published on July 19, 2020

After the Serbian Parliamentary Elections: Aleksandar Vučić’s Unsurprising Triumph and Citizens’ Street Demonstrations

by Goran Musić

 

As Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s serving president, stepped in front of the cameras to proclaim his party’s victory in the parliamentary elections held on June 21, he celebrated with a bitter smile on his face. Inside the country, Vučić is known for his theatrical public appearances, accentuated with melodramatic pauses, tearful eyes and passive-aggressive conduct towards the journalists. He has mastered the role of the “leader as victim”, a maverick politician carrying the weight of the nation on his shoulders, despite the alleged attacks by unscrupulous political opponents, shady business interests and pressures from more powerful states. Yet, on this election evening, the concerned pose seemed more genuine. Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) achieved a “historic victory”, winning over sixty percent of the electoral vote, which translated into about two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. Why is it that the leader who has dominated Serbian politics since 2012 seems worried about his future — despite such a convincing electoral triumph?

In the context of populist political culture based on clientelism and media control, a hefty win for the ruling party was never in doubt. What Vučić and his cohort were aiming for with these elections was something much more ambitious than a simple victory: the unstated goal was the creation of a new political scene centered on the SNS and a few handpicked, smaller oppositional parties, giving the authoritarian-style rule a veil of legitimacy. As the historian and political scientist Florian Bieber has noted in his analysis, unlike the strongmen overseeing the states on the European periphery that have no realistic perspective of joining the EU (like Russia and Turkey), or former state socialist countries currently run by populist rulers which entered the EU during the previous rounds of enlargement (like Poland and Hungary), the leaders of the Western Balkan semi-authoritarian states are still keen to preserve a semblance of parliamentary debate in domestic politics.

Once the major Serbian oppositional parties decided to boycott the elections due to what they perceived as a lack of liberal democratic standards, Vučić saw an opportunity to outsmart his political opponents and build a new opposition by lowering the threshold for entering parliament from five to three per cent of the vote. For parts of the boycotting opposition, this lure from above proved too tempting and at least four lists made up of smaller boycotting parties later decided to join the electoral race. The SNS also counted on an array of extreme right parties that aimed to enter parliament with a novel mix of anti-immigrant, anti-vaccination and animal rights [sic] calls, alongside more traditional nationalist grievances. The most powerful political party seemed to be on a good path to establish itself as a firm anchor of stable center-right politics in the parliament, next to the extreme right-wing fringe and a discredited liberal opposition.

Ultimately, the maneuver failed, with only two political parties besides the SNS managing to surpass even the lowered threshold. The first one was the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the SNS’s minor coalition partner since 2012 (10.78 percent), while the second one, the Serbian Patriotic Alliance (3.98 percent), is a party deferring from strong criticism of the government and is thus not perceived by the public as an oppositional political force. With the constant defamation of political opponents in the yellow press, bribery of the opposition, clientelist practices in the public sector and an image of a “catch all” ruling platform, Vučić has effectively sucked the air out of Serbian political life, extinguishing meaningful political debate and demoralizing voters in the process. The turnout for the parliamentary elections was a mere 48.93 percent. That figure was high enough not to give credence to the part of the opposition which advocated the boycott (the turnout was 56.07 percent in 2016 elections and 53.09 percent in 2014), but it was still not enough to get into the national assembly those oppositional politicians who were willing to break the boycott and play according to Vučić’s rules.

Next to the questionable democratic legitimacy of a future government without a genuine opposition in the parliament, the main concern that the Serbian ruling party has after such an overwhelming electoral victory is the lack of excuses for not pushing through an unpopular decision over the international status of Kosovo. The opposition and critical political commentators inside Serbia are convinced that the EU’s mild criticism of Vučić is connected to his willingness to act “responsibly” in matters of “regional stability”. After a fifteen-year-long career as a top spokesperson of the extreme nationalist right-wing Serbian Radical Party, Vučić has used nationalist rhetoric cautiously since founding the SNS in 2008. He now portrays himself as a responsible statesman who is keeping the broader EU perspective in mind when it comes to diplomatic relations with neighboring Balkan states.

