Big election victory for ruling party in Serbia

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Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic attends a rally of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) ahead of parliamentary election in Belgrade's Stark Arena, Serbia, December 2, 2023. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

President Aleksandar Vucic, the leader of Serbia, solidified his decade-long control over Serbia on Sunday, as preliminary results point to a significant victory for his ruling party in a snap general election.

Similar to past elections in the deeply divided Balkan nation, Sunday’s voting was tainted by reports of irregularities, with complaints from the opposition parties that Vucic’s firm hold on a substantial portion of the Serbian media and a large state sector, employing hundreds of thousands of voters, had once again provided his party with an unjust advantage.

Addressing supporters late Sunday at his party’s headquarters in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, the president expressed his “extreme happiness” over what he characterized as an absolute victory. Initial official results and an exit poll conducted by the polling organisation IPSOS and the Centre for Free Elections, an independent Serbian monitoring group, indicated a substantial majority in Parliament for Vucic’s governing party, the Serbian Progressive Party, and its allies.

Under the rebranded name “Serbia Must Not Stop” for the election, Vucic’s party seems to have secured twice as many votes overall as its primary rival, a coalition of diverse opposition groups known as Serbia Against Violence. The complex proportional system used to allocate seats in Parliament means that the precise composition of the legislature will only become clear in the coming days.

The opposition had anticipated leveraging public outrage following consecutive mass shootings in May. However, due to being marginalized by national television channels and criticized by pro-government newspapers, they were unable to translate the momentum from sizeable anti-violence street protests over the summer into a successful electoral challenge.

During the summer, there was a moment when Vucic, deserted by some allies and facing mounting pressure from the public, seemed to be losing control. Nevertheless, his party once again demonstrated its prowess as a formidable political machine, capable of rallying voters.

The Centre for Research, Transparency, and Accountability, an opposition-leaning pro-democracy organisation, documented “a large number of cases” involving voters being transported to Belgrade from other parts of Serbia, as well as from neighbouring Kosovo and Bosnia. These areas have significant populations of ethnic Serbs with strong nationalist inclinations.

While opposition parties showed stronger performance in municipal elections in Belgrade, it remained uncertain whether the city, Serbia’s largest and a crucial power centre, would shift under the influence of Vucic’s predominantly pro-Western liberal and centrist adversaries.

In spite of Vucic’s declaration of victory in Belgrade, opposition leader Marinika Tepic pledged to challenge the results, asserting they will use all democratic means to defend the will of all citizens. Gaining control of the capital is considered a particularly significant achievement, reminiscent of the contested 1996 election in the city that mobilized opposition against Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s leader at the time, and played a role in his eventual downfall in 2000.

Serbia, the most populous nation to emerge from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s after conflicts instigated by Milosevic, has a population of under seven million. Serbia has been a focal point for the United States and the European Union, serving as a pivot for many of the region’s challenges, including recurrent outbreaks of violence in predominantly ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo.

Despite the attention, Vucic has thwarted expectations in Washington and Brussels that Serbia would move towards acknowledging the de facto, if not legal, independence of Kosovo, a territory that declared itself an independent state in 2008, formerly part of Serbia. While expressing a desire to align with the West, Vucic has resisted pressure to distance itself from Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, and expedite its slow and at times hesitant efforts to join the European Union. Serbia also chose not to participate in Western sanctions against Russia during the conflict in Ukraine.

In theory, the outcome of Sunday’s election could provide Vucic with more flexibility to negotiate a peace agreement with Kosovo and distance itself from Russia, particularly as the far-right nationalist party of Vojislav Seselj, a convicted war criminal and wartime associate of Vucic, failed to secure any seats.

Despite facing no significant challenges from opponents or estranged allies, Vucic has shown little inclination to abandon his longstanding strategy of navigating between East and West while avoiding decisive actions on Kosovo that might provoke opposition from hard-line nationalists. The election results dashed the hopes of Vucic’s adversaries for a return to power after more than a decade on the sidelines. Regardless of a rare display of unity among Serbia’s typically fragmented opposition groups, numbering nearly 20 on the ballot, they struggled to compete with Vucic’s deeply entrenched nationwide support network.

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