“The System Lies to You”: Fear and Fragmentation in Post-Election Serbia

Some preliminary notes on the aftermath of Serbia’s contested elections.

It’s been a very strange week in Serbia.

Long-dead voters, some born as far back as the 1870s, are alleged to have cast a ballot in the April 24th elections. The vote has since been deemed fraudulent by the opposition. Five days after the elections, the much-maligned Republic Electoral Commission (RIK) suddenly announced that the “clerical-fascist” coalition Dveri/DSS had fallen a single vote short of the five percent threshold necessary to enter parliament. Then parties from the nominally left-oriented democratic opposition decided to publicly align themselves with DSS/Dveri to protest against the professed electoral theft orchestrated by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which won the election with 48.2 percent of the vote.

A demonstration was held in central Belgrade on Saturday to protest the alleged electoral fraud. It was attended by several thousand people and featured speeches delivered by nearly every well-known face from the Serbian political scene, from the left all the way to the far right. The massively popular new anti-Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić track “Sistem te laže” (The System Lies to You) by nationalist hip hop collective Beogradski Sindikat played over the loudspeakers as the crowd dispersed. (A video for the song, released just days before the elections, depicts Vučić of SNS, former President Boris Tadić and Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj as puppet-like figures in paper masks. It has already racked up well over six million YouTube views).

As expected, the entire fiasco has all played well into the hands of SNS, led by pro-EU “strongman-savior” Prime Minister Vučić. Many voters in Serbia find it unconscionable that the democratic opposition would share a stage with DSS/Dveri under any circumstances. In one widely criticized move, Democratic Party (DS) leader Bojan Pajtić called on his supporters to cast their ballots for DSS/Dveri in the repeat elections on May 4th, which will be held in 15 polling stations where voting irregularities have been found.

Now many of those who oppose Vučić from the left are focused on what they see as the democratic opposition’s betrayal of their values rather than the alleged electoral fraud. Some have even applauded Dveri/DSS’s unexpected single vote-loss, however darkly it seems to strengthen the widespread suspicion that there has been a manipulation of the vote. There’s infighting among many of Vučić’s opponents about what matters more: ridding the country of the ultranationalism embodied in political options like DSS/Dveri once and for all, or upholding democratic norms embodied, at least in part, by unambiguously free and fair elections.

But the ultranationalism many abhor in DSS/Dveri has nonetheless scored a sort of triumph in this election, and for this, few are entirely blameless. Some charge that the democratic opposition has legitimized or mainstreamed ultranationalism by aligning themselves with DSS/Dveri over their shared concerns about electoral fraud. But the electoral commission, overseen by SNS official Dejan Djurdjević, also made martyrs out of DSS/Dveri first.

And of course, it’s Vucic’s old mentor Vojislav Šešelj and his ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) who made the greatest gains of anyone in this election. Relegated to total political irrelevance in the last elections in 2014, in which SRS managed to gain just 2.01 percent of the vote, this past Sunday they reentered parliament with 8.11 percent vote. Šešelj now leads the third-most powerful party in Serbia, meaning that ultranationalist rhetoric, even if it’s under Vucic’s control, will remain a part of mainstream political life.

Vucic, former President Aleksandar Vucic and Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj (Image still: "Sistem to Laze", Beogradski Sindikat, 2016)
Vucic, former President Boris Tadic and Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj (Image still: “Sistem to Laze”, Beogradski Sindikat, 2016)

The western media framed SNS’s victory as an affirmation of “Vučić’s pro-EU policies” and a rejection of the ultranationalism emblematized by Šešelj. Subsequent commentary has criticized this idea, arguing instead that the vote was merely part of Vučić’s ongoing effort to consolidate his own power. Both of these arguments contain elements of the truth.

Vučić has consolidated power and generally adopted a more heavy-handed style of governance in order to carry out the deeply unpopular reforms Serbia must undertake before joining the EU. He’s thoroughly committed to the west. He’s also authoritarian. These qualities are not mutually exclusive. In Serbia, Vučić’s autocratic grip on power is used to serve and speed up integration with the west. Following Sunday’s vote, a few friends expressed fear that “now it’s going to get really bad because Vučić needs to deliver on things like Kosovo.” The “it” they were referring to was internal oppression. Whether or not that now includes electoral fraud will have to be decided by a thorough investigation.

What is certain is this: In Vučić’s long-standing effort to balkanize any bloc capable of posing any meaningful challenge to his power, he’s always counted on witting (or unwitting) accomplices among the democratic and far-right opposition. The last few days have witnessed a refinement of this strategy.


Cover photo: Saturday’s opposition protest in Belgrade. Credit: Dosta je bilo.

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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/