Parallel to the “catch all” approach to domestic politics, Vučić has also been able to maintain good relations with different global players as a part of Serbia’s foreign policy, carefully balancing between Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Beijing, but also trying to build bridges with the Trump administration. The planned summit in Washington under the brokerage of Trump’s special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo’s peace negotiations, Richard Grenell, alongside the Merkel-Macron-sponsored summit and the recent pickup of diplomatic consultations between Belgrade and Moscow all indicate that pressure from different sides has been building on Vučić to reach a compromise agreement with Prishtina. The resolution of Kosovo’s international status will be met by fierce opposition from nationalist forces inside Serbia and will damage the SNS’s standing with the more conservative constituency. Moreover, Vučić is aware that it will be impossible to reach an agreement which is simultaneously satisfactory for each of Serbia’s current international patrons, thus inevitably ending Serbia’s careful diplomatic balancing act.

The question remains if the opposition will be able to take advantage of such opportunities. As already noted, the parties which decided to break the common stance and enter the electoral race fell short of even the three percent threshold mark, whereas the call for a boycott did not gain much echo outside of Belgrade. The opposition is made up of compromised politicians who oversaw the Serbian painful economic transition after the fall of President Slobodan Milošević. Their understanding of Vučić’s rule and the strategies to overcome it are tightly related to their experience as a struggling opposition in the 1990s. The fact that Aleksandar Vučić was the Minister of Information during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and that the SPS, the party founded and led by Milošević, serves as the SNS’s minor partner in the government, is often taken as symbolic proof that Serbia is “sliding back” into the 1990s.

Yet, these are superficial parallels. Unlike Milošević, who based his rule on the cadre remnants of a communist state, public sector employment and isolation from the world market, Vučić is overseeing economic growth based on a balanced budget, stable currency and the attraction of foreign investment. The civil society slogans of the 1990s, built around the notions of the rule of law, freedom of press and Europeanization, ring hollow at a time when the rise of authoritarian neoliberal regimes, such as the one led by Viktor Orbán in neighboring Hungary, appear as a legitimate development model for countries on the European periphery. The unwillingness to mobilize the dissatisfied population around social demands leaves the opposition helpless, yet counting on future events which could potentially discredit Vučić’s rule and thrust the opposition back into the spotlight, such as the signing of an agreement with Prishtina or a clear ostracizing of Serbia by the EU.

Without a trustworthy institutionalized opposition, Serbian citizens are expressing their dissatisfaction in the streets. The latest protests are a response to the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. The initial wave of infections in March and April was shrewdly used by Vučić to entrench his power even further. Actions adopted by the Serbian government to counter the pandemic were some of the strictest in Europe, using police curfews and a total ban on the movement of senior citizens. Blaming the spread of the disease on the behavior of different social groups (Serbian citizens working in Western Europe or the youth, for example) Vučić positioned himself as the paternalistic manager of the health crisis, protecting the society from its own carelessness. However, with the election campaign approaching and the epidemic seemingly under control, the government loosened all the preventive measures and again began allowing mass public gatherings.

Once the infection started running out of control and news about the insufficiently equipped hospitals reached the oppositional media, a large part of the Serbian public felt fooled. Suddenly, the very government which was cutting back on civil liberties on the pretext of fighting against the epidemic appeared as being the most responsible for the new virus outbreak. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Vučić’s announcement of another wave of police curfews on July 7. This public address triggered a spontaneous movement in the streets of Belgrade and consequently in other Serbian cities. What separates this political crisis from the previous anti-Vučić mobilizations is the willingness of the state to utilize violence against the protesters. The use of teargas and beatings of the demonstrators mark a new, potentially more openly repressive, phase in Vučić’s rule.

 

Goran Musić is a social historian of labor in East-Central and Southeast Europe. His book "Making and Breaking the Yugoslav Working Class: A Story of Two Self-Managed Factories" (CEU Press) is forthcoming in late 2020, ceupress.com/book/making-and-breaking-yugoslav-working-class