The Balkanist Guide to the Serbian Elections: Party Edition

Unholy alliances, undifferentiated ideology, a unipolar political landscape, and dumb populist stunts. Balkanist’s definitive guide to the parties and people running in the sordid Serbian elections scheduled for this Sunday.

Aleksandar Vucic was giving a speech at a massive campaign rally last month when a man suddenly climbed out of the audience and onto the stage. Dressed in faded jeans and a black leather jacket, the slightly bedraggled infiltrator had supposedly slipped past security and up the stage stairs in order to voice his personal opposition to the most powerful politician in Serbia.

Deputy Prime Minister Vucic turned toward him, and spoke in a voice both authoritative and calm. “You will have an opportunity to speak after I’ve had mine,” he promised. The crowd of Progressive party supporters erupted in applause at the goodness of their leader, and even the man in the leather jacket clapped. “That’s the difference between me and all of my opponents,” Vucic explained. “I allow opposing viewpoints.” The man in the leather jacket listened obediently as Vucic finished the last ten minutes of his speech. Then it was over, and the man was gently coaxed towards the podium. He started speaking into the microphone, but no one could hear his voice. Someone had switched off the speakers; there was no sound.

Many saw the entire episode as yet another bit of political theater, a cruel stunt to remind opponents of the futility of dissent. Others saw it as an expression of Vucic’s unrivaled political power: Serbia will hold early elections on Sunday, and he is all but assured the prime minister’s seat. The March 16 vote represents a dramatic departure from the norm in contemporary Serbian politics, if only because there is no longer any meaningful opposition. What’s strange is how much the international community and Western media have applauded this, cheering Vucic and his imminent ascent — probably because the Kosovo situation has stabilized somewhat. But some still object to such pre-election certainty on principle. “The point of elections is that the outcome should be uncertain,” said one elections observer from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Vucic called snap elections in January. Most cite some variation of the following sentence as to why: “Vucic is looking to capitalize on his high approval rating to give the Progressives an even stronger mandate to speed up much-needed reforms”. To put it in more explicit and less wonky terms: Vucic has a lot of power and popularity right now and wants to consolidate his power by eliminating as many existing rivals as possible, supposedly because he has some urgent “reforms” to steamroll through the new Vucic-controlled parliament.

As with every Serbian election in recent years, the aftermath will likely yield coalitions once considered impossible, e.g. between former diehard nationalists, pro-Western market liberals, and the watered-down League of Communists now known as the Socialist party. Ideological difference is approaching extinction. Political conformism may seem like a positive development to some, since almost every major party has stated a desire to join the EU. But it also has many downsides, like the dull, personality-dominated “political discourse”, and the public’s awareness that politicians are more interested in divvying up control of state-owned companies than talking about the dismal economic reality. Right now, the GDP per capita in Serbia is just 35 percent of the EU average, and more than half of young people are unemployed.

Many in Serbia believe Vucic’s Progressives are the answer, though their PR machine and disproportionate control over the media may be one reason for that. Recent polls show that the Progressives are by far the most popular political party in Serbia. They are expected to win about 44 percent of the vote on March 16, while the closest competitor, the Socialist Party, led by current Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, is only expected to receive 14 percent. This gulf in popularity between the two biggest political parties in Serbia is now wider than it is in Hungary, where Orban’s overwhelming success in the 2010 election — referred to as a “revolution in the polling booth” — is said to have “paved the way for populist autocracy”.

Vucic in various Serbian newspapers. After adopting a populist set of policies, his popularity skyrocketed.
Vucic in various Serbian newspapers. After adopting a populist set of policies, his popularity skyrocketed.

Vucic assumed power with the Progressives in 2012, and he’s been very eager and likely playing at triggering early elections for over a year now. In February 2013, a senior Socialist party official told Reuters that whispers had been echoing through the corridors of the Serbian parliament building in Belgrade that the Progressives, led by Vucic, were seeking an election in 2013. This is supposedly why Vucic decided to launch a covert “smear campaign” against Dacic, linking him to accused drug lord Rodoljub Radulovic, better known by his criminal moniker, “Misa Banana”.

Vucic’s popularity soared soon after he implemented a crudely populist set of policies: He arrested lizardy oligarchs, launched a PR campaign for his “anti-corruption crusade”, and credited himself with attracting billions of dollars in dubious foreign investment from oil-rich sheiks. He steadily amassed greater control over the mainstream media, and presided over what some have called the “tabloidization” of news, spreading malicious rumors about opponents. Last year, Vucic’s approval rating reached a high of 75 percent.

