OPINION: What politics after Vucic will look like is Serbia’s billion-dollar question

OPINION: What politics after Vucic will look like is Serbia’s billion-dollar question
The vast majority of Serbian President Aleksander Vucic's supporters don’t see anyone as an eventual successor.
By Ann Smith in New York January 16, 2023

For almost a decade Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has been the dominant political figure in the country (even in the region) as well as its international representative. So when he makes his periodic announcements that he is going to leave politics they raise a lot of questions, in Serbia and abroad.

During those ten years, he didn’t only succeed in maintaining and increasing his power, but also in completely minimising the opposition. Vucic managed to become and remain the seemingly irreplaceable number one among his own people. 

As a result, the vast majority of his supporters don’t see any of the people working with him as an eventual successor. Meanwhile, most of his opponents do not have anyone (yet) to put forward to replace him. This is a result of Vucic's continuous hard work because he is in campaign mode every day, and every day is another chance to create a crisis and solve it (uniquely and gloriously) in order to boost his popularity. 

Vucic himself works hard and he works in every field. He does the job of a statesman, but he also helps ordinary people with ordinary issues. As a statesman, he has elevated himself enough to be able to say: “L’etat, c’est moi”. By showing constantly how he also lives the life of a little man, he has come far enough to become a leader that many not only respect or support, but really love. 

The ones that truly love him are mainly elderly and for them seeing the back of him is not just scary but unimaginable. Comments like these can often be heard on public transport or in public parks where pensioners sit and chat or play chess: “we are safe as long as we have him”, “we won’t be hungry while he is the president”, “there won’t be war while Vucic represents us”, “he is staying in politics because he cannot entrust us to anyone else” and so on. 

Public expressions of admiration from those who work for Vucic are also quite common. Both groups are crucial for his political future. 

A tricky legal question

Raising the subject of a third presidential mandate for Vucic started early — he just started his second five-year term in the spring of 2022. With his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) the largest party in parliament, his position is safe for the next few years. 

However, thinking about the distant future is what he does (and what has kept him in power this long), and talking about the end of his political career is another common theme. According to local media, since 2017, he announced about ten times that he is resigning from the position of SNS head. He also often repeats that he is leaving politics, but he never actually says when. 

The latest announcement was made during the president’s annual address to the nation on January 4, when Vucic said: “this is my last mandate, I'm not going to change the constitution, it’s not happening… In the first half of next year, I will not even be a president of a political party.”

When the statement is carefully read, nothing actually new was said. “Last mandate” as president still doesn’t mean last political mandate. Is “next year’ the lapse that everybody makes in the first week of January when they still call the new year next year, or he is talking about 2024? He won’t lead “a political party”, but what about coalition of parties or a citizen movement? There are so many options to stay in politics without being president of a political party. Serbs say: “every word has a tail”. In Vucic’s case that’s indeed true. 

According to the Serbian Law on the President, no one can be president more than twice. The only way to do so is through a change to the Constitution Act

By saying he does not plan to change the constitution to extend his term, Vucic has set himself apart from leaders of former Soviet countries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarus’ Aleksander Lukashenko, who, by changing the way the role of the president is defined in their constitutions, effectively reset the clock and allowed themselves to stand for two additional terms as president. 

Should he change his mind and decide to go down this route (which can’t be ruled out), making a change to the Serbian constitution is a complex process. The first step would be to initiate a constitutional amendment in the parliament and obtain a two-thirds majority. Once a proposal for a constitutional change is approved, the parliament begins to work on the amendment and initiates a public debate. After this phase, the parliament again votes on the constitutional change and the votes of two-thirds of MPs are needed for approval. For some issues, including changes related to the role of the president, the parliament has to call a referendum. A constitutional amendment is considered accepted if the majority of people who vote in the referendum support it. This procedure (defined in the Article 206 in the Constitutional Act) is a long process and can take several years, which could be why Vucic has already spoken out loud about his thoughts. 

At this moment, Vucic wouldn’t be able to easily secure 167 votes in the parliament (two thirds of the 250 MPs). According to the latest report of the Serbian Electoral Commission, the coalition around the SNS currently has 120 mandates. The coalition around its partner the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) adds 31. A small number of votes comes from parties of ethnic minorities, so Ana Brnabic’s SNS-led new cabinet passed parliament with 157 votes of support. However, before 2027, Serbia should hold one more round of parliamentary elections; the current parliamentary term ends in 2026, though Vucic has several times called early parliamentary elections. 

When it comes to a referendum, that shouldn’t be a problem for Vucic, as his fans always vote. Supported by the SNS’s members and their families (the SNS is the largest political party in the country counting about 700,000 members), it could be an easy win over those that would bother to go and vote against. But, this still requires some work because of the anti-Vucic segment of society. 

A cabinet post or ruling from the shadows

If amending the constitution is not an option for whatever reason, Vucic still has plenty of ways to stay in politics and keep ruling the country. As long as the SNS has a parliamentary majority or is able to create a coalition, Vucic will have a job — he can be prime minister, which he actually was for a couple of years before he became president. As PM, he could just continue doing what he already does with a different title.

If not PM, he can be a first deputy PM (PPV), a title created especially for him in 2012 when the SNS formed a government with the SPS and had to give the PM position to its president Ivica Dacic (Dacic never admitted it, but sitting in that chair was understood to be his condition for leaving his previous partner the Democratic Party and joining the SNS). Vucic can be a minister (of defence, perhaps, like he was while he was PPV). As long as he is president of the SNS, he won’t be unemployed.

