Election ELECTIONS IN SERBIA – THE FALL OF DEMOCRATIC FAÇADE

The context in which these elections were held included not only the President's rise to power and party build-up, but also ongoing protests, boycotts, several ‘affairs’ and problematic behavior of party officials, and chaos in the handling of the health crisis.

Published on balticworlds.com on July 23, 2020

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After a worldwide pandemic put people’s lives on hold for almost three months (many countries still counting), it was inevitable that any exercise of voting rights might be delayed or at least it could become increasingly complicated for countries where such citizens’ duty came to its turn. Among those countries is the Republic of Serbia, whose parliamentary elections were initially scheduled for April 26th, finally held on June 21st and then repeated on July 1st on 234 voting locations due to irregularities. More than two weeks were necessary for the Republic Election Commission (RIK) to compile, determine and disclose the final results of the parliamentary elections. Unsurprisingly, President Aleksandar Vučić’s party – Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) scored one of the biggest landslides in Europe with 60,65% of votes, which is more than 50% ahead of the second in line, its coalition partner Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). [1] The only other list to make it into the parliament is the right-wing Patriotic Alliance, while the opposition parties decided to boycott the elections. [2] That signaled the prolongation of a one-man-show in Serbian politics, who will continue to set the rules of the game, this time pretty much unopposed. Such circumstances call for a deeper analysis of these elections, which will hopefully shed some light into the causes and consequences of the current political landscape in Serbia.

The road to autocracy in Serbia: “work hard, consolidate power harder”

For more than six years elections in Serbia have been about one man. Unsurprisingly, the 2020 legislative elections followed the established pattern. Even though he was not personally running, he was “omnipresent and involved in everything, the be-all and end-all of political life.” [3] In order to understand what made the overwhelming victory of President Vučić and his party possible, it is necessary to take a look at what preceded these elections and in which state the Serbian political reality was, domestically and internationally. Eight years ago, Vučić assumed leadership of Serbia’s center-right Progressive Party (SNS), abandoning the far-right, nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and its agenda, and started his path towards complete control of the state’s structures and decision-making processes, assuming several highest political functions over the years. At the beginning, that path was paved by promises to fix issues left by the former government – to end corruption, bring economic progress and fight for Serbian interests abroad and most importantly for Serbian interest in Kosovo. [4] Internationally, that meant finding a way to sit on two chairs, European and Russian, while in the region he was oscillating between pragmatism, cooperation and the instrumentalization of unresolved regional tensions. There were no changes in that sense in 2020 elections and most probably there will be no changes in future policy choices as well. However, regardless which function he took on – party leader, prime minister or president, in practical terms what appeared to be the leitmotif was taking more and more control over the country’s political and social structures while creating a base of voters and activists to rely on and reach from whenever necessary. A strong and effective party apparatus was necessary to achieve those goals so today SNS is one of the biggest European parties, with around 730, 000 members. This solid party base combined with general dissatisfaction with the former regime and a combo of rhetorical commitments to both reforms and EU integrations made Vučić and SNS properly equipped to seize power. That led to convincingly scoring victories in the 2016 legislative and 2017 presidential elections, which enabled President Vučić to further strengthen the political dominance of his party and a landslide win in the 2020 elections as well. In such a political environment, asserting his leadership meant making it hard for any plurality of opinion to shine through the political culture in Serbia. That was as true (and successful) in 2016 as it is today. Against such a background, the 2020 elections were surrounded by clear concern that the perceived features of authoritarianism, which have been on the rise in the Balkans in general [5] may finally be cemented. Goals set at the 2016 legislative elections came to its review in the 2020 campaign, specifically the fight against corruption, meeting of EU standards, economic growth, higher living standards and digitalization. On the majority of these issues the current regime had not managed to produce the results it promised and in many cases the situation worsened. [6] Nevertheless, the party machine was still going strong, so reinstating these promises and downplaying or completely ignoring serious problems and overall deterioration of democratic institutions was overwhelmingly present in Vučić’s campaign, this time under the slogan “Aleksandar Vučić – for our children”. No real talk about the programme and future policy changes, a hard-working and hard-conditioned party machine in full throttle, and media attention on one man only made it clear that the 2020 elections would not be different from any election in the previous eight years.

