Serbia’s Coalition Countdown

It’s only been a week since Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic and his Progressive party won an enormous electoral victory, but the tireless “EU champion” and “restorer of stability” is already hospitalized with high blood pressure somewhere in Moscow.

At least that’s what the tabloids say. Last weekend, the Serbian Progressive party won an astonishing 48.8 percent of the vote, which translates to 157 seats in parliament and an overall majority. Support for opposition parties has been decimated and their leaders reduced to mere bit players in the puppet theater of Serbian politics.

It’s suspected that the 44-year-old Vucic, who will soon be Serbia’s powerful prime minister, is actually in excellent health, and only in Moscow at the Kremlin’s request. Some speculate that Putin wants to convince Vucic to form a coalition with the Russia-friendly Socialist party, led by outgoing Prime Minister Ivica Dacic. The Socialists came in a distant second in last week’s elections, winning 14 percent of the vote and 45 seats.

Of course, Vucic’s Progressives won an overall majority and are now able to govern Serbia on their own. But they will likely choose to partner with one of the few parties left standing and form a coalition anyway. They may want a coalition comprised of the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution, and, if Vucic wishes to maintain his popularity, he’ll need plenty of scapegoats at his disposal. Partnering with parties of a supposedly different political orientation than the Progressives’ (which is “center-right”, according to the most recent headlines in the Western media) may also help Vucic dodge accusations of “Orbanization” and even authoritarianism.

An American official told Balkanist that Vucic may actually seek a two-thirds majority so he can eventually amend part of the country’s constitution — specifically, the paragraph-long preamble tacked on in 2006 that defines Kosovo as an “integral part of Serbia.”

“The preamble may be a stumbling block to Serbia’s EU accession one day,” the official said.

Of course, Vucic doesn’t necessarily need a coalition that exceeds the two-thirds majority of 166.666 seats to change the constitution. He just needs the support of two-thirds of the MPs in parliament — as former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica received in 2006, when he proposed amending the constitution.

The idea that a former diehard member of the Radical party would steer the country in such a way seems almost unimaginable. But many have been surprised by just how quickly progress has been made in negotiations with Prishtina since the Progressives assumed power less than two years ago. If amending the preamble of the constitution is a stated objective, it could also help explain the West’s strangely uncritical support for Vucic despite some of his disconcerting domestic policies.

Meanwhile, there are two major contenders who could join Vucic’s government: Ivica Dacic of the Socialist party and Boris Tadic of the New Democratic party. Many betrayals and intrigues have played out between these characters over the years, and more are likely in the months to come.

Animosities between Vucic, Dacic, and Tadic date back at least six years. In 2008, Tadic grudgingly rehabilitated Dacic’s Socialists, who were still very much tainted by associations with the party’s former leader, Slobodan Milosevic. The Democratic party and the Socialists formed a “pro-European” government together — but only at the last hour.

Prior to the sudden announcement, Dacic, Vucic (who was still a Radical), and former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of DSS had formed a nationalist trinity in Belgrade’s local government. Vucic was poised to become Belgrade’s next mayor. Then Tadic agreed to form an “unprincipled coalition” with the Socialists at the national level. In return, Tadic asked that Dacic form the same coalition in the Belgrade city assembly. This eliminated Vucic’s chances of becoming mayor of Belgrade — a slight he probably hasn’t forgotten. Then in 2012, Dacic dropped his partnership with Tadic to form a coalition with Vucic, who’d just come to power. Tadic saw this as a betrayal, and remains opposed to entering into any coalition with Dacic to this day.

Tadic and his hastily assembled New Democratic party are the most “liberal”, and perhaps the most presentable at parties in places like Strasbourg. For this reason, Vucic may be more inclined to form a government with Tadic. It’s possible that Vucic, the recently reformed Radical, craves Tadic’s veneer of European sophistication. Governing with Tadic would also help counter claims that Vucic is hostile to “liberal” ideologies. With Tadic on board, the West can more easily dismiss claims that Vucic is anything like Orban in Hungary. The fact that Vucic was also open to recruiting Ceda Jovanovic and the Liberal Democratic party, which fell short of the 5 percent threshold, lends some support to the idea that Vucic covets a more pro-European, “liberal” partnership — if only for cosmetic purposes.

Tadic only won 18 seats last week, but combined with the Progressives 157 the coalition would have 175 seats — well over the 166.666 two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution.

Meanwhile, Dacic is courting Vucic. He attended the Progressives’ victory party the night of the elections, and may have enlisted his Russian friends to try and sway Vucic’s opinion in the Socialists’ favor. Though Dacic has earned praise from the West for his participation in negotiations on Kosovo, a coalition with a liberal partner like Tadic is likely to look less menacing than a super majority coalition between nationalist parties like the Progressives and the Socialists. Dacic won 45 seats last week, meaning a partnership with Vucic would dominate the parliament with 212 out of 250 seats.

One thing is certain: With 157 seats, Vucic is already very close to that two-thirds majority on his own. He only needs a few more votes to change the constitution — and in any way he wants to.

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!

Balkanist is an experimental, occasionally bilingual platform featuring politics, analysis, culture, and criticism for a smart international audience underwhelmed by what is currently on offer. Our aim is to provide bold, uncompromising coverage of the Balkan region and everything to its East.