In this, he would follow the example of Milo Djikanovic, current president of Montenegro but permanent de facto ruler of the country since the 1990s. Djukanovic has been president of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) since before Montenegro was an independent country. Even when Djukanovic didn’t hold a position in government, he always had power over it — just because he was president of the ruling party. 

That could be a way to go for Vucic if he doesn’t want to constantly run election races. To date, his frequent announcements about a withdrawal from politics have been just part of these races. Whenever he says something like this, it sets the public on fire. It is not yet clear what’s the reason for such acts — political spin, to test the public and improve his rating, or just because he truly feels overwhelmed in the moment and has to vent. However, the way his media reports on his announcements is disturbing and creates panic in the country — some are scared that no one could be better than him while others are scared that he could be replaced by extremists who might cause disasters in the country. 

No obvious successor

At this moment it is impossible to pick a potential successor as Vucic has surrounded himself with people whose political careers developed only once they became his close associates. Those people are extremely loyal and do not represent competition. They are known primarily as members of his team, making it difficult to single out any one of them to label as a future president. 

Some, who have been close to Vucic since he first came to power, have a relatively high profile within Serbia. One of them is Sinisa Mali, current minister of finance and former mayor of Belgrade. However, he can’t hope to emulate Vucic’s popularity because he has been embroiled in numerous scandals — from media reports that he owns 24 apartments in Bulgaria, to accusations that he plagiarised his PhD. 

Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic is also very loyal and a hard worker, but as Serbia’s first openly gay PM she cannot be seen as a successor because Serbs are not yet ready to directly vote for a lesbian to become their president. 

A third name from within the government ranks is the former mayor of Novi Sad who is now minister of defence, Milos Vucevic. His is a new name on the national scene and a name that Vucic promotes. Most voters still do not know him though, and for ordinary people, a minister of defence is not a key figure whose work they would follow and value. 

On the opposition side it is hard to find anyone able to bring together multiple small parties and collect all their votes in order to really gain visibility and credibility. Vucic and his SNS used all available tools to destroy the opposition in the country but the opposition itself helped them by fighting among themselves and failing to unite effectively.

There are rumours that former minister of energy Zorana Mihajlovic might form a party and challenge Vucic, but nothing has happened yet. Mihajlovic is openly for faster EU integration, sanctions against Russia and energy diversification (or a decrease in Serbia’s dependance on Russia). As such, she is not a favourite with official Moscow and a lot of effort was put into destroying her reputation. She may be a choice of some that hold similar views, but that still wouldn't be enough for a victory.

Right now, Serbia is poisoned by Putinism and “Zrbism”, a pejorative title for Serbian nationalists that support the invasion of Ukraine and believe that Russia is Serbia’s mother and its protector from the West. Most Serbs do not want someone with these views to come anywhere near the country’s institutions because Serbia is still a way more democratic society than Russia. Even for Serbs sympathetic to Russia and with strong anti-Vucic sentiment, the arrival of a successor from among the “Zrbs” is a scary idea.

The only thing really known about the succession in Serbia is that if Vucic was to resign today, the acting president would be current parliament speaker Vladimir Orlic — a 40-year-old SNS member since 2008 and holder of a PhD in telecommunication.

Tito after Tito, but after Vucic who?

Even though almost nothing about Vucic is certain, one thing is for sure — he wants to become part of history. Some in Serbia hope his final goal is to reach a deal with Pristina and earn a Nobel Peace Prize and then retire. If that is indeed his dream, it would secure a better future for the whole region. People that don’t like him don’t believe that this is his dream, instead, they say that he dreams of being the new Tito. 

Joseph Broz Tito, the president and self declared marshal of post WWII Yugoslavia, was indeed loved throughout the federation and many still miss him and that country. Tito’s mandate only ended when he died. Those that remember the day of his death in May 1980 claim that there wasn’t a single person in Yugoslavia that didn’t cry. 

Tito kept Yugoslavia outside of the Iron Curtain because of his antagonism with Joseph Stalin, head of the Soviet Union. Both were communists and, just like Stalin, Tito didn’t like those who had different political views from his, who usually ended up in political prisons. Vucic doesn’t like to hear criticism and doesn’t deal well with it, but is still far away from such political repression. But, just as Vucic’s supporters believe that if he leaves politics something bad will happen, many Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and even Slovenians still remember Tito nostalgically and claim that the good life ended after his death. 

This belief is in line with the main slogan of Tito’s communists: Tito after Tito. Yugoslavia broke up barely 10 years after Tito’s death. Many songs were written for Tito during his life but also after his death, as well as shortly before the collapse of the country he led. One of those, performed by the Sarajevo band Index even had words of this communist slogan: “and what now, southern country, if anyone asks us, we will say: Tito again, Tito after Tito!”

This slogan is often used to make fun of Vucic and the extent and duration of his power. However, the question of what comes after Vucic remains open, and it looks like even he doesn’t have a precise answer to it.

Ann Smith has been following and writing about transitional justice, war crimes, human rights, security (defence and terrorism), European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and international relations in the Balkans since 2000. She holds a masters degree in humanitarian international law as well as in journalism/political sciences.