Autocracy under pressure: ‘Talking the talk’ but not ‘walking the walk’

Even with severely limited media outlets, clearly different this time were the strong and vocal disputes of the elections and refusal by the opposition parties and large part of voters to participate in the “nested game” [7] again. Aside from unfulfilled promises, it was noted, the situation in Serbia in many aspects worsened significantly since Vučić and SNS came to power, which includes issues and faults that cannot be pinned to the former regime. First of all, mass demonstrations have been almost an ongoing presence since November 2018 when one of the leaders of Alliance for Serbia (SzS) opposition bloc, Borko Stefanović, was attacked and beaten before an opposition meeting. The attack was blamed on a political climate created by the incumbent President where the line between verbal and physical violence towards political opponents was almost invisible. [8] That triggered spontaneous protests against political violence which continued to grow well into 2019 and brought the very vivid democratic backsliding in Vučić-led Serbia into focus. Motivated by the momentum, opposition leaders formed the Agreement with People [9] whereby a commitment was made by the opposition and those participating in the protests to demand a political field with free and fair elections, media freedom and rule of law. Prompted by the Agreement, opposition launched a boycott of the parliamentary sessions and any work with the current government and threatened to boycott the upcoming elections as well if demands were not met. Such developments opened the window for talks between the opposition and the ruling party, but nothing significantly changed and the opposition consisting of Democratic Party, People’s Party, Party of Freedom and Justice and Dveri, which are part of the wider “Alliance for Serbia,” and the Free Citizens Movement declared a boycott in January 2020. [10] Although united around the same threat posed by “Europe’s favorite autocrat” [11], opposition has difficulties of its own. The Democratic Party is troubled by internal frictions, unusual and uneasy alliances between far-right Dveri and splits from Democratic Party and overall lack of clear and unanimous policy strategies on both the domestic and foreign level. In addition, aside from some new faces, like actor Sergej Trifunović, many of the opposition leaders have seemingly unpopular political backgrounds and it is questionable how large a voter base they could yield, individually or within an alliance.

Nevertheless, an opposition united in criticism and merged with constant demonstrations managed to shift focus towards the actual problems and unfulfilled reforms which continue to threaten the Serbian society. Specifically, weak rule of law combined with widespread corruption, assisted by lack of media freedom represent the greatest indicators of deteriorating democracy under Vučić. According to the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia, the fight against corruption in practice comes down to media announcements and arrests in front of the cameras. They are accompanied by a large number of criminal charges, significantly fewer indictments and even fewer convictions [12]. Yet, independent investigation into suspicious activities by the SNS party members has been treated as ‘background noise’ by party officials and raised only by few independent investigative journalists. One such example is the case of state weapons manufacturer Krušik. More specifically, when in 2018 Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) revealed that Branko Stefanović, father of Serbia’s Interior Minister acted as mediator in arms deals between Krušik and Saudi Arabian company [13], President Vučić defended the minister and prosecution remained silent.

