Serbia’s Vucic seeks to reassert populist dominance in elections this weekend

The vote on Sunday pits Vucic’s governing Serbian Progressive Party against a pro-Western opposition coalition which is trying to undermine the firm grip on power the populists have maintained since 2012

Serbian Progressive Party (SNS)
People walk past an election billboard of Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in Belgrade, Serbia, December 15 2023.ANDREJ CUKIC (EFE)

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is pushing hard to reassert his populist party’s dominance in this weekend’s early parliamentary and local elections that observers say are being held in an atmosphere of intimidation and media bias.

The vote in the troubled eastern European country on Sunday pits Vucic’s governing Serbian Progressive Party, or SNS, against a pro-Western opposition coalition which is trying to undermine the firm grip on power the populists have maintained since 2012.

Though he is not formally a candidate, the Serbian president has campaigned relentlessly for the SNS and its list of candidates, which appears on the ballot under the name “Aleksandar Vucic -- Serbia must not stop!” The main opposition Serbia Against Violence bloc gathers parties that were behind months of street protests this year triggered by two back-to-back mass shootings in May.

Campaign monitors have reported pressure on voters and fearmongering and abuse of public offices and institutions fostered by the authorities. Reports have mounted of vote-buying and voter-bribing, and falsifying of signatures on election lists.

Serbia, a Balkan country which has maintained warm relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, has been a candidate for European Union membership since 2014 but has faced allegations of steadily eroding democratic freedoms and rules over the past years.

Both Vucic and his SNS have denied allegations of campaign abuse and attempted vote-rigging, as well as charges that Vucic as president is violating the constitution by campaigning for one party.

The Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, or CRTA, a nongovernmental organization that monitors election activities, reported a range of issues that break the rules for a free and fair election.

“For the first couple of weeks of the campaign, CRTA filed more complaints to the anti-corruption agency, regulatory body for electronic media and other institutions than we filed in overall campaign (for the presidential and parliamentary vote) last year,” said the group’s program director, Rasa Nedeljkov. “It gives you the impression ... how things are even more dramatic than they used to be.”

Hardly any of the past complaints or recommendations by local and foreign observers have resulted in changes so far.

“Election conditions are not the same. The conditions are worse than in the past,” said opposition politician Dragan Djilas, one of the leaders of the Serbia Against Violence bloc. “But we as opposition must take part in this election.”

The reported irregularities include voting invitations sent to non-existent or dead voters. Journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism in Serbia published evidence of vote-buying, while CRTA monitors recorded intimidation and pressure on public employees to support the governing party.

Vucic called the Dec. 17 snap vote only a year and a half after a previous parliamentary and presidential election, although his party holds a comfortable majority in the 250-member parliament.

Analysts believe Vucic was seeking to consolidate power after two back-to-back shootings triggered months of anti-government protests, and as high inflation and rampant corruption fueled public discontent. Vucic has also faced criticism over his handling of a crisis in Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, a move that Belgrade does not recognize.

His supporters view Vucic as the only leader who can maintain stability and lead the country.

The Serbian president has been touring the country and attending his party’s rallies, promising new roads, hospitals and one-off cash bonuses. Vucic’s image is seen on billboards all over the country, though he has stepped down as SNS party leader.

The Serbia Against Violence opposition list is expected to mount the biggest challenge to the populists on the ballot for the city council in Belgrade. An opposition victory in the capital would seriously dent Vucic’s hard-line rule in the country, analysts say.

Several right-wing groups, including pro-Russian parties, as well as Socialists allied to Vucic, are also running for control of parliament and some 60 cities and towns, as well as regional authorities in the northern Vojvodina province.

The election does not include the presidency, but the governing authorities, backed by pro-government media, have run the campaign as a referendum on Vucic, Nedeljkov said.

As a result, “25% of citizens think that we have presidential elections, 60% of citizens think that (the) president of Serbia is the candidate in these elections,” he told the AP. “That is a huge manipulation from the perspective of the citizens.”

Another “huge disbalance” concerns mainstream media which favor the governing parties while presenting the opposition in a negative or neutral tone, Nedeljkov said.

He said Vucic has addressed the nation live, directly and without interruption more than 260 times this year, for 35 minutes on average. Opposition leaders are nowhere close.

In such circumstances, “it’s really hard to talk about the equal opportunity for candidates to present their ideas or (the) citizens to understand … the electoral offer,” Nedeljkov said.

An independent media monitoring agency, the Bureau for Social Research, also reported “government promotion” in the mainstream media with Vucic garnering 88% positive reporting. The agency’s director, Zoran Gavrilovic, recently told N1 television, an independent regional channel, that “we do not have elections ... to have elections, you have to have free media and free citizens.”

Major polling agencies have refrained from publishing pre-election surveys, citing fear among Serbia’s 6.5 million eligible voters and high polarization.

Vucic has brushed off criticism as attacks on himself and his party, saying he is confident of victory.

“Things are not ideal and it is easy to find reasons to be angry,” he said last week on pro-government Pink television. “But it is clear that the vote for them (the opposition) is a vote against this country, against the vital interests of this country.”

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