There’s a saying in Serbia that goes ‘three Serbs — four political parties” and that perfectly sums up the climate in the country a few days before the April 3 general and presidential elections. It’s not news that there are deep divisions among Serbs when it comes to their political opinions and choices, and often there are sharp divides between generations — making for tense family life in homes where multiple generations live together.
Ahead of the regular presidential and early parliamentary elections nationwide and the local elections in Belgrade and several other municipalities all taking place on April 3, it’s clear that there is a clash of generations in Serbia. Seniors are on the side of the current president and leader of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Aleksandar Vucic, while young people seek political change, and middle-aged Serbs are caught in the middle.
First time voters a potential wind of change
It is unlikely that the elections will dramatically change the political situation in Serbia, yet they are still expected to improve the position of the opposition thanks to young voters who do not want to live under their grandparents’ choices any more.
The majority of pensioners are loyal to Vucic because they see him as a factor of stability, a nice-mannered young man full of respect for all parents, who fulfils his promises regarding timely payment of pensions and ensures food supply and health care.
On the other side are young Serbs who aren’t concerned about pensions, not least because they have little confidence in being in Serbia long enough to receive one if the current ‘Vucic-ocracy’ continues.
“The leader wants this [the SNS’ time in power] to last forever and we must stop it because the future belongs to us not to our grandparents. I want to live in a society of equal opportunities and not in one where I have to know someone who is in the SNS in order to get a job. This is not a matter for my grandfather because he is not going to look for a job,” Dimitrije A. (19), a medical student in the city of Nis, tells bne IntelliNews.
His friend and classmate Sofija S. (19) shares his opinion as she prepares to vote for the first time. “I’m voting against the Leader because I don’t want to let my grandmother be totally abused. He is manipulating our seniors perfectly because he knows what they’ve gone through and how scared of war and poverty they are. That’s what she has kept repeating for the last 10 years: he is good, he gives us peace and money to live normally as old people. She doesn’t care if he is a dictator because dictatorship is what she is used to after [communist-era leaders Josip Broz] Tito and [Slobodan] Milosevic. … I want to choose on my own and not to be manipulated constantly that if Vucic leaves power, we will all die,” Sofija tells bne IntelliNews.
Jana K. (18) will also vote for the first time this year. Still in high school, she holds the same opinion as the other two young people.
“I couldn’t wait to turn 18 to vote and help this country to get rid of that man. He may be a decent gentleman but those around him are just a disaster. People in my neighbourhood here in Nis who are rich and powerful now used to be human trash, uncivilised and uneducated. But, today, they hold leading positions in state-owned companies. I would rather die than to have to work for some of them. That’s why we all have to vote and vote them out,” Jana tells bne IntelliNews.
She adds that all her grandparents adore Vucic, especially her grandmothers. “I stopped even trying to convince them to think one more time if everything he says is truth. Pointless. For them he is like a god. One on my mom’s side even calls him ‘the ours’! Like he is something universal or some universal gold… I don’t know really!” the girl concludes.
Older generation favours Vucic
Confirming what the young people say, members of their grandparents’ generation speak of their admiration for the Serbian president when questioned by bne IntelliNews. Slavica B. (77), a retired factory worker, says she can only vote for Vucic and that’s the only reason why she votes.
“I don’t have to explain to anyone why I like him. I do like him and it is my right to like him and to vote for him. I told my son and his kids to leave me alone and if they don’t, I will stop talking to them. Vucic works for this country and he is one of us,” Slavica tells bne IntelliNews.
Her sister Visnja (74), also a retired factory worker, supports Slavica’s view.
“Only Vucic has the experience to get us through this crisis without putting us in a war. I can’t wait for the elections to be over so I don’t have to watch those people that want to destroy him on tv anymore,” she says.
Of course, not everyone in their generation thinks alike. Their neighbour, 82-year old Milanka C., a retired nurse, has different plans for April 3. She is abstaining. Two of Jana’s friends, Vanja and Anastasija, plan to do the same. They tell bne IntelliNews they are not going to go to exercise their right to vote because they are apolitical.
In general, however, the rift between these two groups of voters, old and young, indicate that Serbian society is deeply divided among those that wish for a change versus those that fear change.
These two categories are exactly the ones Vucic has been targeting the most in the run-up to the elections. The elderly have had his attention and affection (occasionally expressed in financial support) since his early days in power. Over-65s make up 21.1% of Serbia’s population but they are disproportionately likely to vote compared to other age groups.
Handouts to young people started after the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Most recently, everyone between 16 and 30 could apply to receive a €100 government ‘treat’. Another tranche of €100 is promised in late June.
When it comes to the generation between these two, working age Serbians, they are also divided among those that strongly oppose the regime for various reasons — such as corruption, nepotism, the slow pace towards EU accession or on the other hand weak support to Russia — and those that passionately support it because that’s the source of their influence and financial prosperity.
Is the SNS invulnerable?
Since the SNS first came to power, the party has been acting as if elections are taking place every day. This has paid off in the absolute destruction of the opposition. In the current parliament, the SNS and its coalition partners have over 60% of the seats. Of the parties represented in the parliament, water-polo champion Aleksandar Sapic’s Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS) has merged with the SNS, while the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) and Alliance of Vojvodina’s Hungarians back the government, as do almost all the MPs representing national minorities.