On the one hand, the fact that there seems to be much talk of  reforms and clearly, but not so much action did not escape the international watchdogs, such as Transparency International, which lowered the ranking of Serbia in its report, moving it from 87th to 91st place in perceived levels of corruption [14]. Freedom House also noticed greater corruption and significantly weakened rule of law which prompted the downgrading of Serbia in its recent report from democracy to hybrid regime. [8] In addition to this, Serbia’s score in the Freedom of the World report by Freedom House was also downgraded from free to partly free, taking into account the dire state of the country’s media freedom and safety of individual journalists. [15] On the other hand, one international player seems to be looking the other way when it comes to growing autocratic appetites in Serbia – the EU. Over the years the silence of top EU officials on the antidemocratic behavior of Vučić and his party has been deafening. Moreover, accession negotiations have continued without any constraints since, even with the broader set of tools to condition democratic standards during the enlargement process, EU opts for the silent treatment. That seems to be the continuing trend in 2020 as well, although a parliament with severe democratic deficit and even more visible authoritarian nature of the regime could make it significantly harder for EU to ignore. This leads to a conclusion that prioritizing stability over democracy and overall lack of adequate and effective tools to deal with authoritarian tendencies, both in and outside the EU, makes it hard not to think of the EU as just another (weak) player of the authoritarian game.

Along with the first part of the pre-elections setting which focused on the incumbent President and his strategy to legitimize his autocratic rule, this second part aimed at drawing attention to the actual political reality of this government and the climate of political polarization and radicalization which it feeds and in which it operates.  In other words, behind the ‘form’ which has been built for 8 years by this party and its leader, there is an even more troubling ‘substance’ which includes the disconcerting state of social and political life in Serbia.

 

Election day and results: to vote or not to vote 

Developments on the election day and its results have not been particularly surprising to anyone and have been, as per usual, marked with severe irregularities, pressure on the voters and overall omnipresence of one man and one party in the media. As noted, in 234 voting locations repetition of the elections was necessary and that is, according to CRTA, the biggest electoral annulment in two decades. [16] In addition, OSCE/ODIHR observers noted that although election day went generally in accordance with procedures, the “voters were left under-informed and frustrated by the opposition’s lack of access to the media” [17]. Among rather bizarre examples of electoral malpractice was the case of a woman bringing voters to the polling station, circled the number 1 (which is the number of SNS list) on the ballot on their behalf, folded the ballots and finally put them in the appropriate boxes. [18] Another example concerns voting in the town of Vranje, in the south of Serbia, where the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians – István Pásztor (SVM) won 1, 265 votes and came in third among parliamentary lists. As there are only four Hungarians living in Vranje, there was clear confusion as to how this could happen. One explanation offered was that SVM’s many votes stemmed from previously organized vote buying in the local elections, although this has not been proved. Allegedly though, in the local elections the voting was set up to benefit the Serbian Right – Mišo Vacić, who had the ordinal number 4 in Vranje. Incidentally this was the same number SVM had in the parliamentary elections and because of these corrupt voters again chose number 4. [19] Furthermore, some important changes in the electoral law happened right before the elections. Electoral threshold was lowered from 5% to 3% and politically driven local governments are now those who verify the minimum number of signatures required to get candidates on the ballot. Yet, as noted, only three parties managed to pass the threshold. Moreover, of particular interest both for participants and observers was the voter turnout. According to the Republic Election Commission final report, the voter turnout was 48,93%. [1] Neither opposition boycott nor low voter turnout are unusual for an electoral authoritarian regime, as citizens often get disappointed or frustrated with opposition and detached from the electoral process. [20] However, the latest elections witnessed the lowest voter turnout and most irregularities during the election day of any election since Vučić and SNS came to power. The explanation for this can be found in overall apathy of the voters and lack of trust in governing institutions, in the boycott by the opposition which managed to discredit these elections and all those who participated in them with oppositional prefix, as well as the overall fear of the virus.