The opposition has been obliterated. In 2012, the incumbent Democratic party lost to the Progressives — but by less than a two percent margin. Now polls show that on Sunday, the Progressives may beat the Democratic party by more than 30 percent of the vote. The bipolar political landscape has been replaced by a unipolar landscape. And the Democratic party, which until recently was the most powerful in the country, recently split in two. But the balkanization of other parties and unities is probably precisely what Vucic wants.

After the elections, he will likely seek other parties out to form a coalition, even in the unlikely event that the Progressives achieve an “outright majority”. The party has always lacked its own corps of “expert cadres” and has taken to poaching talent from other parties, appointing non-partisan technocrats, and recruiting straight out of uni. They also know better now than to govern alone, and will need people and parties to blame when things inevitably go wrong.

Socialist Party of Serbia

Dacic.
Dacic.

The Socialist Party of Serbia is led by the (likely) outgoing Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, and is the second-largest party in the current governing coalition. Without them, the Progressives lack the 51 percent majority necessary to sustain a government. This means that if the Socialists suddenly decided to leave the coalition, the government would fall.

Vucic has not enjoyed being dependent on Dacic and his Socialists to stay in power. The latest opinion polls show the Socialist party are likely to receive 14 percent of the vote, which is about what they received in 2012. Since they’ve probably been subjected to some of the most aggressive and sustained smear campaigns of any party this election season, holding onto that 14 percent of the electorate’s support wouldn’t be a bad result.

Of course, Vucic also plans to seize Dacic’s premiership for himself, meaning there will likely be more tabloid-style attacks (e.g. “Dacic Returns to the forgotten ideals of communism, starts quoting Hugo Chavez and talking about Brotherhood and Unity”) on the outgoing prime minister before Vucic finally takes his place. Smaller parties, who are looking to worm their way into the next coalition, are also on the attack. They see the Socialists’ size as a threat to their ability to jostle for position in the new government.

Dacic was the recent recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for participating in negotiations and awkward photo-ops with Lady Ashton and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci in Brussels. Vucic may very well keep Dacic and the Socialists around even if he’s not dependent on them to form a government. If Vucic can still maintain a majority of MPs (126 out of a ridiculous 250 parliamentary seats) with several smaller parties in the coalition without Dacic, the Socialists will lose much of what’s left of their current bargaining power.

The New Democratic Party & the Democratic Party

Tadic.
Tadic.

In January, Boris Tadic had a dispute with the head of his Democratic party and left to form his own. Tadic is Serbia’s former president, and until recently, lived as an unemployed dandy in an exclusive Dedinje villa with turbofolk stars as neighbors. He lost his bid for re-election in 2012, but the Democratic party kept paying his rent. The January split occurred in a confrontation with current Democratic party leader and former Belgrade mayor Dragan Djilas. After the dramatic falling out, Tadic abruptly formed a Democratic party splinter group under an unarresting name: the New Democratic party.

Many believe Tadic was coerced into creating a new party by Vucic, which is entirely possible. Tadic announced the formation of the New Democratic party at a five-minute press conference in January, and said he was leaving the original Democrats because he “didn’t want to be involved with any party that’s corrupt.” How very Vucic. The New Democratic party will siphon votes away from the Democratic party, weakening a major block of political power, which can only strengthen Vucic’s position.

In return for forming the hastily assembled New Democrats, some speculate Tadic may accept a position as Minister of Foreign Affairs or ambassador to the UN in the new government, as he was recently looking for work with the Council of Europe and has expressed interest in a post-presidential career in diplomacy.

It’s little secret that Vucic despises the Democratic party and especially Dragan Djilas, whom the Progressives removed from his former post as mayor of Belgrade this fall. Djilas used to be one of the most popular politicians in the country, which was something Vucic could not tolerate. This mutual loathing was exacerbated by Vucic’s perception of Djilas as a “tycoon”, and the fact that they were both candidates for mayor of Belgrade in an election Vucic lost.

Of course, members of the Democratic party were the first targets of Vucic’s sustained media and anti-corruption campaign: At the end of 2013, the print version of Vreme named 57 active members of the Democratic Party who had been arrested for corruption or related crimes since Vucic assumed power. But Vucic insists these arrests were about abuses of power, not politics.

The harsh methods definitely yielded the desired results: Recent polls show that the Democratic party has been decimated, and may receive as little as nine percent of the vote this Sunday — less than half of the 22.07 percent they received 22 months ago.

