Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won Serbia’s presidential election in the first round on April 2. The candidate of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its coalition partners, Vucic took about 55% of the vote, according to early estimates from the Republican Electoral Commission (RIK) and exit polls.
Vucic’s win means the country will continue on its path towards EU accession, and there will be continuity for investors. While Vucic is set to pick his new prime minister within the next two months, he is expected to remain the dominant force in Serbian politics.
Even though the campaign was often dirty and full of hate speech, the result was very predictable with the main uncertainty being whether Vucic would win outright or if voting would go to a second round. His victory in the first round, where he took more votes than the other 10 candidates put together, was a result of the fragmented opposition, which failed to unite around a single candidate, as much as Vucic’s own popularity.
The biggest surprise was the performance of former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, who defied recent polls to finish in second place. Jankovic took over 16% of the vote, gathering citizens oriented towards the centre-left. There is speculation that although their candidate trailed far behind Vucic, they are unlikely give up on the fight for change in the country and have the potential to attract more people and to eventually form an effective opposition.
Another victory for the SNS
On April 2, Vucic and his SNS repeated the victory they achieved in the 2014 and 2016 parliamentary elections.
Jankovic initially appeared to have the potential to go to the second round against Vucic (though he was not expected to defeat the prime minister) but attempts to gather parties that identify as democratic behind him mostly failed. The emergence of a rival opposition candidate - former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremic - further eroded Jankovic’s chances. Jeremic refused to step down and back Jankovic, and appeared to be leading his rival in the polls, but ended the run with weak (5%) support. The leader of the Dosta je bilo movement, Sasa Radulovic, who was also seen as someone who could have helped Jankovic against Vucic, finished the race with an even worse result than Jeremic’s - slightly over 1%.
There was a much bigger turnout for spoof candidate Luka Maksimovic, aka Ljubisa Preletacevic or Beli, than for many prominent and well-known politicians. Beli was in third place with 9.04%, even though he had been ranked second in polls ahead of the election. In his typical satirical style, Beli claimed victory, saying he won 67.97% of the vote even though he expected much more.
However, the scores for the opposition candidates were all dwarfed by Vucic's 57.03%, based on data processed by RIK, and the prime minister has already celebrated his victory.
“Today, I’m very proud at the fact that we have got such a large number of votes in circumstances which were anything but easy. I have taken … more votes than all other candidates together. It shows in what direction Serbia wants to go,” Vucic said late on April 2, speaking from the SNS’s headquarters in Belgrade.
“If you add to this number those who didn’t vote against me, it is important for me to say that the elections show that citizens of Serbia support the reform process, traditionally good relations with Russia and China, and hard work,” he said, underlining that Serbia will stay on its EU path, which has been the backbone of his policies for the last nine years.
EU integration to continue
“It is important that tonight Vucic underlined the continuation of EU integration - exactly what we didn’t hear from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin during Vucic’s March 27 visit to Moscow. Further development of ties with the EU means safety for capital and investors,” Milan Jovanovic, president of the Belgrade based NGO Forum for Security and Democracy told bne IntelliNews on April 2.
According to Jovanovic, any result other than a victory for Vucic would have meant destabilisation within both the country and the SNS.
“A conflict within SNS is being postponed now even though it is not known whether Toma [incumbent President Tomislav Nikolic], and together with him the Russians, accepted their loss,” he said.
Nikolic gave up plans to stand for a second term as president after Vucic announced his candidacy. Jovanovic speculates that had Nikolic been able to serve a second term as president, his position would have been significantly stronger vis a vis Vucic.
According to people close to the SNS, the party has been divided into so-called “Toma’s side” and Vucic’s side”, with “Toma’s" being committed to Russia (which he often calls “Mother Russia”) while Vucic’s is pro-EU and Western oriented.
