In Europe - East

Five takeaways from the Serbian election

By Andrew MacDowall, Politico, April 25, 2016

BELGRADE — The gamble of former ultranationalist turned pro-EU Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić paid off — calling a snap election two years early saw him return to power with another landslide.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, re-elected on April 24, 2016 (Andrej Cukic, EPA)

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, re-elected on April 24, 2016 (Andrej Cukic, EPA)

But now that he’s won a four-year mandate, Vučić has to prepare Serbia for EU membership. While Vučić insists he is committed to reform and repairing relations in the neighborhood, opponents claimed in the campaign that his re-election would lead to greater centralization of power and a slide towards authoritarianism.

Serbia has lagged the reform efforts of much of the rest of the post-communist world, and that means politically painful changes — but without them Serbia stands no chance of joining fellow former Yugoslav republics Slovenia and Croatia in the EU.

Although the opposition is too small and fractured to pose any threat to the prime minister, the nationalism that helped tear apart the region in the Yugoslav wars isn’t dead yet. Gains for ultra-nationalists favoring “integration” with Russia bring a hard-line rhetoric back to parliament.

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s election:

1.The EU path continues

More than 85 percent of votes went to parties publicly committed to EU membership. While this was not the “referendum on the EU” that some portrayed it to be, it is clear that the country’s overwhelming political consensus is in favor of membership.

Vučić’s Progressives took 131 seats in the 250-member parliament — an outright majority but 27 fewer seats that they had in the previous legislature. His likely Socialist coalition partners took 30 seats, according to results announced after 97 percent of the votes were counted.

Those numbers mean Vučić has a clear mandate for making the changes needed to bring Serbia closer to the EU. This includes the ongoing normalization of relations with Kosovo — though recognizing the independence of Serbia’s former province is still off the table — and judicial and economic reform.

Regionally, Belgrade’s EU ambitions and keenness for close ties with Germany in particular, are likely to restrain Serbia from rocking the boat, though occasional spats are likely, particularly with Croatia.

But Serbia’s EU path is strewn with obstacles. Croatia’s decision to block Serbia’s EU negotiations in certain areas over demands for better treatment of Croats in Serbia and more action on war crimes is one. And then there is the perennial problem of Kosovo, which not even all EU members recognize as an independent state.

Serbia also faces a hostile climate in the EU. The recent Dutch referendum against a trade deal deal with Ukraine shows there is little appetite for enlargement among existing members.

The rest of the bloc is also preoccupied with crises ranging from Brexit to migrants and the Eurozone, leaving Serbia down the list as a Brussels priority.

2. Nationalists gain

The ultranationalist and pro-Russian Serbian Radical Party, led by Vojislav Šešelj, recently acquitted of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal and a one-time Vučić patron, not only re-entered parliament, but is set to be the main opposition party with 21 seats. That gives the Radicals a parliamentary platform for rhetoric inveighing against the EU and Serbia’s neighbors.

The party’s presence “will create a charged atmosphere” similar to that of the troubled 1990s, said Tibor Jóna, a Serbian commentator.

The alliance of the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia and a far-right party called Dveri took 13 seats, regaining its place in parliament.

The DSS was once a moderate pro-European conservative party and part of the anti-Milošević movement, but is now headed by Sanda Rašković Ivić, known as “Serbia’s Marine Le Pen” and opposed to Serbia joining the EU, while Dveri is an openly homophobic movement. These sorts of parties are on the rise across much of Europe.

3. A mandate for reform

Domestic critics and some diplomats say Vučić promised much and delivered little in his two years as prime minister, despite his earlier huge majority. Now that his mandate has been overwhelmingly renewed, he has the political space to make good on those promises.

These include privatization of state-owned firms like telecoms and mining, cuts to the overstaffed public administration, and substantial improvements in the judicial system and rule of law. This will involve taking on vested interests, but is a key for Serbia finally being able to capitalize on its undoubted competitive advantages in location, cost, and trade ties, and attract more serious foreign investment.

The challenge in reshaping what is one of Europe’s poorest countries is enormous. And critics question whether Vučić has the will, or if he does, whether tackling deep-seated corruption and patronage is beyond even him.

Boban Stojanović, a political scientist at the University of Belgrade, said he expects Serbia to align with the EU rather than Russia, but domestically, “Serbia will continue to be in a continuous political campaign which reminiscent of the reality show, with a lot of promises with no results — or imaginary results.”

4. Vučić’s power raises fear of authoritarianism

That the result has generally been reported in the international media as a victory for a pro-European reformer rather than for a populist authoritarian nationalist is a sign of how well the Serbian prime minister, who was once an ally of Serbian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, has managed his image.

While he has won international plaudits for moves on Kosovo and Serbia’s humane management of the refugee crisis, many within Serbia view Vučić with much greater skepticism.

Opponents accuse the government of curtailing media freedom (including through self-censorship), creating a culture of patronage around the ruling party, undermining the rule of law, enriching an inner circle of businesses around the party and its supporters, and now electoral malpractice.

Opposition party leader Bojan Pajtić has even compared Serbia to North Korea.

Although the language of the opposition is exaggerated, there is concern that the EU’s quest for regional stability comes at the cost of turning a blind eye to malfeasance within Serbia’s borders.

5. The Liberal opposition parties move to the fringes

Just like in Hungary and in Poland, Serbia’s moderate opposition is divided and weak in the face of the party machines of the ruling coalition.

Three separate liberal groupings entered parliament — one of them itself an alliance of three parties — but each scored only between five percent and six percent. The splintering of the Democratic Party (DS) undermines opposition to Vučić.

“We believe that we could have done much, much better and come second in the polls if the Democratic Party had joined our coalition,” said Konstantin Samofalov, a spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, which itself split from the DS in 2014.

One of the surprises was the success of “Enough is Enough,” a liberal party headed by a former technocratic economy minister Saša Radulović which channels disgust at Serbia’s political elite. It took 16 seats.

But it all means that Vučić doesn’t face much of a threat to his power for the next four years.

Read also:
Serbia’s PM wins election in endorsement of pro-EU policy, Reuters, April 24, 2016

Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian Progressive party increases both share and vote in general election despite years of austerity

How long will Belgrade seesaw between NATO and Russia?, by Sergei Belous, Oriental Review, April 23, 2016


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