rumours swirl about PM Vucic's dithering

Latest deadline to form Serbian govt looms as rumours swirl about PM Vucic's dithering
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest August 8, 2016

Aleksandar Vucic joked on July 6 that there would be a new government in Serbia before the UK. Nearly a month later, however, Theresa May is firmly esconsed in 10 Downing Street, but Vucic has so far failed to form a government. Instead, there has been a stream of self-imposed deadlines and bizarre excuses from the prime minister designate.

There have not so far been major negative consequences of Vucic’s lengthy delay in forming a government since his caretaker cabinet – which was in power before the April 24 election –  continues to act like a regular government despite not being officially endorsed by the parliament. However, the uncertainty about Vucic’s intentions has got the rumour mills spinning with speculation he is planning anything from a presidential bid to a new round of parliamentary elections.

Vucic had two reasons for calling early elections for April this year, even though he had a stable majority in parliament and the term was not due to expire until 2018. He hoped to strike while popular support for his government remained high to secure an extra two years in office and potentially increase the majority of his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

In the event, only the first of these was achieved. The SNS-led Serbia is Winning coalition got over 80,000 more votes than in 2014, but as turnout was slightly higher, its share of the vote was almost identical to two years ago (in fact it fell by 0.12%). In addition, several more parties crossed the 5% threshold to take parliament seats in 2016 than in 2014, and as a result Vucic’s coalition lost 27 seats, reducing its majority to just six.

The results of the election “suggest that Vucic has overplayed his hand with this personal plebiscite: simple arithmetics unmasked his exaggerated hope to wipe out the opposition and consolidate political dominance,” wrote Matteo Bonomi, programme assistant for the European politics and institutions programme at the European Policy Centre (EPC), in a commentary published after the election.

“Vucic – we can’t talk about the party because he is making all the decisions – miscalculated and expected a much bigger majority. I would say they were rather disappointed than enthusiastic about the result,” agrees Irena Ristic, researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade. “He did not get any new wind to push him.”

What followed the election has been a lengthy saga of delays and broken deadlines, as Vucic repeatedly failed to form a government despite his coalition’s majority in parliament and the eagerness of several other political parties and blocs to join it in government. Numerous reasons for the lengthy delays are circulating, from Vucic’s possible presidential ambitions, to international pressure, to a wish to announce the government while Serbians are distracted by their summer holidays.

For several months, there has been speculation that Vucic could be delaying the formation of a new government as he mulls a bid for the presidency, currently held by Tomislav Nikolic, who ran on an SNS ticket. Presidential elections are due next year, but snap elections could be called if Nikolic agrees to step down.

“He is thinking about being a candidate for presidential elections,” says Dusan Pavlovic, a Serbian economist and MP with the opposition Enough is Enough party, which entered the parliament after the April elections. “He explicitly rejected the idea but he has lied many times... I still think he will run.” This could explain the delays in forming a government, Pavlovic says. “One of the things he has to sort out now is the deal with the current president Tomislav Nikolic. Convincing him not to run again will take a lot of discussion.”

If Serbia does hold early presidential elections, these could be held simultaneously with elections for a new Belgrade mayor, since the current mayor Sinisa Mali is unlikely to survive in his position much longer following the mass protests over the demolition of buildings for the Belgrade Waterfront development.

However, Ristic is not convinced by rumours that Vucic has his sights on the presidency. “I would say Vucic wants his man for president, but the position is quite formal, and Vucic is very much into ruling, which means being the head of the government.”

She believes Vucic has been delaying because he wants to use the incentive of joining the national government as an incentive to persuade other parties to back the SNS in local governments where they do not have a majority. Local as well as parliamentary elections took place on April 4.

There is also speculation that Vucic could be planning to hold yet more early parliamentary elections in an attempt to get a better outcome than in April. Others rumours claim there are divisions within the SNS.

Chinese whispers

Vucic first announced a government would be formed by June 16, before the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Belgrade. Claiming he was busy with the visit, he extended the deadline to July 4, but again failed to form the government by that date. In fact, so many deadlines have been passed that the local Istinomer blog has compiled a list.

Reasons given by Serbia’s prime minister designate for failing to form the government have also been confusing. On July 23, Vucic said that the process of forming a new government was “not easy” and that delays had been caused by “things I can’t speak about”. He added cryptically that “if I do not manage to form [a government], someone else will form it”. It is unclear who the “someone else” could be, because with the SNS-led coalition holding a majority, all the other parliamentary parties put together could not muster 126 parliament seats. The prime minster is also reportedly in the midst of writing a 450-page manifesto in longhand, which he wants to finish before forming the government.

Most recently, on August 1 he said that the parliament would hold a session to elect a new government within 10 days – a deadline that is fast approaching.

While there have been several similar announcements, there is a little more clarity this time around and some indications that a new government could finally be close. Shortly after the elections, Vucic said that the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians would be part of the new government, but declined to comment on other parties including the SNS’s coalition party in the last government, the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS). However, on August 2 SPS leader Ivica Dacic confirmed that his party was in talks with the SNS.

“I don’t think there will be any major changes in the new government. The SPS will be in the cabinet, though possibly with fewer ministerial positions,” says Pavlovic, whose Enough is Enough party has no expectations of joining the government after an acrimonious meeting with Vucic back in June. “He basically kicked us out of his office,” he says.

Both Pavlevic and Ristic point out that the continued presence of the SPS in government is important for Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin said shortly after the election that he hoped the new government would continue to be friendly towards Moscow. In recent governments, the SPS has controlled both the energy ministry and state gas company Srbijagas.

Despite the delays, there are no concerns about a power vacuum within Serbia, as observers say that – at least at the top level – the caretaker government is behaving exactly as it would if the government had officially been formed. Ristic cites the examples of the opening of two new EU accession negotiation chapters and the finalising of a deal with China’s HBIS on the sale of the Zelezara Smederevo steel mill.

Nor are substantial changes expected after Vucic finally names his cabinet. Along with progressing towards EU accession, Vucic has also indicated that continuing to implement Serbia’s February 2015 agreement with the International Monetary Fund will be another of its main goals.