“Serbia is, however, at this moment a significantly more stable environment than its neighbours: Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, or even Croatia where Russians have not given up yet and are even ‘drilling’ via Agrokor,” Jovanovic added, naming the Croatian food and retail giant, whose main creditors are Sberbank and VTB.
On the evening of the election, Vucic thanked Nikolic for the support for his government. However, the newly elected president didn’t say he would follow Nikolic’s example in standing down from the party leadership after being elected president, indicating he plans to be more hands on within the party and the government.
“I’ll be president of all citizens - of those who voted for me and those who didn’t vote for me. Votes for anti-government candidates are an obligation for me and I have to understand what they don’t like. For us it is very important to keep fighting corruption and strengthening of our democratic institutions,” Vucic told journalists at the post-election press conference.
Name of new PM still unknown
Vucic’s candidacy and now victory in the presidential elections has opened the question who will replace him as prime minister. This will likely remain unknown at least until early June, as he announced he would continue working as prime minister for two more months.
“The next government will be formed in next two months or two months and a few days, and it will have all my support. I have been the proudest prime minister and I expect that I will continue being proudest of the new government too,” Vucic said.
The economic recovery, job creation by bringing foreign investors and boosting production and export have been central tenets of Vucic’s governments.
He has pursued fiscal consolidation, striking a precautionary €1.2bn three-year stand-by arrangement (SBA) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in February 2015. Serbia’s budget deficit was brought down to just 1.4% of GDP in 2016. Mainly because of the budget gap reduction, Serbia’s government’s long-term issuer and senior unsecured ratings have been upgraded to Ba3 from B1 (to stable from positive) by Moody’s Investors Service on March 17.
The importance Vucic has placed on the economy indicates that Finance Minister Dusan Vujovic is a potential candidate for his replacement.
Alongside Vujovic, Minister of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure Zorana Mihajlovic is also seen as a potential prime minister. A close ally of Vucic’s, she would be the first woman to hold the position.
Another possible candidate is former Minister of Justice Nikola Selakovic, who was replaced after the April 2016 general election even though his ministry delivered significant results especially in terms of the EU integration process. The opening of negotiation Chapters 23 on the judiciary and fundamental rights and 24 on justice, freedom and security in July 2016, are seen as results of his cabinet’s work. This raised speculation that Selakovic had not been given a job in the new government because he was being lined up for the PM position.
Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s first openly gay minister, is a new name on the list of potential prime ministers. Brnabic was appointed minister of state administration in August 2016, when Vucic formed his new cabinet. Brnabic would be the first gay prime minister in the SEE region, and Vucic is known as someone who likes to take steps like this.
Outside the SNS, one politician who would love to sit in Vucic’s chair is Ivica Dacic, foreign minister and president of SNS’s junior coalition partner Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). Vucic’s recent visit to Moscow raised speculation that Russian officials were pushing for him to pick Dacic. However, weighed against this is the view that Vucic isn’t close to Dacic but would rather keep him as a partner than have him as opposition.
At the SNS celebration on April 2, Dacic and Brnabic were standing just behind Vucic on the stage, as a brass band played. Brnabic wasn’t hiding her happiness; she was seen dancing with a big smile on her face.
Also close to the new president is also Bogoljub Karic, leader of the Strength of Serbia Movement (PSS-BK). Karic is a controversial businessman who owned the first mobile telco in the country, Mobtel, as well as the first internet provider Eunet and private television with national coverage BK TV, first private bank Astra Banka, insurance company Evropa osiguranje and magazines Profil, Dama and Jefimija. He and his family are among the richest in the country. However, Bogoljub had to flee Serbia in 2006 to avoid jail due charges for tax evasion, only returning from Russia 10 years later when the statute of limitations on the case expired. He ran for president in 2004 and came third, and there was speculation he could stand again after his return in 2016, but instead he supported Vucic.
However, whoever the new prime minister is, they will not have similar powers to those currently enjoyed by Vucic. It is clear that from now on, Serbia’s internal and foreign politics will be led by the new president.