Curtain call for Serbian democracy: why this year’s elections are all or nothing for the opposition7 min read
As the election campaign gets into full swing, the lead opposition movement continues their fight to remove Aleksandar Vučić’s grip on power. The vote scheduled for 3 April — deciding the President, the National Assembly, and the Belgrade City Assembly — is widely viewed as the liberal oppositions’ last real opportunity to reverse the damaging autocratic tendencies of the current regime, and once again place Belgrade on a pro-democracy footing.
The three elections, which will decide the political makeup of the nation’s institutions for the next five years, follows a tumultuous period for the country, stunted by issues both new and old. The government, which hoped to focus this election campaign on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been forced into discussing a far broader number of issues than it could have foreseen.
Since the last general election in 2020, which was boycotted by all main opposition groups, the country has been rocked by continuous anti-government protests in the nation’s capital, Belgrade, ever since. These protests, alongside sluggish attempts at reform in the hopes of continuing the nation’s EU accession negotiations, a lack of progress in normalising relations with Kosovo, and more recently the culmination of heavy anti-government environmental protests late last year have continued to muddy an already complex electoral campaign.
These factors, alongside dealing with the economic and social fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a worsening brain drain of the country’s youth, have created an unstable and precarious situation for the country in the years to come.
The current regime
On one side of the electoral coin lies the current ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) led by President Aleksandar Vučić, that looks to prolong its complete control over the nation’s main political bodies. This is something it has held since its victory in the 2016 Vojvodina Assembly elections, however, it held almost overwhelming control over all other institutions nationwide since 2014.
Since rising to power, the party has swept aside many key aspects previously put in place which necessitated the foundation of a free and fair political landscape. Since its dominating rise to power, the regime has effectively placed many of the mainstream media outlets under some form of government control, including some of the largest newspaper, television, and radio broadcasters. Furthermore, Belgrade has echoed similar ‘illiberal’ moves done by closely-aligned partners in Central Europe such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, through their reshaping of judicial systems to better fit current government policy.
The regime has also attempted in recent years to present itself as the strongest reformer within the Western Balkans region through its attempts to implement changes that on paper have sought to better align Serbia with their counterparts in the EU as part of its accession bid. This process however has gathered growing criticism due to its significant hampering in recent years through controversy surrounding both the deterioration of democratic freedoms within the country’s political institutions, alongside Belgrade’s shaky relationship with its breakaway neighbour to the south, Kosovo.
The party has progressively absorbed or colluded with a growing number of regime-friendly, pro-government parties including its long-term allies from the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the successor to the former ruling League of Communists of Serbia, as well as more recently merging with the right-wing Serbian Patriotic Alliance in 2021. Such moves have allowed for the creation of a faux-parliament, where the political body is able to give the appearance of free and fair elections, with political parties of various stripes allowed to compete and win seats. However many, if not all parliamentary members, have been loyal to the current Vučić regime.
The main opposition coalition squaring up against the government, United Serbia, has nothing short of an uphill battle ahead of it. The loose grouping of parties has sought to pool the strength of an often divided opposition. This current iteration brings together a diverse and unlikely set of bedfellows representing everything from the left of the political spectrum, to ethnic minority interests, to national conservatives policies, all united in the focus of unseating the current regime. Led by a politician, a former military general, and a university professor, the movement aims to reverse many of the autocratic moves of the Vučić regime, focusing on anti-corruption policies, creating a more transparent political system through a technocratic-led government, as well as expanding social and civil liberties.
However, the coalition has, like many opposition movements before it, faced a wave of obstacles in its quest for power. Now more than ever, the Serbian electorate has become accustomed to the typical circus of the election cycle, where the result is often well known before even the first ballot is actually counted, resulting in a great deal of apathy amongst electoral groups that could be inclined to vote for opposition groupings.
The coalition also faces the consistent issue of heavy media bias within the country’s leading newspapers and television shows, many of which are closely linked with current government representatives, and therefore have presented a clear political bias in their reporting for years now towards Vučić’s government. This lack of representation within the media goes even further, with the opposition bloc having only been invited to participate in 7 televised debates out of a total of 19 (as of 16 March), compared to 12 for the ruling SNS, and 11 invitations for their ruling partner party SPS. This lack of representation lies in contrast to polling conducted prior to the election showing that the bloc looks set to become the second-largest grouping within the upcoming parliament.
The campaign surprise: Foreign policy
More recently, Serbia’s place within the global stage has made a surprise appearance as a dominating campaign issue. Belgrade’s international connections, which already places the nation in a convoluted knot of ties with a host of major players on the global stage, has been further muddied through the current regime’s awkward balancing act towards the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although Belgrade opted to vote in favour of the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, citing its commitment “to observing the principles of territorial integrity and political independence of states”, a not-so-sly nod towards its ongoing dispute with the breakaway administration in Kosovo, it has insisted on remaining militarily neutral throughout the conflict. To this end, Vučić’s government has announced it shall not partake in any economic or political sanctions against Moscow, choosing instead to promise humanitarian aid towards Kyiv in the form of accepting Ukrainian refugees while sending medical supplies to the country.
Such a position has been mirrored by the de-facto Serb leader in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, who has refused to enforce any sanctions against Moscow. This move has further added to growing concern within the international community that the current Serbian leadership may be more closely tied to Putin’s regime than initially expected. It has therefore been speculated that the Western Balkans may be a potential landing spot if Putin seeks to expand the ongoing conflict to other Russian spheres of influence across the continent through a potential Serb ‘reclamation’ of Kosovo, or the secession of Republika Srpska, the Serb-domniated entity, from Bosnia. Such moves would be expected to be swiftly followed by clear Russian endorsement and subsequent recognition of claimed territories.
In the end, what was supposed to be nothing more than a performative electoral cycle accompanied by puppet opposition figures, a fundamental lack of any real challenge to the current administration, remiss of any substantial active civil participation, topped off by the campaign being dominated by pro-government statements aiming to highlight the regimes swift response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been entirely flipped upon itself. Serbia now faces a clear, distinctive choice between two opposing futures for the nation. One is to stick with the current regime, further allowing Vučić to continue eroding civil liberties, enrich himself and those around him, and most dangerously, continue to tie Belgrade to the current dictatorship in Moscow which has once again brought war upon European soil. This is a connection which not only undermines but threatens the very security of what has once more become a fragile Western Balkans neighbourhood. The other choice, however thin a shot at victory they may truly have, represents a realistic chance for regular Serbs to progress their livelihoods, and orientate back towards a pro-European footing, with the aim of creating solid political institutions that work for common citizens within the country, not simply an elite few that seek to undermine the basic democratic process within the country.