Elections in Serbia: a testimony of autocracy versus incompetence
The recent elections in Serbia were characterized by irregularities, surpassing previous instances of misconduct. This was even acknowledge by international observers. Yet, the opposition’s post-election campaign has come to a halt, merely reiterating claims of theft without presenting specific actions or strategies to challenge the ruling party and address corruption within institutions.
December 17th 2023 brought yet another bitter loss for the pro-western opposition coalition “Serbia against violence”. They were convincingly defeated in the parliamentary elections, taking only 23 per cent of the votes, while the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) took 46 per cent. It is better to say that the current president, Aleksandar Vučić, won – not SNS – since he was leading the whole campaign, arguing that votes would be either for or against him. Despite that, the law is clear – the Serbian president is meant to be head of state for all citizens and thus it is forbidden for him to participate in a parliamentary election campaign. However, election laws in Serbia no longer apply in practice, especially since Vučić consolidated his power back in 2014.
Battle for Belgrade
If asked before the elections, no serious political analyst would ever say that the opposition could win nationally. Still, expectations for the local election in Belgrade were different. The opposition had promised a victory in the capital.
In the city assembly, no one party received a majority of 56 mandates to form a local government. The SNS won 49 seats, and Serbia against Violence has 42, while the coalition NADA (a right-wing coalition) won seven seats, with the Socialist Party of Serbia (the ruling party in the 1990s back then led by Slobodan Milošević) took six mandates. The biggest surprise was the coalition “We – The Voice from the People” (MI–GIN) which won six seats as well.
Traditional coalition partners, the Serbian Progressive Party and the Socialistic Party of Serbia together have 55 mandates, while the Serbia against Violence and NADA have together 48. Both sides would need to join with the MI–GIN party for a majority, whose leader on election night clearly stated that a coalition with the pro-western opposition is not an option, adding that they will form a city government with the ruling party, or go to new elections.
There is little doubt that the government stole the elections. The OSCE’s ODIHR mission announced on December 18th that the elections were marked by serious irregularities, misuse of public funds, media dominance by Vučić, as well as a negative campaign characterized by fear. Some members of the European Parliament asked for an independent investigation. Electoral theft, to clarify, may not have been decisive at the national level, but it significantly influenced the final results in Belgrade.
During the election day, members of the opposition and independent media outlets recorded the organized transport of voters from Republika Srpska – in Bosnia and Herzegovina – to the irregular polling station in Belgrade’s arena. Due to the close ties between Serbia and Republika Srpska, some of the people from this Bosnian entity have dual citizenship – Bosnian and Serbian. According to the law, they are eligible to vote in Serbia, but only in parliamentary elections.
However, they were rapidly registered en masse with random addresses in Belgrade so they could vote in Belgrade’s election as well. Prior to the elections, there were numerous examples of this irregularity; dozens of people registered in one flat, or 30 to 40 people registered at one house. The opposition warned about this, but the institutions remained silent. On the other hand, the civil society watchdogs identified mobile voters, who were registered outside of Belgrade but were bussed in to vote in the city as well.
The opposition knew what was coming. Nobody expected a fair contest since all previous elections under this regime were accompanied by irregularities. At the same time they were completely unprepared. Despite all evidence of electoral theft and instead of acting immediately, the opposition remained silent on the evening of December 17th. According to various sources, the person behind the decision to keep a low-profile was Dragan Đilas, leader of the Party of Freedom and Justice, the biggest political party in the Serbia against Violence coalition.
Still, the reason behind this decision remains unclear. In an analysis of the Serbian elections published in the New Journal of Zürich (NZZ), Professor Andreas Est noted that “the worn-out people of the post-Milošević era should finally retire”, referring to “characters like former top politicians Dragan Đilas or Boris Tadić”. He added that they are “no longer believable today”.
The political party of the former Serbian president, Boris Tadić, did not even pass the threshold, which should be a clear sign that his political resurrection is not going to happen. These two politicians today are only a burden to the new opposition, by rejecting the potential supporters that are still remaining passive and scattering the opposition’s votes.
Supporters of the Serbia against Violence coalition had to wait a whole day for the political leaders to wake up from yet another bitter loss. Organized protests gathered people, but still not enough to attract attention and channel it into any significant political charge. Marinika Tepić, one of the coalition’s leaders, went on a hunger strike; while her colleague Miroslav Aleksić first stated that he was joining her as well, but the same night decided that he would just go on a strict religious fast.
The institutional struggle proved to be impossible due to the long-term erosion of democratic values and a high level of corruption. Yet, they are still trying to win on this front, by submitting appeals to the Constitutional Court. All opposition moves appear quite unorganized without any clear goal to achieve. If they were looking for sympathies from the government or the international community, they failed. On the other hand, if they just wanted to buy time, they also failed, since their voters are losing patience – slowly, but surely.
