The Serbian general election has been announced for Sunday 24th April – the eleventh such contest to take place since 1990. Below, I offer five key observations about what the elections mean for Serbia itself, the ruling Progressive Party and its leader Aleksander Vučić, relations with Kosovo and the medium-term prospects for Serbian accession to the European Union.
1. Prime Minister Vučic is king of all he surveys
The SNS is one of the most successful and intriguing political parties to emerge in Europe in the past few years – a party of reformed (and, in some cases, unreformed) radicals that has somehow managed to keep a lid of Serbia’s predilection for ultra-nationalism, a collection of individuals who did little or nothing to oppose Slobodan Milošević’s worst excesses yet have nonetheless become cheerleaders for Serbia’s new-found EU love-in and a party of the economic liberal-right who nevertheless seem to hoover up votes in working class areas.
It is often said that, in Northern Ireland, it took former hard-liners like Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley to come to the table for real compromises to be thrashed out in order to secure lasting political change. In the case of Serbia, the decision of now-President Tomislav Nikolić and Vučić to break with the Serbian Radical Party and their former ally Vojislav Šešelj and found the SNS as a new, pro-European force that was able to both simultaneously speak the language of frustrated Serbs and frustrated politicians in EU capitals.
The SNS administration hasn’t been perfect – but it has delivered the opening of EU accession talks, commenced a real programme of public service reform and attracted some solid foreign investment to Serbia. Vučić has a record of achievement on which he to run.
These are, however, elections he did not actually have to call. Given that the SNS already holds 158 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly, he could easily have ruled until 2018 without any serious challenges from either the opposition or his own MPs – most of which are personally reliant upon him for their positions.
That said, his decision to call an early election isn’t a bad political call. The opposition to Vučic and the SNS is fragmented to such an extent that is hard to identify who exactly is its “leader”.
It’s clearly not the Socialist Party leader Ivica Dacić, whose decision to accept the post of Foreign Minister in an entirely unnecessary coalition between his party and the SNS, has essentially seen his ability to differentiate he and his party from Vučić neutralised. The country’s former President Boris Tadić would like to think he had a claim to the title, yet the fact he has been forced to form a joint electoral list this year with unpopular Liberal Democrat party leader Čedomir Jovanović in order to have any hope of remaining above the 5% electoral threshold speaks volumes as to his political appeal. One can write-off ultra-nationalists such as Vojislav Šešelj who, while popular in some smoke-filled cafes in Belgrade’s working class suburbs, are widely seen as figures of a darker, poorer past. Finally, while the Democratic Party and their leader Bojan Pajtić, the President of the northern province of Vojvodina, make the odd aggressive noise from time to time, they have essentially become a regional party.
The issue of the economy is, as ever, an important one. While hardly booming, it isn’t in disastrous shape – therefore, by the yardstick of the past twenty-five years, it appears rather robust to most Serbs. The polls also show the SNS capturing as much as 60% of the vote, enough to hand Vučic and his party as many as 200 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly and a reinforced mandate to govern until 2020. The election is essentially a risk-free option.
Serbia claims to be a Republic – but Vučić is as close to a king as Serbs are likely to get any time soon.
2. A bleak future for DS
Much of the credit for the recent decision to open formal European Union membership negotiations has gone to the SNS and Prime Minister Vučić himself. It is, of course, only natural that the government of the day trumpets gains secured “on their watch”.
In reality, Serbia’s modern, pro-western trajectory owes much to the work of the Democratic Party’s (DS) founders; chiefly the late Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, whose reformist efforts earned him an assassin’s bullet in the head. In a post-Milošević landscape that could easily have been shaped and dominated by the unappealing duo of the cynical Vojislav Kostunica and downright dangerous Vojislav Šešelj, their considered and thoughtful tone on the need for regional dialogue and structural economic reforms, did much to help heal the country’s wounds.
While Prime Minister Vučic and President Nikolić would likely bitterly dispute this assertion, the creation of the SNS is as much a triumph for the DS as the creation of Tony Blair and New Labour were for Margaret Thatcher.