The opposition itself helped the SNS extend its control over Serbia by fragmenting into multiple micro parties, none of them able to pass the threshold to enter the parliament. This time around, some of these pieces managed to unite for the April 3 elections and this could at least propel the opposition back into the next parliament even if polls show another victory for Vucic and the SNS ahead. Recent events have left many people unhappy with Vucic over issues as diverse as the government’s vaccination campaign and COVID-19 restrictions, the economic situation, Rio Tinto’s recently cancelled investment in a huge lithium mine in Serbia and Belgrade’s undefined position regarding the war in Ukraine. As a result, the opposition has a better chance now than at any time in the past 10 years of improving its position.
The ballot for the parliamentary elections has 18 lists. The broad coalition around Vucic’s SNS is running under the slogan “Aleksandar Vucic — Together We Can Do Everything”. Its main rival is a coalition of 10 parties, United Serbia, led mainly by newly formed parties created by former members of the Democratic Party. It includes Dragan Djilas’s Party of Freedom and Justice (SSP) and Vuk Jeremic’s People’s Party. First on the opposition list is former MP Marinika Tepic and the slogan is “United for the Victory of Serbia”.
The SPS, which has been every ruling party’s junior coalition partner for the last 20 years, has its own list for the parliamentary elections even though it has decided to support Vucic for president. Despite only polling at around 10%, the SPS has the slogan “Ivica Dacic [the SPS’ leader] — Premier of Serbia”.
Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) leader Ivica Dacic.
Also running for some of the 250 seats in the parliament are a few far-right groups like Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party, the ultra nationalist Zavetnici (Oath Keepers) movement and the block around the Serbian conservative Movement Dveri, as well as parties representing national minorities.
The latest poll published by Blic puts the SNS on 53.4% of the vote, United Serbia on 14% and SPAS around 10.1%.
When it comes to the presidential election, the coalition around Djilas’s SSP has put up Zdravko Ponos, a retired major general of the Serbian Army with significant experience in diplomacy, as its candidate.
Polls indicate he will come in second after Vucic. A new poll conducted by Eupolis projects that Vucic will take 51.7% of the vote — enough to retain the presidency in the first round of voting — and Ponos 27.8%.
Aside from Ponos and Vucic, there are six more candidates and at least four of them lean very far right — Milica Djurdjevic Stamenkovski from the Zavetnici movement, Misa Vacic from the Serbian Right, Milos Jovanovic of the Hope coalition and Bosko Obradovic, the candidate of parties gathered in the Patriotic Block. This fragmentation among the rightwingers is an extra benefit for Vucic in the presidential elections.
The appeal of Ponos is mainly that he represents an alternative to Vucic and the SNS, even though his political solutions sound almost the same as Vucic’s. In fact, during the campaign, Ponos’ bloc has been trying to stay neutral about almost every single issue with the clear goal of not irritating anyone who is willing to get out and vote against Vucic (aside from the vocal supporters of Russian aggression against Ukraine, chauvinists and nationalists, who have the four far-right candidates to choose from). Rather than putting forward fresh policies, both Ponos and Tepic have focussed their campaigns on criticising Vucic and the SNS.
This means there is a large swathe of working age Serbians with clear principles in favour of democracy, a developed society, human rights and a better economy, who are pro-EU and pro-western, that don’t have any obvious choice in the election. The reason is simple: the elections are about being for Vucic or against him.
Belgrade to reveal the country’s future direction
The elections for the government of the capital Belgrade are important from many perspectives. 1.6mn people vote for the city’s leadership, which is almost a quarter of the total number of voters in the country. Ruling Belgrade also has symbolic importance because the demises of most of previous governments started in Belgrade.
12 lists are running for the 110 seats in the Belgrade city parliament, and they look almost the same as those running in the national parliamentary elections. The SNS’ offering is Sapic, whose SPAS merged into the SNS in May 2021. Among SPAS’ members were far-right politicians, which was a surprise because Sapic’s political career emerged while he was in the Democratic Party and was one of the most citizen-oriented politicians. He became popular thanks to his charity organisation that collects funds for medical treatment abroad for children and has saved many lives.
To respond to Sapic’s candidacy, the United Serbia coalition chose a conservative academic, 82-year-old university professor and diplomat Vladeta Jankovic. Jankovic belongs to the so-called “Belgrade salon right”. Jankovic is not the perfect candidate for many that want to see the SNS’ departure from Belgrade, but many will still vote him just to accomplish this goal.
Events in Belgrade tend to be a harbinger of what is to come in the country as a whole, and the January 16 referendum serves as a warning for the authorities in this regard.
On January 16, 6.5mn citizens had the right to vote on planned constitutional changes, yet according to the Republic Electoral Commission (RIK), under 2mn voted of whom 59.62% circled “yes” and 39.35% ‘no”. For Vucic, whose SNS just a year earlier won almost all 250 seats in the parliament, this was a fiasco. The worst numbers for the president came from Belgrade where, according to the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), 56% of citizens voted “no”, while the citizens of other regions were in favour of changing the constitution.
There is a realistic chance that Vucic could lose control in Belgrade, while there is virtually none of him losing the nationwide elections. This is mainly because his party is so big — its members reportedly number around 750,000 or every ninth citizen of Serbia — but also thanks to the dozens of little parties that joined the catch-it-all SNS. The network around the SNS’ membership is wide as well and most of them will vote. Some will do it because of their beliefs, but many because of their interests. That’s why the next period under the SNS could easily turn into a time of repression; past history has shown that when a strong political party passes its peak and starts losing support it will maximise its benefits from being in power until the end eventually comes. That’s how the SNS emerged and managed to oust the former ruling Democratic Party. And Vucic knows that.
Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party.