Photo: Serbia Against Violence Protest in Belgrade – Wikimedia Commons
Less than two years after the last polls, Serbia will be holding snap national and local elections again on December 17. The opposition parties have demanded early elections for over six months since the mass shootings in May and the subsequent Serbia Against Violence protests. The pro-European opposition parties have decided to join forces in hope to defeat president Vučić at last. Will they be able to break the 12 year rule of the SNS Party and turn the tide of Serbia’s democratic backsliding? And why are elections called now, is it really about the opposition’s demand or is it part of a broader political game?
The elections follow a period of weekly mass anti-government protests, moving tens of thousands of dissatisfied Serbian people. Last May, two mass shootings leaving 18 people dead, ignited a lively anti-government movement called Serbia Against Violence. The opposition movement has accused President Vučić’s regime of promoting a ‘culture of violence’. Government-controlled media promote violent content and attack political opponents. Serbia’s opposition have made clear that the country is in crisis and elections are the only way out of the politically undesirable situation. At first, the protests were mostly ignored by President Vučić’s government. Now, Vučić has agreed to the opposition to hold early elections. For Serbian people that believe in a European and democratic future for the country, the elections are very welcome. During the rule of Vučić’s SNS party organised crime has soared, corruption is omnipresent, the rule of law is deteriorating and human rights are not respected. Various SNS-governments have been characterised by widespread democratic backsliding, which has put Serbia on the back foot regarding its EU aspirations.
Experts say snap elections are actually in the interest of Vučić as it pauses a working parliament and allows him to postpone decisions on the relation with Kosovo and possible introduction of Russian sanctions – Vučić hopes that by the time a new government is installed, peace talks on Ukraine will have started and imposing sanctions is no longer demanded. Besides freezing the Kosovo matter, local elections in Belgrade and several municipalities would already take place and Vučić uses the opposition’s demand for elections to overshadow these local elections with a national campaign around Vučić as the country’s leader. This will probably limit disappointing results in the local elections as criticism on the SNS party has been rising. It will take away attention from local issues, in favour of more national ones. The name of Vučić has been a tool in elections – the list of the SNS-led alliance again bears Vučić’s own name; ‘Aleksandar Vučić – Serbia must not stop’. This shows that elections in Serbia have become more of a one-man show than a thorough democratic system based on content.
To combat the rule of Vučić, pro-European opposition parties will join together to form one list. The coalition includes Ecological Uprising, Democratic Party, Green-Left Front, Together, People’s Movement of Serbia, New Face of Serbia, Movement of Free Citizens, Romanian Party, Party of Freedom and Justice and Serbia Centre. These are the parties that have led the Serbia Against Violence movement and protests the last months. They have been working together in parliament for some time already and now hope to create a kind of synergy and claim more votes participating as a bloc. Especially in the capital Belgrade elections there is a fair chance for the opposition to acquire a majority. In the last elections the opposition – what is now called Serbia Against Violence coalition – received 35 per cent of the votes for the Belgrade City Assembly. In national elections the coalition currently holds 43 out of 250 seats, but is expected to seriously challenge the SNS alliance this time.
Vučić, in the meantime, has decided to join forces in local elections with the Serbian Radical Party (SRP) which is led by Vojislav Seselj, a convicted war criminal. Running together with a pronounced pro-Russian party indicates Vučić’s worries of losing its majority in local assemblies, especially that of Belgrade. Vučić has long been able to hover between the West and Russia, in not working together with pronounced pro-Russian voices, nor with pro-European ones. His deteriorating popularity forces him to choose sides. Vučić has made clear that they will not form a coalition with SRP nationally, but the movement shows Vučić’s intentions with Serbia.
New media law
What impedes the opposition’s combat is the state of the media in Serbia. The media is mostly in the hands of the state and a new media law has worsened this situation. The Law on Public information and Media would allow the state to control several media outlets through Telekom Serbia, in which the state has a majority share. Free media is under threat in Serbia as the Vučić regime controls media and amplifies anti-opposition sentiments and pressurises critical media (read our earlier published article about attacks on Serbian opposition). Channels of Vučić loyalists are sponsored by Telekom Serbia. There is only one independent media channel (N1). Vučić’s rule of the media is confirmed by the amount of screen time he receives. According to research by a Serbian NGO, President Vučić receives 39 per cent of air time on national TV. Vučić’s policies erode the democratic state of Serbia and will definitely influence the outcome of the coming elections again. Calls by the opposition to change the corrupt media landscape before the elections as to assure fairness, have been neglected.
Although Vučić now presents himself as a leader that listens to the Serbian people and therefore calls out demanded elections, the decision is mostly taken for his own sake. A national campaign will overshadow the possible disappointing results in Belgrade local elections, and difficult (international) decisions to be taken are postponed. If Vučić would really have listened to the people, he would have called for snap elections earlier, when tens of thousands of people started demanding for it. Now he panders to the oppositions’ demand to overshadow his deteriorating popularity. A textbook example of how an authoritarian leader tries to save his own skin. Elections is what the opposition has fought for, but they realise all the while that with Vučić’s control of the media, it will be difficult to remove him from the throne. Meanwhile, depending on the election outcome, a major change in Serbian politics could develop concerning Vučić’s balancing act between the West and Russia.
Written by Timon Driessen