Meanwhile, former President Tadic has taken his bland charm and crisp white button-up shirts to the New Democratic party, and in just two months time, is supposedly polling at about 7.4 percent. He may very well join a coalition with Vucic.

Liberal Democratic Party

Ceda.
Ceda.

Ceda Jovanovic, a bronzed millionaire and inarticulate rock climber, is the leader of the Liberal Democratic party. Currently polling at around 4.7 percent, or just under the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament, Ceda’s party is supposedly the most “liberal” in Serbia, yet paradoxically seems the most eager to partner with Vucic. Indeed, Ceda’s entire campaign has been about joining Vucic. Young members of the party cite pragmatic justifications for this: The Liberal Democratic Party will soften Vucic’s hardline policies, make the government more moderate, and save Serbia from within. But it’s more likely that Ceda will be Vucic’s token “liberal”. There’s something resigned about the Liberal Democratic Party’s campaign slogan: “It’s time”. As in, “it’s time to abandon any foolish ideals, and embrace cold, hard, power”. So Ceda looks like he’ll join Vucic’s coalition — something that would have been unthinkable in 2012.

Combined, Tadic and Ceda’s parties may rival the Socialist party’s current 14 percent of the vote, giving Vucic more options come coalition-forming time. Though the tabloid press is also busy portraying Tadic and Ceda as at odds with each other, everyone is attacking Dacic, the last man standing in Vucic’s way.

The Progressives

Progressives President Tomislav Nikolic with Vucic.
Progressives President Tomislav Nikolic and Vucic.

Serious power struggles within the Progressives are unlikely, as it appears almost impossible (at least at this point) that anyone could weaken Vucic’s authority — barring a damaging revelation about his past or something similar. His recent move to consolidate power within the party was a demonstration of his dominance. President Tomislav Nikolic stood by as up to 100 of his own people were expelled or demoted, including his close advisor and Progressive party co-founder Oliver Antic. At the same time, Nikolic’s own son Radomir, who serves as the president of the party’s executive board, was forced to pledge that “the entire party supports Vucic”.

That said, there’s a possibility that this could be some sort of charade that obscures a power-sharing agreement between the two, in which the more autocratic Vucic appeases the EU, and the grandfatherly Nikolic appeases Russia. But we’re drifting off into the realm of pure speculation here.

In any event, the new Serbian government shouldn’t take a terribly long time to assemble. Bojan Klacar, the program manager for the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, has said that the new coalition will be formed by “late April or early May”. The process was much more tortuous following the 2008 and 2012 elections, since it involved unholy alliances, or what some in Serbia call “unprincipled coalitions” (e.g. the center-left Democratic party entering into a coalition government with the nationalist Socialist party, which was unthinkable back in 2008). Now, almost anything is possible, as nearly everyone has abandoned any pretense to having principles at all.

Democratic Party of Serbia

Kostunica.
Kostunica.

There is another party besides the Djilas-led Democratic party that will definitely not be forming a coalition with the Progressives, and that is the Democratic Party of Serbia (not to be confused with either of the other two Democratic Parties). Led by scholarly nationalist and cat lover Vojislav Kostunica, the party will likely take about six percent of the vote from stubborn people who still care about principles (even if those principles are bad). Kostunica, who was prime minister for several years, despises the opportunistic populism of other nationalists like Vucic, and is stubbornly opposed to the “EU path” adopted by his “traitorous” kin.

United Regions of Serbia

Dinkic.
Dinkic.

The United Regions of Serbia (formerly G17 Plus), claim to be “pro-business” but are led by Mladjan Dinkic, a man some accuse of “Banksterism” and who has been dogged by accusations of money laundering in recent months. Still, Dinkic employs an army of pollsters and campaigners in advance of every election and always manages to bulldog his way past the five percent threshold, if only just barely. United Regions of Serbia is currently polling at just under four percent, but that number is expected to rise. Dinkic has a promiscuous history in Serbian politics, having formed a coalition with almost everyone, so United Regions of Serbia could end up in the next government as well.

Serbian Radical Party

Serbian Radical party members with Obraz leader Mladen Obradovic. The Obraz logo is on campaign materials though the organization has been banned by the Constitutional Court.
Serbian Radical party members with Obraz leader Mladen Obradovic. The Obraz logo is on campaign materials though the organization has been banned by the Constitutional Court.

In a CNN interview several weeks ago, Vucic proudly declared that he’d “restored the rule of law” in Serbia (omitting the fact that it was the previous government that had sent two major war criminals to the Hague, something Vucic vehemently opposed), but there’s still plenty of criminal activity going on with his own former pals in the progenitor of the Progressives, the Serbian Radical Party. Vucic was a committed Radical until just a few years ago, and used to say things like, “Criminals such as Clinton and Blair could not have been born by any mother…They are the biggest criminals and beasts. By comparison, even Hitler was but a little child.”

