Expected Victory, Yet a Glimmer of Hope for the Opposition: election night in Serbia8 min read
As election day turned into night, many across Serbia waited for the release of official election results from races up to and down the country – acutely aware of how the final results would most likely be shaping up to look. Most pessimistic anti-government figures simply hung about to see how large of a majority President Aleksandar Vučić, with his dominating control over the Serbian political and media field, had opted to gift himself. Others, however, understanding that true political change on the national stage was, for now, impossible, chose instead to set their focus on the results from Belgrade for its City Assembly as they rolled in throughout the Sunday night.
The final days of the campaign had been as expectedly contentious and eventful as any observer could expect for Serbian politics – filled with a last-minute push from the opposition, a dispute with Kosovo over voting locations, and a presidential television entrance more suited for satire than a late-night talk show.
The opposition, hoping to gain at least some semblance of a win from the campaign, began to discuss the potential for a victory of sorts within the Belgrade City Assembly elections. It was through this adjustment, alongside more positive polling results from Belgradians in the campaign’s closing weeks, that the opposition trailed further away from a national call to action, to a more localised resetting from which to tackle the incumbent regime over the closing days of the campaign.
Another diplomatic impasse also occurred between Serbia and Kosovo, which Belgrade still does not recognise 14 years after it first declared independence. Following Pristina’s decision to not allow any formal voting stations to be set up within its territory, only allowing for voting to take place at one liaison office within the country, hundreds of buses and private vehicles packed with ethnic Serbs crossed the border to vote in the election. The situation was further muddied when Pristina sought to bring light to recently released historical data that showed that Serbia had systematically removed over 6,000 ethnic Albanians from their voter register lists in recent years – almost all for no apparent reason whatsoever.
Vučić, sticking with his historical opposition to appearing at televised debates, sought solid ground in the campaign’s final days through his regime’s tried and tested formula of placing him as the focus of TV spots – often being portrayed as a figure of calm and stability. It was through one such TV appearance on pro-government channel Pink TV that Vučić sought to embody the unusual Serbian saying to be almost omnipresent and popular across society – ‘Iskochi iz pashtete’ – to be expected to literally jump out of the pate can. Making a ‘surprise’ appearance on the show, the president was revealed by the host to be hiding within a fridge on stage, holding a jar of pickles, before walking out to roaring applause from the audience which included popular Serbian artists and public figures from across the country.
A foregone conclusion
The results of the votes from across the nation broadly came as little surprise to most Serbs, with Vučić comfortably winning a second term as president with 58.5% of the vote, bypassing any requirement for a second-round vote. His closest rival, Zdravko Ponoš of the main opposition United Serbia coalition (US), came in second with a lacklustre 18%. For the National Assembly, although the incumbent Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, led by Vučić, lost its sole majority within the parliament, it still gained a powerful 43% of the total votes cast, representing 120 seats in the 250 seat chamber. It looks set to once again be backed up by its partner in previous governments, the Socialist Party of Serbia, which came in third with 11.5% of the vote and 32 seats. Following a mass opposition boycott of the nation’s last parliamentary elections in 2020, the big tent anti-regime coalition, United Serbia, shall now lead the first real opposition within the parliament, having garnered 13.5% and 38 seats. A handful of smaller opposition movements gained representation in parliament, including the left-wing We Must coalition, as well as two other smaller right-wing factions, which shall take up 12, 10, and 10 seats in the upcoming parliament respectively.
Vučić’s ease at amassing such a strong electoral performance demonstrates a number of acutely obvious truths within Serbian politics. Not only has he now fully shown off to Serbia and the rest of Europe how implemented and deep his control over not only his own party goes, but also his reach throughout other allied political parties, national institutions, and most importantly, the Serbian media. What can not be avoided however, is the fact that he has successfully tapped into the lingering fears and woes of older Serbs, still haunted by memories of war, economic and political chaos, and international isolation. Through his presentation as a well-polished, polite, and most importantly responsible leader, he has truly been able to create an image of himself as the only logical choice for Serbs if they seek stability, even with the understanding that this might come with less political mobility.
With his party’s unsurprising continued control over the national assembly, such dominating control can only be expected to continue. However, this is not to suggest that the regime does not face immediate and imposing issues following a relatively cosy election campaign. Vučić & co shall once again return to validating their controversial balancing act between Russia and the West, especially as Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the harrowing images and stories from it, continue to be seen by more eyes. The question immediately faced by the regime shall be whether there is enough room to join into certain sanctions against Russia to appease the West, whilst also not doing enough to truly wreck its strong relations with Moscow. Now more than ever, the prospect of EU accession for the Western Balkan nation looks like a dead dream, with little to no real progress being made in negotiations in recent years, relations cooling between Belgrade and Brussels, as well a recent regional shift by the bloc, looking more towards other potential future members in Albania and North Macedonia instead.
And although the president’s true skill lies in his ability to attract older voters to his cause, the actions of his regime have ultimately led to one of the worst youth exoduses within the Balkans, a region already profoundly hit in recent years by the matter. Little prospect for secure and prosperous employment, a lack of social mobility or progress, and disassociation with a focus on Serbia’s pronounced past as a strong nation and a regional leader, a view often pushed by the regime, have led to many young Serbs either finally making the decision to leave their homeland for good or pushed many into at least seriously considering it as a possibility.
A light in the dark for a tired opposition?
In the nation’s capital of Belgrade however, the opposition may have, at long last, been able to move the pendulum in their favour and will claim some form of a victory in the City Assembly. Although according to preliminary data released by CESID/Ipsos, Vucic’s SNS still took the top spot with roughly 38% of total votes cast, United Serbia managed to sweep up around 21% of the votes, with the more progressive opposition movement, We Must, taking roughly 11% of the vote. Although such voting tallies may not result in enough actual representation in the chamber for the opposition to form the incoming administration, many will view it as providing them with a real base from which to formulate their future moves together going forward, as well as showing the Serbian public that there does indeed exist a true opposition to the regime. Such a move would be similar to one conducted in neighbouring Hungary in 2019 where the liberal opposition aimed its hopes in capturing control of the Budapest General Assembly so as to gain a base of power and to show its supporters, and citizens of Hungary, that governmental change was still possible.
For now, however, the opposition, tired and severely weakened after decades of electoral losses at the hands of Vučić and the SNS, will most likely take a step back and evaluate their possible moves going forward. Barring the more progressive coalition, We Must, along with several smaller far-right parties that competed in the elections, United Serbia was the most united opposition front the regime had faced in years, and even still, they were unable to really present a true challenge to its hold on all levers of power and influence across the country. Closer cooperation between the last remaining opposition movements may be possible in the future, even if it means putting aside any real semblance of political ideology and transforming more into a direct vehicle for anti-regime forces. Now as the fallout from the cruising government victory has fallen, the opposition has opted to celebrate the small victory that gaining solid representation within the Belgrade City Assembly has provided them, whilst now looking to use this as a potential step moving forward to adjust themselves for future electoral cycles.