Harriet Salem in Belgrade -
From the chandeliered dining rooms of Dedinje's grandiose mansions, to the sleek interiors of Dorcol's upmarket cafÃ©-bars, Belgrade's rumour mill is working over time. Word on the street, amongst those "in the know," is that the Serbian Progressive Party - the dominant power in the country's coalition - will call an early election for March.
Sipping a chilled dunja rakija (quince brandy), one official close to the Progressive party leadership tells bne that, "a March election is almost certain." Another, unaffiliated insider agrees that Vucic is gearing up for an election: "I am hearing this from all sides now."
Aleksandar Vucic may only be Serbia's deputy prime minister, but the leader of the Progressives has rapidly risen to become by far the country's most powerful politician.
A splinter party formed in 2008 by politicians from the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party disillusioned with their leaders' anti-EU line, the Progressives are a centre-right party of free marketeers, libertarians and nationalists with a smattering of old-style state dirigistes. Fusing conservative rhetoric with a pro-European integration stance and tough talk on the economy and corruption, the SNS has quickly found resonance with Serbian voters who are frustrated with politicians' inaction on big issues. Fighting its first election campaign in 2012 as part of the "let's get Serbia moving" political coalition, the fledgling party emerged the surprising winners, finishing with 24% of the vote - slightly ahead of Boris Tadic's incumbent Democratic Party which took 22%. Rounding off the victory, the Progressive's then-party leader, Tomislav Nikolic, also won a simultaneous presidential election, beating Tadic in the second round of voting.
Yet despite the party's immediate success, forming a coalition government on the back of such a slim majority has proved costly. In return for his Socialist Party's parliamentary support to the Progressives, Socialist leader Ivica Dacic demanded a high price: the post of prime minister.
Old dog, new tricks
While the Progressive Party may be the newcomer in town, Vucic - who recently renounced his ultranationalist past, which included a cabinet position in the government of late dictator Slobodan Milosevic - is an old-timer in Serbian politics and accustomed to navigating the region's rough-and-tumble politics. And in true Balkan style, the deputy PM has made the best of a bad situation.
Since the Progressive-led government came to power last year, the smooth-talking Vucic has picked his battles wisely, publicly tying his name to the popular anti-corruption campaign while leaving Dacic to take the flak over the domestically controversial issues such as relations with its erstwhile province of Kosovo. Recent opinion polls published in local media Politika found that Vucic was Serbia's most trusted politician, with a solid 68% saying they thought he should be prime minister.
His willingness to reflect on the past and engage in realistic dialogue about Serbia's economic problems has also endeared the deputy PM to the international community. The British newspaper The Independent recently described Vucic as "the West's go to man in Serbia and increasingly the region", while the headline credited him as being "the man bringing Belgrade in from the cold."
Andrew Roberts, managing director of Eastern Europe Economics, a regional finance and business consultancy, explains that what Vucic has done very successfully has been to set himself up above party politics - as being some kind of saviour of the Serbian people. "He has shown he is willing to tackle these big issues like corruption, and of course this is very popular with the public," explains Roberts. "Serbia, like Russia, appreciates a strong leader or a figurehead, there is not a long history of fully functioning democracy here."
Certainly, Vucic's cosy relationship with Europe has not reined in the deputy prime minister from doing politics Serbian style at home. Clever political manoeuvring saw the threat of a previous autumn snap election averted in favour of a cabinet reshuffle that handed the Progressives two key ministerial positions for economy and finance. Meanwhile, Belgrade has been bizarrely left without a mayor following a successful ousting of Dragan Djilas, who as well as being mayor of the capital is also the new head of the opposition Democratic Party. Thus, the main opposition is severely hampered right now.
Vucic has also taken significant steps to consolidate his power in the last few months. But, according to a foreign businessman with substantial experience in the region, the power-hungry deputy PM is simply no longer content to play second fiddle to Dacic. "Vucic is like a vicious little stoat watching a kitten and waiting to pounce," says the source. "He needs to get his timing right; not too early and not too late. And he thinks March is the best time to make his play."
The opening of Serbia's EU accession talks, scheduled for January, will provide the already popular politician a further boost in the polls. "We can say that the seeds have been sown and that spring will be the time to reap the harvest" a member of Serbia's elite business class tells bne.
But while an early election will likely see Vucic fulfil his political aspirations, analysts warn a premature trip to the polls could damage Serbia's economic development. "This is an exceptionally short-termist strategy," says Andrews. "The economic situation is so horrific at the moment the last thing the country needs is an election."
Serbia's economy is balanced on a tightrope. Public debt is at around 70% and rising, significantly higher than both the country's supposed legal limit of 45% and the EU Maastricht Treaty of 60%. With a bloated and inefficient public sector, Serbia desperately needs to impose some tough austerity. "The situation has been ignored by repeated governments, and reforms just cannot be delayed any longer. A six- to-nine month delay caused by the practicalities of going to the polls and forming a new government would be disastrous" argues Andrews.
It's also politically dubious, as the economic situation is likely to get much worse before it gets better. "The [Progressives] don't need elections - they are already in a very powerful position and should be able to push through reforms without bringing down the government," says Andrews. "The reality is after an election they would just have the same problems to deal with - fiscal overshoot and a weak dinar - but no one to share the blame with."
But others say this misses the point. "Vucic is tough and ambitious, he thinks he can ride out the storm. This is not about the [Progressives] or Serbia - this is about him. He is desperate for power," says the foreign-business insider.
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