The opposition finally announced new protests for the middle of January, continuing to force the streets as a way of channelling their political dissatisfaction. However, this already looks like a lost battle.
Obscure doctor and his retinue
The decisive We – The Voice from the People coalition made a surprising success in the capital, followed by rumours that it is a fake opposition, logistically supported by the ruling party. Indeed the coalition is an interesting phenomenon on the political scene. Their main political characteristics include conspiracy theories, anti-globalism, anti-vaccine, Russophilia and a strong anti-western sentiment. Their leader is Branimir Nestorović, a former pulmonologist who was a member of the national crisis staff during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back then he became well known when he stated that the coronavirus is “the funniest virus in human history”, adding that there is no need for concern and that “women could go shopping in Milan”. In the following days, the daily death toll in Italy started to record thousands of lives.
How is it possible that such a controversial political list took so many votes? There are two explanations – a political one, and a more sociological one. When it comes to the former, there is a strong belief that the coalition had been backed by the government. There have been claims that MI–GIN is a satellite of the ruling party. This is supported by the fact that they managed to destroy the right-wing opposition Specter, leaving two parties close to the threshold, but still under it. For a short time, they managed to mobilize a large number of voters, especially in Belgrade, which is not the traditional core of right-wing voters.
Additionally, from the moment he started his election campaign, Nestorović became a regular guest on talk-shows, especially on TV Happy – a channel with national broadcasting – which is openly pro-government. He was the only politician outside the current government which has access to state-controlled media outlets.
In addition to that, there has been a significant increase over the last years, in the popularity of right-wing parties throughout Europe, including Serbia. After the coronavirus pandemic, a significant number of people started to believe in conspiracy theories related to it. One indicator of this phenomenon are the hundreds of obscure channels and groups emerging on Telegram – some of them gathering tens of thousands of people, mostly younger generations, which promote right-wing narratives. Before Nestorović’s success, nobody really believed that those narratives could ever be channelled in political power, which is now decisive for a new government in Belgrade.
If starting from the international relations theory of bandwagoning, reserved for smaller states such as Serbia, it is clear that the international factor has a significant influence on the post-electoral period. However, the elections are a domestic issue. Serbian pro-western opposition needs to understand that they cannot win them in Brussels instead of Belgrade.
A constant reliance on the European Union and the United States to solve their issues and compensate their incompetence has lead them nowhere. Indeed, some parts of the international community warned more openly about the irregularities before and during the elections. The German foreign office, for example, stated immediately, referencing the ODIHR report, that identified irregularities are “unacceptable for a country with EU candidate status”, while congratulations to the ruling party from most European leaders were missing.
Beyond that, the majority of critics for the elections came from western journalists, professors and political analysts. However, the US ambassador in Serbia, Christopher Hill, stated that the US is looking forward to continuing cooperation with the Serbian government, adding that observed shortcomings should be resolved through the institutions. Among the opposition, this was interpreted as a continuation of support for Vučić. Thus, despite initial optimism that the reaction from the international community would be sharper this time, the opposition was hit with a cold shower. It appears as though the international community still does not believe that the pro-western opposition is strong enough to become a decisive alternative to Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party.
In the beginning of November 2023, a group of prominent people consisting mostly of academics, film directors, actors, writers, journalists and sportsmen formed an initiative called ProGlas. Despite obstacles from the regime, they travelled throughout Serbia, organizing public gatherings, lectures and debates. The idea was to wake up passive voters and show them that change is possible. Their last public assembly in Belgrade, organized in the last days of 2023, gathered 17,000 people, which is far more than the post-electoral opposition protests.
ProGlas is not a political party, nor are they under the control of the opposition, even if they are cooperating with the Serbia against Violence coalition. Yet, it seems that some opposition leaders are trying to use them for their own interests, which could undermine the citizens’ trust in this independent movement and reduce the potential for further action.
Nevertheless, the opposition is not competing under equal conditions due to unfair elections, the government’s total control of the media, corrupt institutions and pressure put on voters and activists during the campaign. However, the Serbian opposition needs to consolidate itself – to mobilize voters, achieve a higher turnout in elections, become more visible throughout the state, not only in the capital, to establish more committees in the country, avoid internal disputes which alienate voters and remain united.
In the end, Serbia’s opposition needs to offer something different so that their political agenda is not entirely reduced to criticizing the government without concrete alternatives. Blaming Vučić for stealing the elections is not the way to victory. Yet, it appears that they are still far away from admitting this.
Filip Mirilović is a freelance journalist. He regularly contributes to Vreme – a weekly magazine based in Belgrade, Serbia. He mostly deals with topics such as security and politics.
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