I struggle, though, to understand how the DS will remain a political force in the Serbia of 2016 – and the polls tend to agree with me. Outside of the northern province of Vojvodina, where Bojan Bajtić governs on the basis of support from ethic Hungarian parties, it has lost much of its political support to a surging SNS party who have adopted the bulk of its pro-west and pro-reform rhetoric.
>Polls suggest that DS will remain in the National Assembly after April 24th – but only just. From my perspective, the jury is very much out on whether they will be able to remain a credible political force by the time of the next parliamentary elections in 2020.
The 2014 elections were unique in recent Serbian history in that they were not, even to a limited extent, dominated by the issue of Kosovo.
In the Brave New World in which Serbia is formally negotiating European Union membership, most mainstream political leaders now appear to have adopted a form of self-censorship on the topic; refusing to be drawn into the type of nationalist rhetoric on the topic that had been a political staple for much of the previous two decades. The only mainstream politician to deviate from this line is President Nikolić himself, whose influence is seen as (at best) of tertiary importance.
One could read this as a tacit acceptance of Kosovo independence among the Serbian political elite or evidence of the discipline with which the country’s leaders are approaching the country’s ongoing EU accession negotiations. Both perspectives have some merit.
4. The hard-right are likely to make a comeback
Despite the tremendous advances towards modernity and moderation that have been made in recent years, Serbia remains a country where hard-line political rhetoric continues to have some cache.
This is born out in the latest opinion polls which show that the Vojislav Šešelj’s Radicals (SRS), who were swept out of the National Assembly in 2014, are hovering just above the 5% electoral threshold for representation. Polls also show that a coalition between the nationalist and socially conservative Dveri party and Vojislav Kostunica’s nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia (DPP) will secure seats.
In the case of Vojislav Šešelj, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is currently scheduled to issue its verdict in his Bosnian war crimes trial on March 31st; scarcely three weeks before polling day. A “guilty” would no doubt galvanise the SRS voter base into action and may even see some of the party’s former voters who had defected to supporting Vučić in recent years returning to it. Unsurprisingly, the government have requested any verdict is postponed until May.
To what extent the return of hard-line and far-right MPs to the National Assembly would actually matter is up for debate. On one level, Serbian politics has likely now evolved to such a stage as a cordon sanitaire would prevent the Radicals and Dveri-DPP from participating in government. Nevertheless, the absence of explicitly racist, jingoistic and revanchist rhetoric from the floor of the National Assembly over the past two years has done much to aid Serbia’s efforts to present itself as a modern, mature democracy.
Watch this space.
5. 2020 vision: is Vučic promising too much?
One of the age-old problems with politics is the tendency for leaders to over-promise and then under-deliver. This is often because politicians take the approach of making unrealistic promises that they have no intention of following through with and sometimes because of factors entirely beyond their control. In the case of Vučić, he is running major risks on both fronts.
The entire public premise of the election set to take place next month is to provide Serbia with a solid and stable government that can shepherd the country towards EU accession in 2020. That, regrettably, appears to be an unrealistic expectation.
The European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been explicit that there will be no accession waves before the end of his term in late 2019. The political mood music surrounding migration from the Middle East to Western Europe – much of which has taken place via transit across Serbia, has also soured perceptions of the Schengen Agreement and further enlargement. Elections in many EU member states, most notably France and Germany where the anti-expansion Front National and Alternative for Germany are surging, risk further eroding good will towards Serbia.
The issue of Kosovo remains a significant complicating factor for its EU membership bid. It is clear that, through the pursuit of a EU-mediated “normalisation strategy”, Belgrade is hoping to take a gradualist approach towards improving relations with Pristina. Regrettably for Serbia, larger EU states – all of whom recognise Kosovo as an independent state – are unlikely to settle for anything other than full recognition as a precursor to accession. While much can change in four years, it is hard to envisage domestic opinion in Serbia being ready for such a landmark shift by 2020. Indeed, its ability to do so may also be complicated by the rise of sharply anti-Serbian movements in Kosovo such as Vetevendosje, who have vowed to violently oppose all forms of rapprochement between Pristina and Belgrade.
EU membership remains a near-certainty for Serbia but it is looking less and less likely to happen in 2020 and less and less likely to happen on the terms Vučić and the SNS desire.