“Serbia isn’t a democracy anymore”. This will be the most important assessment that will follow the vote to renew the parliament in Belgrade on 21st June. The downgrade from democracy to “hybrid regime” was certified by the last report issued by Freedom House that confirmed the decline of the Serbian democracy in the last 10 years. Sunday’s election is a preannounced triumph for President Aleksandar Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has governed the country since 2012 and some surveys place its popularity over 60%. This time round too, the election result will be the outcome of Vucic’s absolute control on the media, public institutions and the government. But not only that. The opposition and the public debate have been annihilated and in the last 8 years Vucic has never faced a member of the opposition in a head-to-head television debate. The system of power is so deeply rooted that electoral frauds are a last resort, possibly used just to decide what the official share of votes of the ruling party is going to be. Serbian democracy is a dead man walking and elections are just a painkiller meant to keep up the appearances of a pluralist system, which could otherwise be declared cerebrally dead.
The Lone Strongman
Initially scheduled for the 26th April, the election – along with the ballots for the representative of the autonomous region of Vojvodina and local townhalls – have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The state of emergency, which de facto suspended parliament, the curfews, which in some places lasted for four consecutive days, and other restrictions have given Vucic a two-fold advantage. On the one hand, a prolonged electoral campaign led as the main protagonist and constantly highlighted on national TV and tabloids: from the airport runway where “brother” Xi Jinping’s Chinese airplanes were landing – and whose flag he kissed upon arrival –; to the smallest towns in the country, where he personally delivered medical equipment. On the other hand, he has silenced dissent even further. The spontaneous protests of window pot-banging that took place at 8:05 PM every day (just after the applause for the medical staff) were overwhelmed by groups of hooligans affiliated to the SNS who, at the same time, disregarding the curfew without repercussions, lighted torches over some buildings and sang against Dragan Djilas, a leader of the opposition, and even intimidated him and his relatives.
These two advantages offered by the lockdown were also complemented by a general lack of information. Initially overlooked and defined as the “most ridiculous virus in the world”, Serbian authorities handled the pandemic by threatening and intimidating the population. “Our cemeteries won’t be sufficient, they will be too small if you don’t listen to what we are saying,” said the President during the lockdown period, discharging all possible consequences on supposed citizens’ irresponsibility.
Yet, with the same iron hand employed by the government to introduce the curfew, in early May life returned to normal without any instruction from the authorities on how citizens should practice social distancing or which protective devices they should use. On top of this apparent normality, football tournaments resumed without any restriction on gatherings. So on the 10th June, the 200th edition of the “eternal derby” between Partizan and Red Star Belgrade was held in front of an audience of more than 25,000 people: according to the AFP, it is the biggest gathering on record in Europe since the end of the lockdown.
Remarkable Absences and Honorary Participants
The main aspect of the elections will be the boycott of the most prominent opposition parties, united in the Alliance for Serbia (SzS). The decision was taken to demand “free and democratic elections”, denouncing not only personal attacks and the little media coverage allowed to the opposition but also the biased electoral context that has characterised Serbia in the last years, with outdated electoral registers that include the names of deceased citizens, pressure on independent observers, vote-buying, and several instances of voters being accompanied right to the ballot boxes. The aim of the boycott, more than a denunciation, is a delegitimization of the system of power installed by Vucic.
The success of the boycott will only be measured by voter turnout. The trend of gradual decline that characterised the last few years recently hovers just above 50%. A significant downturn would represent an expression of no confidence for Vucic.
Yet, beyond the SNS and its junior coalition allies of the Serbian Socialist Party (whose support in surveys scores around 10%), there are 19 other lists that will run for the few remaining seats. Whereas the ruling coalition gathers around 75% of surveyed voters, no other party looks likely to reach double digits, and most of them will not overcome the electoral threshold, lowered from 5 to 3%. One of these is the Serbian Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj, a war criminal sentenced at The Hague and Vucic’s “political father” – who began his career among the radicals as an ardent nationalist. Even though the Serbian constitution forbids any convict from taking a seat in parliament, the provision has never been implemented and it will likely remain so: with a fake opposition that legitimises the overwhelming power of the SNS, born in 2008 from a split among the radicals.
One of the political formations around which revolves the Serbian dissent is “Together for Serbia” headed by Nebojsa Zelenovic, mayor of the city of Sabac, who on Sunday will try to confirm himself as the opposition heavyweight. In fact, at the local level there are only 4 townships (out of 145) where the SNS is not governing: beyond Sabac, they are the small towns of Cajetina and Paracin, as well as Stari Grad, the historical centre of Belgrade.
Kosovo: Is a Solution Anywhere Near?
Although Kosovo was not the central issue of the electoral campaign, it remains one of the most important dossiers that the new government will have to deal with.
Since last year the US have taken the lead in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, displacing the EU and its ineffective “normalisation process”, that has been going nowhere since 2013. The Serbian government has long enjoyed the support of the EU, modelled on what professor Srdja Pavlovic has termed “stabilitocracy”: in other words, western institutions support authoritarian regimes in the Balkans as long as these maintain a pro-European approach, closing an eye on the fragile democracies which in turn are taken advantage of to legitimise illiberal power structures. Not by chance, a few days ahead of the vote the former president of the European Council Donald Tusk wished Vucic “good luck”.
Finally, in the week after the vote Vucic will confirm his balancing act between East and West in terms of foreign policy: the 24th June he will be welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where he will attend the postponed parade for the 75th anniversary of the victory on Nazi-fascism, while the 27th he will be in Washington. The US President Donald Trump, hoping to add a “pax balcanica” to his world-peace-maker curriculum before the vote in November, invited Vucic and the Kosovar President Hashim Thaci to the White House in order to establish a roadmap for peace. The roadmap seems destined to include the much-debated land swap, something that has been opposed by the EU, but whose mediation efforts between Serbia and Kosovo have not advanced, making it lose ground in the geopolitical competition with the US for influence in the region.
For this purpose, Vucic needs a constitutional revision supported by two thirds of the parliament, a seat share that he should be able to secure on Sunday. This would be the first step towards the solution of the Kosovo issue, but not of the reconciliation between the local Serb and Albanian communities. Twenty years after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, “progressive” Serbia has taken another step backward, in the direction of authoritarianism. A dead man walking supported by the West that cannot move much further.