The Serbian three-step to fresh elections

By bne IntelliNews November 16, 2012

Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -

The Serbian coalition has relatively successfully navigated the first 100 days in office, yet speculation is growing that new elections could be on the horizon due to tensions within the coalition over rooting out corruption and a rising temptation to capitalise on the disarray amongst the opposition.

The tapping of the phones of Tomislav Nikolic, Serbia's president, and Aleksandar Vucic, the defence minister and first deputy prime minister - both big beasts of parliament's largest party, the Serbian Progressive Party - has added to the sense of drama. Accusing fingers have been pointed at the Interior Ministry, headed by Prime Minister Ivica Dacic of the Socialist Party, who has promised a full and thorough investigation.

Vucic - who has been tasked with overseeing the country's intelligence agencies and leading the fight against corruption and organised crime - has publicly-accused Miroslav Miskovic, Serbia's richest businessmen, of plotting to bring about the government's demise because of its anti-corruption drive, a view strenuously denied by Miskovic. To date, Oliver Dulic, a former minister and member of the now opposition Democratic Party, has been charged with corruption, whilst a major investigation has been launched into the collapse of Agrobanka, whose license was revoked at the end of May after its management approved a large number of illegal loans.

David Kanin, an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), tells bne that Vucic has many responsibilities and still is testing out the various powers and problems inherent in his considerable workload. "So far, he appears to be calibrating a threat to investigate corruption allegations involving (among others) Socialist notables, so as not to risk a political crisis, says Kanin. As such, "one possible near-term threat to the coalition would materialize if Vucic's legal sniffing begins to cut too closely to the Socialist bone."

This view is shared by Jovan Kovacic, president of the East West Bridge think-tank, for whom one of the main challenges facing the coalition is that Vucic's drive against corruption is bound to unearth dodgy dealings by some members or sponsors of three coalition partners - the Progressives, the Socialists and the small United Regions of Serbia. "But the way things now stand, the leadership of allied parties are ready to weather the challenge and all pay lip service to Vucic's commitment," Kovacic says.


Helpfully for the government, the Democratic Party - Serbia's former governing powerhouse until it was turfed out of office in the summer elections - remains in a state of disarray.

Former president, Boris Tadic, recently announced his decision not to stand for the leadership, leaving Belgrade's mayor, Dragan Djilas, with a free run. Having, in Kovacic's view, "threatened to sunder the party into two" by refusing to step down, Tadic will now become an honorary president of the party. The leadership battle has been defined not by a debate about the party's core values, but by considerations of loyalty, suggesting that the party will remain riven by factionalism for the foreseeable future.

The change in leadership will likely lead to further changes at the local level. As Kovacic notes, "this period will be used by the ruling coalition to oust... Djilas from his post, but this manoeuvre will eventually backfire, since he enjoys majority voters' support in the capital and the ruling coalition does not have an adequate politician able to fill Djilas' shoes."

Recent poll suggests that the new government has been well received after 100 days in office. As Kanin points out, the government is "better organized than its predecessor - no matter Western preferences for the Democrats' pro-Western views - and has quickly put together domestic and international policies."

Further consolidating their grip on power by exploiting opposition deficiencies, however, may become too much of a temptation for the coaliton parties. "The opposition is still totally inefficient. The nationalist DSS [Democratic Party of Serbia] is not really an opposition and will do nothing to jeopardize the ruling coalition. Furthermore, it could serve as a joker in ousting the [Democratic Party] from power in Belgrade," says Kovacic.

Especially the Progressives, Kovacic suggests, may feel increasingly emboldened to further consolidate their hold on power, particularly given the sense in the party that it underperformed in the last parliamentary elections.

However, Kovacic warns that Vucic needs to start delivering on his promises to fight corruption. "The press reports and tabloid sensationalist reporting will not suffice to cover up the other failings and unkept election promises including immediate boost of the standard of living or departization of professional positions among public enterprises, etc," he says.

Once Djilas has, in Kanin's words, established "his leadership, retooled his party and credibly engage in a three-cornered political competition with Dacic and Vucic", the Serbian three-step will increasingly define the country's politics. Whilst Dacic is, as Kanin notes, "limited in his manoeuvrability by his party's limited electoral appeal... [he] skillfully is playing off Democrats against Progressives in municipal political battles being waged in the wake of the recent elections."

Were strains within the government - particularly deriving from the fight against corruption - to become too great, then the threat of new elections would likely be deployed as a means of testing the coalition's cohesion. And should the opposition Democratic Party remain beset by internal wrangling, the temptation to secure a greater share of the vote may become too great and Serbia's history of regular elections may once again rear its ugly head.

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