It’s one thing to find Clinton and Blair politically disagreeable, reprehensible, or guilty of killing many thousands of people around the world. But referring to Adolf Hitler as “but a little child” is just the kind of potentially career-ruining statement that Vucic used to make all the time — before he became the darling of the West. So this was the Radical party before several members, including Vucic and current President Tomislav Nikolic, decided that their only path to power was through PR, adopting a “pro-EU” stance, and toning down the nasty rhetoric, Hitler apologism included. The Radical party that remains is furious at Vucic’s betrayal, and is currently running with Mladen Obradovic, who openly refers to himself as “the leader of Obraz”. This is curious because Obraz has been banned by Serbia’s Constitutional Court for inciting various hatreds and possibly organizing mass riots intended to kill many people. The leader of a group banned by the Constitutional Court is running for political office. So much for “bringing the rule of law to Serbia”.

Dveri

Dveri
Dveri.

For some in Serbia, Dveri are a little scary. What are they? A political party? An NGO? A “movement”? Or a cult? Their bizarre archaic name and obsession with birthing as many children as humanly possible before death has set them slightly outside the Serbian mainstream, which is already pretty conservative.

Dveri has put some real effort into rebranding fundamentalist nationalism as family-friendly and wholesome, but they haven’t succeeded yet. The group made it into a recent edition of the Encyclopedia of World Fascism with numerous international neo-Nazi and extremist groups. Their organizational structure also frightens some people, with their seven “overseers” who believe in a strict commitment to the tenets of the Serbian Orthodox Church, but insist upon a rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of the scripture, which they want imposed on the whole of Serbia like Sharia law. Still, polls show they’re likely to win 3.3 percent of the vote on Sunday, down from the 4.3 percent they received back in 2012. The remainder of their party platform involves opposition to GMOs.

Sasa Radulovic

Sasa Radulovic.
Sasa Radulovic.

Former economy minister Sasa Radulovic is also running independently, following a very public and daring resignation from Vucic’s government in January. In his tell-all resignation letter, he insisted that Vucic had actually blocked those “much-needed” economic reforms. Radulovic also asserted that Vucic’s cabinet had engaged in corruption, and had misled the public about foreign investments. In a political landscape dominated by populist conformism, Radulovic is running a campaign based on ideas, which is unusual. His presence on social media is significant, and prior to joining the Serbian government he had a successful Silicon Valley career. The Facebook page “Support for Sasa Radulovic’s Reforms” has 29,321 “likes” — more than the Socialists, the second most popular party in Serbia.

The “latest BIRN research” about political parties and their number of Facebook likes was published earlier this week, and concluded that the Progressives followed by the Democratic party led by Djilas are the leaders of the Facebook campaign. But this information isn’t particularly useful for understanding the level of support for those parties have today, since Facebook’s “like” feature was introduced in early 2009. The results of the “research” likely favors older parties that were generally the most popular over the last five years. The average Facebook user had 40 likes as of early 2013, but few users perform regular maintenance on their “likes” list. Level of popularity is much easier to gauge on new pages like Radulovic’s, where one can assume support is current. A recent poll showed that his level of voter support was 1.6 percent, and expected to rise.

Since the former economy minister’s resignation, Vucic has shown just how nervous he is about Radulovic’s candidature by directing political talk show producers to change their regular airing times: Vucic has insisted on appearing on TV shows at the exact same time Radulovic was being interviewed on a separate channel. This way, Vucic has hoped to rob Radulovic of some viewers. Tellingly, Vucic’s immediate response to Radulovic’s public resignation letter was to accuse him of “corruption”. But someone on his giant media team must have realized that such a charge would support certain assertions that Vucic has used unsubstantiated allegations of corruption for purely political ends, because the Progressives have never mentioned Radulovic’s alleged “misdeeds” again.

In the end, we already know who the likely winner will be in these democratic elections. Nearly everyone has accepted the inevitability of a Vucic victory and the Progressives’ consolidation of power. As Parliament speaker Nebojsa Stefanovic said a few days ago: “I would like citizens to go to their polling stations and allow the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, Aleksandar Vucic, to have the unimpeded possibility to decide by himself what he’d like Serbia to look like.”

Stay tuned for more coverage of the Serbian elections.

 

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia. https://www.instagram.com/lynch.lily/