Sunday’s presidential election in Serbia will determine whether the country continues its slide into an open return to authoritarian dictatorship. Europe should take note, argues Marieke Walraven.
Serbia is holding elections on April 2, 2017. The current prime minister and most powerful politician in Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, is leading in the polls, seeking to further consolidate his power by becoming president. Vučić has been growing increasingly autocratic in his approach to ruling Serbia. His winning the election might result in Serbia becoming Europe’s next authoritarian illiberal democracy. It won’t turn Serbia into North Korea, but it might turn Serbia into something resembling Putin’s Russia or Orbán’s Hungary.
A victory for Vučić seems inevitable: he is leading in all the polls. Trying to keep track of the polls in Serbia can be confusing: different pollsters indicate different percentages, and polls have been proven inaccurate in the past. In all of the polls, however, Aleksandar Vučić is leading, with estimates giving him anywhere from 39 to 53 percent of the vote. Vučić is followed by former Ombudsman Saša Janković (around 15.1 percent), former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić (around 8.6 percent), Ljubiša Preletačević Beli (8 percent) and radical nationalist Vojislav Šešelj (5 percent). The satirical candidate Preletačević Beli is a surprising newcomer in these presidential elections. In the role of Beli, Luka Maksimović is gaining popularity thanks to a clever social media campaign. Beli, always seen in his trademark white suit, is a caricature of the worst kind of Serbian politician: he comes with a fake diploma, is inexplicably wealthy, and makes populist statements. Beli’s presidential bid reflects the public’s widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment with Serbian politics. Beli’s movement started in the Belgrade municipality of Mladenovac, where he won 13 seats in the town council. Maksimović’s team did a good job in the town council, and decided to aim higher. After successfully collected 10,000 signatures, Beli officially became a candidate in the presidential elections. Although Beli is a satirical candidate, he represents a real threat to Vučić. A substantial number of votes for him, or any of the other opposition parties for that matter, could prevent Vučić from gaining his absolute majority.
In a two-round system, the Serbian electorate will choose their next president. If a sudden surge in voter turnout manages to prevent Vučić from securing an absolute majority in the first round, a second voting round is to be held. In the second round, a simple majority will suffice to secure the victory. The second round seems to be the only opportunity to prevent Aleksander Vučić, who looks poised to win, from turning Serbia into a full-fledged autocracy.
After Milošević, will Serbia have a new power-crazed leader?
Vučić embarked on his political career when he joined the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) in 1993. The SRS was founded in 1991 by Vojislav Šešelj and its goal was and still is to create a so-called “Greater Serbia”. After becoming secretary general of the SRS in 1995, Vučić’s political career took flight. In 1998, at the height of the Kosovo war, Vučić was appointed information minister, although minister of propaganda might be the more accurate term. Having worked in Belgrade during the 1990’s, Vučić is no stranger to propaganda and censorship.
Today, Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is accused of spreading pro-government propaganda by employing an army of internet trolls whose job it is to praise the government and declare those who think differently ‘enemies of the state.’ Tweets by opposition candidates Vuk Jeremić or Saša Janković get replied to by an army of bots, easily recognizable by their unusual usernames and profile pictures.
Vučić has been accused of media manipulation and intimidation. Under his rule, blogs were deleted, bloggers were arrested, and websites were blocked. Although his methods have become more sophisticated over time, Vučić is still censoring the media, very much like when he was minister of information. The state finances censorship by subsidizing media outlets that are pro-government, and keeping money away from those that are critical of the government.
The elections: what is at stake?
Many supporters of the opposition are deeply concerned about the path Vučić is taking. They say the separation of powers in Serbia has been compromised under Vučić, and that the office of the presidency, as one person told me, is the only institution that may “save the remnants of the separation of powers.” They fear that if Vučić wins the upcoming elections, he would effectively assume full control over the entire Serbian state apparatus. The president can veto laws, and has the power to control the army. He presides over the National Security Council (NSC), which influences the intelligence apparatuses. If Vučić becomes president, he can appoint some of his loyal cronies to the posts of secretary to the NSC and the office of the Prime Minister.
In the unlikely event that Vučić loses and one of the opposition candidates wins, Serbia will enter a period of political instability. Vučić would still be Prime Minister, but the position of the President would be held by one of his rivals, resulting in a power struggle within the executive branch. This conflict, some supporters of the opposition say, would offer a bit of ‘breathing space’ for democracy. Two things might happen in such a scenario: Prime Minister Vučić would call for new elections which he could lose, or he would hold onto his power for another four years. It is impossible to say which of the two is the more likely outcome, but supporters of the opposition certainly hope for the second.
The second scenario, of prolonged political crisis, might present some opportunities for the rule of law and the strengthening of institutions, and for the media to be more critical of the government. For this scenario to become reality, Vučić must be prevented from obtaining an absolute majority in the first voting round. He must subsequently be defeated in the second round of voting, in which a simple majority is sufficient to secure a victory. Only a second voting round could thus potentially prevent Serbia from slipping into full-fledged autocracy.
A representative of a Belgrade-based NGO, who also wishes to remain anonymous given the current political climate, told me that he is very concerned about Aleksandar Vučić becoming the president of Serbia. He fears that a victory for Vučić will mean the end of democracy in Serbia. He fears that if Vučić wins, he will hold power for the next five years. “He will most likely retain his position as SNS president and thus continue to control the government as well.” Vučić will be in a very comfortable position if he becomes president, as he will have an uninterrupted mandate for five years. The President of Serbia is the only official elected directly, and thus enjoys strong legitimacy.
