Serbian presidential elections: bravely forward towards the past

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Protests in BelgradeProtests in Belgrade on April 4, 2017. Creator: Milan Obradovic/BetaPress. All rights reserved.

On April the 2nd 2017 Presidential elections in Serbia took place. The acting prime minister Alexandar Vučić received in the first ballot the absolute majority, thereby he is able to strengthen his power considerably. Our office Director in Belgrade, Nenad Šebek, analyzes the background.

There were no surprises on Sunday evening as the first exit poll results started to arrive[1]. The Serbian presidential elections ended in the first round with the candidate of the ruling party winning around 55 percent of the votes and the next in succession being independent candidate (and former Ombudsman) Saša Janković with around 16 percent.

It is surpising, and also very telling when it comes to how Serbian voters perceive the electoral process, that almost 10 percent of the votes went to Luka Maksimović, a satirist without a party, an ideology or a programme, basically a comedian but one who is completely different to Beppe Grillo in Italy. Mr Grillo has an agenda, Mr Maksimović just wanted to have some fun and to laugh at the state of democracy and the electoral process in Serbia. He campaigned under the nickname “Beli Preletačević” (“Beli” – white, he appears in white suits and rides on a white horse, “Preletačević” is a word game based on the phenomena of “preletač”, a name given to politicians who switch parties whenever it is opportune to do so).

So, in just under two months, Serbia will have a new President and a new Prime minister. What was the electoral process like and what will the switch at the helm mean for the state of democracy in Serbia?

Free - maybe, fair - no way

President Elect Vučić has de facto been in power for five years now, initially taking position number two as “First Deputy Prime Minister” but also the key role of “Coordinator of the security services” and Defence Minister. In early elections in 2014, he took the reigns as Prime Minister and retained to this day the all-important position of Coordinator of the security services. The basic characteristic of his modus operandi as the country’s leader has been, practically, a permanent pre-election campaign with almost daily TV appearances, unscheduled and scheduled press conferences.

The past years have also been an opportunity for a quiet takeover of practically all the mainstream but also small local media in the country. The National Public Service Broadcaster (RTS) is, to a large degree, the government’s mouthpiece and the strongest and most influential private broadcaster “Pink TV” (known for its extremely lewd and vulgar “reality shows”) is, de facto, a “personal media” of the ruling SNS (Serbian Progressive Party). Open 24/7 to views parroted by Mr Vučić’s minions and serving as the platform for the most abusive fake news on anyone in the country who happens to disagree or even question the government’s position.

Add to this that the just one of several tabloids, also owned and edited by SNS sycophants, has about five times the circulation than all the independent print media combined. The Media scene in Serbia – according to many analysts and independent journalists – is muzzled more now than it was in the bleakest times of Slobodan Milošević’s rule in the 1990s.

The undersigned has – as a BBC journalist – covered just about every election in Serbia over the past quarter of a century and does not recall that in any one of them did the opposition have so little access towards the main avenue to the voters – media, especially television. Nor does he remember an election campaign in which the opposition leaders were dragged through the gutters in the ghastly way they experienced over the past three months.

Oh, and by the way, the allegedly independent Media Regulatory Body – REM[2] , had decided not to monitor the election campaign and pass a judgment on whether all candidates had equal opportunities in presenting themselves and their programmes. The OSCE also deemed it unnecessary to monitor the elections.

Therefore, while there were probably no major irregularities in terms of stealing votes or hindering the process which would qualify them as reasonably “free”, the elections can in no way be described as “fair”.

What now?

The incumbent President, Tomislav Nikolić was the founder and first leader of the SNS. With all that he did or did not do in the past five years (and many a gaffe), Mr Nikolić’s performance as Head of State is not likely to go down in history books as a successful one. The one credit Mr Nikolić does deserve is that - once elected - he resigned as party leader wanting to be the “President of all citizens of Serbia” and that indeed, was and is the decent thing to do.

However, the way political practice works in Serbia, power lies with the leader of the ruling party and Mr Nikolić, who openly said he wanted to run for the second term in office was – somehow - persuaded to give up on the idea and leave the field open to current party leader, Aleksandar Vučić, incumbent Prime Minister and now President Elect. Having just used that same party leadership power to remove Nikolić from the scene, it is almost impossible to imagine Mr Vučić resigning as party boss. Au contraire, already ruling with an iron fist, he is likely to strengthen the grip and continuing to “cleanse” the lead party cadres from those loyal to Mr Nikolić. And as the ruling party leader, he will be selecting the next Prime Minister. Most analysts predict that he will, smartly, choose a non-party person, a so called “Expert Prime Minister”, thereby leaving a pretence of impartiality, but effectively retaining full control of the Government since such experts have no party base to fall upon and are 100 Prozent dependant on the powers that be – i.e. – Mr Vučić.

