Serbia’s opposition takes to the streets claiming election fraud in Sunday’s vote

Representatives of international rights watchdogs said the vote was ‘marred by harsh rhetoric, bias in the media, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources’

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks at SNS headquarters following exit polls results of the parliamentary election in Belgrade, Serbia, December 17, 2023.ZORANA JEVTIC (REUTERS)

Serbia’s weekend snap election was held in “unjust conditions,” with multiple reports of irregularities, international observers said on Monday, as opponents of populist President Aleksandar Vucic took to the streets claiming the vote was rigged.

Political tensions spiked in the Balkan country over the parliamentary and local ballot on Sunday. In Belgrade, several thousand people gathered outside the state election authorities, chanting “thieves”, as opposition leaders moved to lodge formal complaints claiming fraud in the city election. At one point, protesters broke through a fence surrounding the building.

The ruling party of populist President Aleksandar Vucic won the parliamentary vote, an early official count confirmed. However, in the Belgrade local election, an opposition group said it was robbed, would not recognize the results and would demand a rerun of the ballot.

In a preliminary statement, a mission made up of representatives of international rights watchdogs said the vote was “marred by harsh rhetoric, bias in the media, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources.”

“Election day was smoothly conducted but was marked by numerous procedural deficiencies, including inconsistent application of safeguards during voting and counting, frequent instances of overcrowding, breaches in secrecy of the vote, and numerous instances of group voting,” the conclusions said.

Vucic, who has been in power since 2012, has dismissed criticism from his opponents that his government curbed democratic freedoms while allowing corruption and organized crime to run rampant.

Under Vucic, Serbia became a candidate for EU membership, but the opposition accuses the bloc of turning a blind eye to the country’s democratic shortcomings in return for stability in the Balkan region, still troubled after the wars of the 1990s.

The election pitted Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party against the Serbia Against Violence opposition alliance.

Vucic’s SNS party won some 47% of the ballots in the parliamentary vote, followed by Serbia Against Violence with 23%, according to a near-complete preliminary tally by the state election commission.

Several other smaller parties also competed in the election, which was held only 18 months after the previous presidential and parliamentary vote.

If confirmed in the final vote count, the result means that the SNS party will have an absolute majority in the 250-member parliament and will form the next government on its own.

Officials results for the city hall in Belgrade are yet to be announced, but projections by polling agencies IPSOS and CESID said SNS won 38% of the ballots, while Serbia Against Violence garnered 35%.

Irregularities also were reported by election monitors and independent media in Serbia.

Local independent Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability group said the abuses were of such “scope and diversity” that “the results of the Belgrade elections do not reflect the freely expressed will of voters living in Belgrade.”

“Irregularities that directly compromised election results were recorded at 5% of polling stations in Parliamentary elections and at 9% of polling stations in the Belgrade elections,” said CRTA.

One report claimed ethnic Serbs from neighboring Bosnia were bused in en masse to vote in Belgrade. Serbia Against Violence charged that 40,000 identity documents were issued for people who do not live in the capital.

Another report said a monitoring team was assaulted and their car was attacked with baseball bats in a town in northern Serbia. Allegations have also emerged of voters being paid or pressured to vote for the ruling party.

The international mission report further “raised concerns about voters’ ability to make a choice free from undue pressure.” Pressure on voters and misuse of public offices “tilted the playing field, and blurred the line between state and the party,” the observers added.

Serious irregularities included cases of vote-buying and ballot box stuffing, said the joint conclusions by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

Vucic and his party have denied the allegations.

“Hyperproduction of voters who do not live in Serbia, let alone in Belgrade, is a flagrant abuse of law,” opposition politician Marinika Tepic said early on Monday. “We will use all legal means at our disposal to democratically defend the voting will of people.”

The election didn’t include the presidency, but governing authorities backed by the dominant pro-government media ran the campaign as a referendum on Vucic.

Serbia Against Violence, a pro-European Union bloc, includes parties that were behind months of street protests this year triggered by two back-to-back mass shootings in May.

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