The presidency of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) decided on February 14 to nominate Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as its candidate for the presidential elections expected to take place in early April. The decision ended months of speculation over whether the SNS would back incumbent President Tomislav Nikolic or switch to Vucic as its presidential candidate.
Since the SNS has dominated Serbia’s political scene for several years, Vucic is virtually certain to win the upcoming election. Assuming he retains his role as leader of the SNS, he is also likely to remain Serbia’s key power player, meaning a continuation of Serbia’s pro-EU course. Other trademark policies such as fiscal consolidation and privatisation of state-owned enterprises are also set to continue.
“The presidency of the SNS suggests to the party’s main board to nominate Aleksandar Vucic as its candidate for Serbia’s president. The decision was made unanimously,” the SNS’s February 14 statement reads.
“I agreed to be a candidate because I have to ensure stability and a future for Serbia. There are certain things I wouldn’t risk for anything,” Vucic commented after the decision. He added that he has the potential to attract a slightly higher percentage of the vote than Nikolic would in the upcoming election.
Vucic also said that he would soon announce his final decision on whether Serbia would hold early parliamentary elections at the same time as the presidential election.
Key members of the SNS welcomed the decision. “Unanimously Vucic!” said Serbia’s Minister of Interior Affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic after the party meeting. Stefanovic, one of Vucic’s closest associates and a personal friend, along with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Infrastructure Zorana Mihajlovic, had been lobbying for Vucic to become the party’s candidate for the presidency. Both have stressed that “Vucic means stability”.
However, there are rumours of a rift within the SNS, with different factions backing Vucic and Nikolic. The SNS statement also touched on the issue, saying that “Vucic is promising in best faith to keep talks with current president Tomislav Nikolic”.
Singling out the need for talks with Nikolic could indicate it is still not definite that the current president will accept the decision and back Vucic, raising questions about party unity. Nikolic previously said he would not not stand for re-election against Vucic. However, local media have been speculating about a rift between “Toma’s side” and “Vucic’s side” of the SNS.
“Toma’s side” is conservative, pro-Russian and less enthusiastic about EU integration and close ties with Western countries. On the other hand, “Vucic’s side” is pro-Western, and dedicated to EU membership and better relations with the US, Germany and Nato. Thus, there is not only a gap between their leadership preferences but also some deep ideological differences.
Nikolic became the first SNS president after he founded the party in 2008, with Vucic as his deputy. The two politicians were previously members of the far right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) led by Vojislav Seselj. Nikolic resigned from the SNS leadership in 2012 when he became president of Serbia, pledging to be president for all Serbians, and Vucic succeeded him as party leader.
bne IntelliNews speculated back in January 2016 that Vucic could have his eyes on the presidency, noting the way Vucic had undermined Nikolic and sidelined his people in the party.
At first glance, Vucic seems to be moving from his current position to one with less executive power, since the position of president is mostly ceremonial. However, previous experience shows that the country’s real leader is usually the leader of the biggest party in the parliament.
For example, during his presidency between 2008 and 2012, Boris Tadic overshadowed Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, since Tadic was leader of the ruling Democratic Party. Vucic’s ascendency over Nikolic started when Nikolic stepped down from his position at the head of the SNS.
Thus, no big policy change is expected in the country if Vucic wins the elections, which is virtually certain given the lack of unity among the opposition. Indeed, the two most promising opposition candidates - former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic and former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic - are set to be competing for the same pool of voters.
By contrast, the SNS remains popular after winning snap parliamentary elections in 2016, and its coalition partner the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) has pledged to support its candidate. SPS leader Ivica Dacic has already suggested that only Vucic’s candidacy would mean political stability and victory for their coalition.
With Vucic now aiming for the presidency, attention turns to his replacement as prime minister after the election. There is speculation that Dacic is supporting Vucic because he hopes to become prime minister, a position he held between 2012 and 2014. However, he would most likely face competition from Mihajlovic, a close Vucic ally who could become Serbia’s first female prime minister, even though she has denied an interest in the position.
In the three years since he became prime minister, one of Vucic’s greatest achievements has been the opening of Serbia’s first EU negotiation chapters. The country currently has six open chapters, though the opening of a seventh - Chapter 26 which deals with education and culture - was vetoed by Croatia.
An important aspect of Vucic’s candidacy is the support he has from the international community, including European Union officials and influential EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has commended Vucic’s government for the politically difficult measures he has taken since spring 2014.
These included a cut of public wages and pensions by approximately 10% in November 2014 - a bold and risky step that helped the country to stabilise its budget and secure a precautionary €1.2bn three-year stand-by arrangement (SBA) from the IMF. Thanks to the SBA, Serbia managed to narrow its consolidated budget deficit to 1.4% of GDP in 2016.
Vucic is also seen as an important regional player because of his role in the normalisation process between Belgrade and Pristina, which is crucial for regional stability. Progress made so far has improved his standing with the international community.
Details of Vucic’s programme as president are not known yet, and the SNS still has to make its final decision on his candidacy at the meeting of the party’s main board on February 17. However, a continuation of the policies he has espoused as prime minister - in particular his commitment to take Serbia into the “EU family” - can be broadly expected.