Serbian parliament speaker Maja Gojkovic has called regular local elections in the capital Belgrade for March 4.
There had been expectations Serbia would yet again hold early parliamentary elections at the same time as the Belgrade local elections. This would most likely have helped the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) — which also holds Belgrade at the moment — by focussing attention on national rather than local issues. However, the SNS finally decided on January 12 to hold back from such a move this time.
The Belgrade elections are crucial for the country’s political balance, and it is most likely that the decision not to call another round of early elections is based on precise and detailed analyses showing the SNS has a good chance of winning in the capital without a general election.
In the entire history of pluralism in Serbia, maintaining power in Belgrade has been a prerequisite for maintaining power at national level. Even the end of dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s rule started when he lost power in Belgrade.
The SNS, led by President Aleksandar Vucic, has called early elections every couple of years since 2012 when it formed a government for the first time, even though the party’s government has a stable majority.
Vucic was expected to go for general elections again in 2018 to ensure his party would win Belgrade by shifting attention to national issues. The party's image in the capital has been tarnished by incumbent mayor Sinisa Mali's suspected involvement in the controversial demolition of old buildings to make way for the Belgrade Waterfront development, which sparked a series of protests. However, the latest decision indicates the SNS and its leader believe that they can win Belgrade — to a large extent because of the divided and fragile opposition.
They were expectations that opposition parties might unite and jointly participate in the Belgrade election in order to defeat the SNS. However, after months of negotiations, there will be at least three lists nominated by the so called ‘democratic block’ and likely more from the so called ‘conservative block’. Thanks to this, Vucic’s list will find it much easier to overcome the opposition challenge.
As the president announced in an interview with RTS, the SNS’s list for Belgrade is not going to be a party list; among the first 20-25 candidates there will be just three SNS members. “It is not going to be a SNS list because it will nowhere be written ‘SNS’, and nor will it be a list of our friends with whom we cooperate… This is not a list of political parties but we will all support it,” Vucic told RTS.
At the top of the list will be the non-party director of the University Children’s Hospital Tirsova in Belgrade, Zoran Radojicic. Vucic said that it is possible that Radojicic will become mayor; he announced back in May last year that the unpopular Mali would not continue in the post. Alongside Radojicic on the list will be other university professors, sportspeople, actors and another prominent citizens.
Two opposition candidates for mayor are already known. The first is former mayor and former member of the opposition Democratic Party Dragan Djilas. He has been endorsed two of Vucic’s main rivals in the 2017 presidential election, Sasa Jankovic and Vuk Jeremic. The two went on to form political parties — Jankovic the Movement of Free Citizens (PSG) and Jeremic the People’s Party (NS). The Belgrade elections are first in which the two parties are running.
The second opposition list is the coalition gathered around the Democratic Party and its candidate for mayor, its president Dragan Sutanovac. This list is mainly composed of parties formed by former high level Democratic Party officials including its former president and president of the country Boris Tadic (now a member of the Social Democratic Party) as well as former prime minister Zoran ZIvkovic (New Party).
The two coalitions were expected to unite, and the fact that they are running separately will benefit the SNS.
When it comes to the more conservative side of Serbian politics, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and United Serbia (JS), which are part of the SNS-led ruling coalition, have joined up with the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) led by Vojislav Seselj. Vucic was a prominent member of the SRS until 2008 when he left and formed the SNS, also at the same time rejecting his former policies and declaring himseld to be a pro-EU politician. On the other hand, Seselj remains against the EU, the US and the wider Western community, claiming closer ties with Russia and a more nationalistic approach to politics.
Even though the SPS now claims it shares similar values to Vucic's, the new alliance indicates that the party is not so different from how it was in the time of Milosevic. Among the Serbian public, the SPS is seen as a “mandatory” ingredient of Vucic’s governments because of its ties with Russia. The SPS coalition’s candidate for Belgrade mayor is Minister of Energy Aleksandar Antic. The main basis for Russian pressure on Serbia is Serbia’s almost total dependence on Russia’s gas.
Alongside Belgrade, citizens of the eastern Serbian town of Bor and central Aranjelovac will also vote for their councillors in the local assemblies on March 4.