Serbia’s Election Calculations
Ending a few months of speculation at the end of an unusually warm January 2014, Serbia’s ruling SNS (Srpska napredna stranka – Serbian Progressive Party) announced that it will call for early parliamentary elections in Serbia, just a year and a half after it had formed a government. The decision froze its relations with SPS (Socijalistička partija Srbije – Socialist Party of Serbia), which had formed the government together with SNS.
A few days after the decision was made, severely cold weather struck Serbia. It blocked some of the most important roads in the country, mainly in Vojvodina. The snow was so strong that it trapped a column of cars near Feketić on the country’s main road connecting Belgrade with the Hungarian border. As it appeared, these were the perfect conditions for the start of the electoral campaign. Aleksandar Vučić, deputy prime minister and the leader of SNS, participated personally in the rescue mission of the country’s trapped citizens. The video, in which a bareheaded Vučić in jeans and a coat participates in the action by carrying a child to a helicopter, received wide media attention in the country.
The situation says much about the shape of the election campaign that the country is facing. Serbia, after the success of Vučić and Prime Minister Ivica Dačić, leader of SPS, in resolving some of the most important issues at the beginning of 2014, lacks difficult political reforms, as in the past 13 years. All the warlords accused of crimes by the Hague Tribunal have been caught and extradited. Dačić successfully fulfilled EU demands for an agreement regarding the normalisation of the country’s relations with Kosovo. In effect, it looks like the main political subjects which will consume the 2014 election campaign in Serbia will be internal economic problems. Of those, the country’s fight against the corruption is supposed to receive widest media attention. And that is the field where Vučić has been very successful in last 18 months.
The fight against corruption was one of the primary targets for Vučić after the government was formed in 2012. Actions taken by Vučić were very extensive. According to the materials which were made public, it appeared that a number of high-ranking members of DS (Demokratska stranka – Democratic Party), which was in power from 2000 until 2012, were involved in a number of illegal activities. Vučić also knew how to make use of the media in the process of accusing DS party members. In each separate case, Vučić was creating media hype, organising large conferences in which details from the investigation were revealed. This was something that Serbia loved. For a large part of the population a scape goat (still the accused are waiting for the trial) was needed, one which will justify the stagnant economic situation after more than 10 years since DS was in charge. This resulted in a large increase of popularity for the Vučić itself, which was exceeding the same of SNS.
During last 18 months, Vučić has portrayed himself as a politician for whom the common wealth of the country is most important. He has presented himself as the politician who cares most about the country and is not fazed by his party’s interest. In other words, Vučić pictured himself as a statesman, not a common politician. This was a bold move, as a large portion of the society still remembers him from the 1990s. It was then when Vučić expressed nationalistic rhetoric and was a member of Vojislav Šešelj and the chauvinistic SRS (Srpska radikalna stranka – Serbian Radical Party). However, he admitted those were mistakes and has since changed his politics. This made him even more popular in Serbia. The reason for this was that in the 1990s also a large part of Serbian society was expressing similar attitude, blinded by rising nationalism.
In effect, a large part of the society was de facto identifying itself and its change in the period of 2000-2012 with the transformation of Vučić. They were sharing similar concerns, which is the first element in creation of bond between the two persons. The only ones who were expressing reservations for Vučić after 2012 were those who in the 1990s were opting for civil society, not a nationalistic option. Then as now they are still a minority in Serbia.
As the anti-corruption actions taken by Vučić resulted in the arrest of some of the wealthiest businessman (such as Miroslav Mišković, owner of Delta Holding), his popularity has rocketed. And by calling elections he is asking for even more. If Vučić succeeds in maintaining the same level of popularity during the election, campaign SNS could create a government independently. The scenario is even more possible as the main opposition party DS is divided into two fractions. The first one is led by Boris Tadić, former president of the country, while the second is headed by Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade. However, those two blocs are evenly divided, expressing the same fears that Vučić’s victory could lead Serbia to authoritarian government. Is this a probable scenario?
No, it is not. Even before the elections Vučić had significant power and it was he, not Dačić, who had the most political power in the country. Besides, movements made by Vučić within SNS also suggest that the incompetent and corruptive cadre is being eliminated. Rather surprisingly, a more probable scenario opts for Vučić’s win and a slowdown in the reforms and anti-corruptive struggle. Legal cases against the accused for corruption are still being prepared and their quality is still an open question.
Another good example is the labour law which was proposed by Saša Radulović, a minister of industry with significant management experience in Western Europe and the United States. According to the experts, the law would bring real change to the country’s business. However, it was boycotted by trade unions. The rumour suggests that the unions gained significant help from the SNS party infrastructure while organising the protests. In effect, the reform minister resigned and the law was taken off the legislation process. It was worth mentioning that the law was the International Monetary Fund’s condition for future financial help to Serbia. These were the first signs that the government reforms were losing their edge. It appeared that this was also understood by SNS which decided to make use of the large support for Vučić and in effect to call the elections.
Is this good for the democracy in Serbia? Certainly. Is Vučić the statesman as he pictures himself? Probably not. All his moves, even though they are legal from the perspective of rule of law, are effects of political calculations. It is true that in every political move a certain calculation of the decision maker’s political position is also made.
However, the timing made by Vučić does not suggest that after the elections SNS will maintain the same impetuous in the reform that has been started. In mathematics, one can have the correct result even if one is making multiple mistakes in the calculation process. In Serbia, the effects of political calculations are currently benefiting the development of the rule of law even though multiple mistakes are being made and even though the motivation for those appears to be false. Going back to mathematics, at the end it is more probable that by making multiple mistakes one will have a false result. And that is the most probable outcome of Serbia’s upcoming elections.
Zoran Vučković has a PhD in political science and international relations. His interests focus on post-communist transformations in the western Balkans and Eastern Europe.