Serbia has experienced that before of course. In the Communist era and also during the Milošević times. Regretfully, also after Milošević, during the presidency of the former great pro-democracy hope – ex Democratic Party leader and former President Boris Tadić. It was no secret to anyone in Serbia that the country was not run from the Prime Minister’s office in Nemanjina Street but from the Presidential palace on Andrić Square. That cast a deep shadow over Mr Tadić’s rule and combined with massive popular dissatisfaction with most brazen corruption and cronyism, brought about the downfall of not just Tadić but also the Democratic Party and opened the door for the populist rule of the SNS and its leadership. So, the country is heading into well charted waters – the ship’s captain will be steering the boat in an unconstitutional way.

Three days in a row (at time of writing, April 5th 2017), spontaneous protests have been held first in Belgrade but then spreading to other major cities of Niš, Novi Sad, Kruševac, Požarevac… They appear to have started via Facebook and at universities and, interestingly, are being held without the support of a single opposition party. The protesters marched without any party banners or signs, brandishing instead slogans like “Vucić the thief” or “Stop dictatorship” accompanying them with loud whistles and sometimes percussion instruments. So far, the police have not intervened or tried to stop the protests.

And what now for the opposition?

Next spring, another big electoral prize is on offer – elections in the capital city of Belgrade. It is quite likely that they will be accompanied by (yet another set of) early parliamentary elections. And, the new President might also be tempted to hold both of these elections early, sometime in autumn.

Despite the valiant pre-election rhetoric, none of the opposition candidates ever nurtured the hope of winning, albeit some did hope that there would be a second round of elections and not such a clear cut Vučić victory. For all of them, these elections were about positioning on the (yet again) fractured opposition scene. The former Ombudsman, Saša Janković, came first in this race, but 16 percent of the vote is unlikely to embellish him with that leadership baton. And, he has no party apparatus behind him, he can now either choose to ally himself with an existing one (and few leaders would be willing to give him their positions) or form one of his own, which he hinted at during the pre-election campaign. Apart from a party base, Mr Janković also lacks political experience, is not a convincing public speaker and above all, has not yet clearly specified his political platform. But he has been recognised by many as someone who has done a great job as Ombudsman and as a decent person they would like to see as president. But if the SNS grip on the media stays as it is and if the opposition parties remain fractured as they are, whenever the next elections are, the chances are that Mr Vučić’s reign will continue.

The international factor

Monday (April 3rd) morning, the congratulatory messages started pouring into the office of the current Serbian Prime Minister and President-elect, Aleksandar Vučić. From the European Commission – Johannes Hahn, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, then from Bulgaria Boyko Borisov, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Croatian President and Prime Minister, Kolinda Grabar- Kitarević and Andrej Plenković, a day later German Chancellor Angela Merkel… the list is going to be a long one, after all, common courtesy is to be expected and extended and no one in Serbia can object to that. But many in Serbia who are not in love with Mr Vučić do object to what they perceive is the tacit support that the EU and the West are giving to the Serbian leader.

No surprise that he was in Moscow rubbing shoulders with President Putin less than a week before Election Day, but many here were surprised that two weeks before the elections he was in the Bundeskanzleramt talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Or that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder actually actively participated at a campaign rally of Mr Vučić. For those in Serbia that believe not just in EU accession, but in EU values, this is adding insult to injury.

Analysts say Vučić owes his support in Western capitals primarily to the fact that he is perceived as “the man who delivers” and the delivery consists of sticking with the Brussels Accord with Pristina which is a slow, but de facto process of amputating Kosovo from Serbia. As long as he continues on that road and doesn’t export instability abroad, the support from Washington, Brussels and other European capitals will be forthcoming. The fact that he has muzzled the media, stifled free speech, can’t stand a word of critique and is not satisfied with defeating the opposition but is doing his best to annihilate it… well, cynics in Serbia say, “those are minor details that shouldn’t cloud the big picture of Vučić’s delivery on what matters to the West”.

Russia? Well, no one offered any evidence nor were there any major allegations of Russia’s involvement in the election process. Moscow’s favourite would have been the leader of the Socialist Party and current Foreign Minister, Ivica Dačić, but he, wisely, opted not to run but rather throw his weight behind Mr Vučić’s candidature, hoping to get the Prime Minister’s post as a reward. Russia, of course, is very interested in who is in power, not just in Serbia but also elsewhere in the Balkans. But it will only have as much manoeuvring space as the EU and the USA leave empty. Geopolitics, as we all know, do not allow for a vacuum.

 

[1] Final results will be known mid April, the official state commission decreed that the voting will have to be repeated in two voting stations.

[2] From REM’s homepage: “The REM from Serbia is established as a Serbian autonomous and independent organisation exercising public competencies pursuant to the Broadcasting Law, with the aim to secure conditions for the efficient implementation and improvement of the set broadcasting policy in the Republic of Serbia in a manner befitting a democratic society.” 

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