A lot is at stake in these elections. Vučić rules the country by fear, as he intimidates, threatens or bribes anyone who seeks to contest his rule. The fact that the NGO representative made me promise to guarantee their anonymity before agreeing to answer my questions is telling.
Learning from the past: Balkan autocrats do not bring stability
How is it possible that the European Union continues to turn a blind eye to Vučić’s efforts at power consolidation? Serbia is an EU candidate member and has started its accession negotiations in 2014. Yet the EU does not seem to be concerned about Aleksandar Vučić’s clearly autocratic tendencies. Despite proving either unwilling or incapable to promote the rule of law, good governance, or freedom of media – all pet causes of the EU – Vučić enjoys a good relationship with the European Union. He has worked tirelessly to implement EU-demanded reforms and has engaged in dialogue with Kosovo. Brussels views Vučić as someone who gets things done: he is the type of Balkan leader that can deliver. EU officials appear to tolerate his domestic autocratic tendencies, as long as Vučić complies with Brussels’ demands relating to the Kosovo agreement, regional stability and other EU interests.
Regional stability thus seems to be the EU’s prime consideration in their approach to Serbia. International support for so-called “stabilocracy” is nothing new, but there are numerous reasons to argue against such an approach. Serbia’s not-so-distant past shows that autocratic rulers have not brought stability and peace. After signing the Dayton accords, Milošević – who was seen as the factor that could re-stabilize the region – embarked on another war in the Balkan region. I do not wish to compare Milošević and Vučić, but strongmen in the Balkans have done more harm than good. There are plenty of other examples of strongmen who have caused trouble in the Balkans more recently. Serbia’s neighbors serve as cases in point: Macedonia and Montenegro have both experienced prolonged political crises because of the authoritarian rule of Nikola Gruevski and Milo Đukanović, respectively.
If the EU is not stopping Vučić, then who is?
The cynical and pessimistic but realistic answer is: no one. There seems to be no stopping Aleksandar Vučić. He is leading in the polls, and the OSCE decision not to observe the polling stations on election day decreases chances that these elections will be free and fair. Voter turnout in Serbia tends to be quite low, as the country is suffocated by a powerful sense of political apathy. In the 2012 presidential elections, turnout was 58 percent in the first and 46 percent in the second round. Young people especially, disappointed and disillusioned with the current state of affairs, believe their vote will not make a change. An analysis of the Serbian political situation thus leaves us with a bleak picture. However, some recent developments present us with a potential silver lining.
In early March, stickers with the words drugi krug (second round) appeared all over Belgrade. The stickers are part of a campaign that aims to raise awareness among young people about the importance of political participation. The people behind Drugi Krug are not affiliated with any political party or presidential candidate, but want to get more people out to vote, especially youth. A member of the Drugi Krug team told me that the recent beating of one of their members has spiked youngsters’ interest and further strengthened their resolve to fight Vučić. Voter turnout might turn out to be crucial in these elections. If more people would go out and vote, Aleksandar Vučić might not be able to secure an absolute majority in the first round. By placing stickers all over Belgrade and other cities in Serbia, the people behind Drugi Krug told me, they seek to draw attention to their cause. There is no doubt that they have succeeded in drawing such attention: in just three weeks, their Facebook page got well over 10,000 likes. Their approach is unusual but makes sense: When I asked about it, they explained that they saw no other option than to work with stickers and social media, since traditional media are subjected to (self-)censorship, intimidation and bribery.
The satirical candidate Ljubiša Preletačević Beli presents another opportunity to stop Aleksandar Vučić from securing an absolute majority in the first round. If Vučić wins in the first round, it’s a done deal: Serbia’s future as Europe’s newest autocracy would be set. A second round, however, might have a different outcome. An estimated two million Serbs will vote for Vučić’s ruling party: they are the most disciplined and loyal voters. The opposition, however, is divided, with ten candidates taking on Vučić in the bid for the presidency. The opposition candidates seem unlikely to be able to mobilize the people who normally don’t vote. Beli’s campaign, however, targets the people who normally abstain from voting. If the satirical candidate succeeds in attracting a substantial share of the people who generally do not vote, he might be able to prevent Vučić from obtaining an absolute majority.
Initiatives like Drugi Krug and Beli’s campaign might prove to be successful in securing a second round of votes. For a power-crazed politician like Aleksandar Vučić, this would be a big humiliation. A face-off between Vučić and Beli in a second round is far from an ideal scenario, however. It would strengthen Vučić’s claim that he is the only real, the only serious, candidate. Because what does it say about the opposition that a comedian is the only political actor able to contest Aleksandar Vučić’s power? In this case, the opposition, after all, is literally a joke. A victory for Vučić will still be inevitable, but a second round with Beli could still present some opportunities. Beli is trying to mobilize a part of the electorate that is dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, and successfully so. Beli has the potential to become the leader of all who are fed up with Serbian politics. If he manages to mobilize those people, there is still hope.
Despite the political apathy that is suffocating the country, civic and political engagement is not dead in Serbia. The resistance to the controversial architectural mega-project Belgrade Waterfront is one case in point. Several members of Serbian civil society have told me that these elections have great mobilizing potential. They note that these elections are being closely watched, more so than in previous elections. With eleven candidates, there is a lot of choice. People who do not normally vote, just might this time. While a victory for Aleksandar Vučić seems inevitable, activities surrounding these elections might spark renewed political interest.
In the end, this is just what Serbia needs: an electorate that refuses to sit idly by while democracy is being dismantled. Fingers crossed.
Cover photo credit: Zekša Šaćirović. Every street lamp along the city of Novi Pazar, Serbia’s main street is covered in a poster that says “Aleksandar Vučić, President”