Elections in time of pandemic: democracy dies in quarantine

Aside from the overall concerns regarding legitimacy, freedom and fairness of these elections, probably the hardest electoral challenge was posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only did the first wave of the virus cause serious concerns over the conduct and safety of elections, it also revealed the alarmingly problematic management of the virus in Serbia. In simple terms, priority was to ‘handle’ the elections first and the global pandemic second. It started with downplaying the virus, calling it “the funniest virus in history” and continuing the election preparations [21]. After this came a national emergency declaration without the consent of the parliament [22] followed by war language with regard to an invisible enemy and eventually, the postponement of the April elections. Contrary to the usual national emergency conduct, in Serbia the unique circumstances allowed President Vučić and the ruling party to completely dominate the media, exert undue influence over judicial and legislative bodies, and engage in prohibited activities such as electronically wiretapping citizens’ mobile phones. [23] The President was also able to address the nation unconstrained by any measurements and deliver medical equipment all over the country in a manner that looked more like campaigning than proper response to a health emergency. Curfews and weekend lockdowns were combined with manipulation of public fear, spread of fake news, and favoring political expertise instead of medical to deal with the ongoing health crisis. A slight flattening of the curve prompted the re-scheduling of elections for June 21 and with that the lifting of all virus-related safety measures started. Measures were lifted to a point where all large gatherings were allowed, like a football match with 25, 000 people [24], there was no social distancing, no mask protection, and eventually no accurate reporting of new Covid-19 cases. More specifically, it was discovered that twice as many infected patients had died than announced by authorities and hundreds more people had tested positive in the time prior to the elections. [25] Conveniently, all this was very much ignored until election day passed. Right after the vote some measures were put back in place [26] and there were suggestions to bring back the curfew to slow down the new wave of the virus [27]. Unsurprisingly, that struck a chord with the general population which had been growing extremely frustrated with the way the health crisis was handled, especially the way the virus was used as a part of Vučić’s electoral agenda. That dissatisfaction found its way to the streets and protests have been raging since July 7. Interestingly, only one cable news channel – N1 – is reporting what is actually happening, almost all other media outlets in Serbia remained silent. What started as frustration with chaotic pandemic management turned into severe civil unrest and there have been multiple clashes between protesters and members of law enforcement whose brutality and exploitation of tear gas has been recorded by reporters and participants in the demonstrations. [28] The President and government officials have condemned the protests, defended the police, and ignored all calls for a responsible and fair reaction. Instead the response has been multiplying the presence of law enforcement and not imposing any constraints on their conduct.

Epilogue: tear gas after-party

As the protests continue to spread and the police use beatings and tear gas indiscriminately to stop them, while relying on the President and party faithfuls to defend them and misrepresent those who participate and the motives behind protests, the question remains: What now?  The elections may not have been surprising, but the aftermath brings an uncertain future. People are facing violent responses to any protest and plurality of opinion, which again highlight the disturbing autocratic tendencies of the current government. The context in which these elections were held included not only the President’s rise to power and party build-up, but also ongoing protests, boycotts, several ‘affairs’ and problematic behavior of party officials, and chaos in the handling of the health crisis. It included important international players, like the EU, who yet again turned a blind eye on democratic backsliding in favor of stability –their policy during most of Vučić’s rule in Serbia. Furthermore, there was no actual political program on behalf of the ruling majority and no true desire to reform and fulfil earlier promises repeated during this election campaign. The strategy was to ‘outshine’ competitors on troubling topics by hijacking every media outlet for the President’s one-on-one with the camera to portray him, yet again, as the savior of the nation, the one and only who, despite being surrounded by few bad apples literally can and will have everything under control. Unfortunately, authoritarian intimidation does not operate with the same level of success with global pandemic as it does with people, so dire social conditions, lack of organization and responsible, expert-led management of the health crisis created conditions for the virus to thrive. It seems the same could be said for democracy in Serbia. Democracy in Serbia has been quarantined somewhere far behind the political life for much longer than we have been struggling with the global pandemic and its consequences. Unfortunately, it seems this trend will continue in future. Without proper plurality of opinions, free and fair elections and civil and political liberties along with consolidation of opposition – in a way that makes it credible and authentic with regard to the program, action and actors – autocracy will continue to thrive.

References

 

[1] Republic Election Commision, “Укупни резултати избора за народне посланике Народне скупштине, одржаних 21. јуна 2020. године и поновљених на 234 бирачка места 1. јула 2020. Године.,” [Online]. Available: https://www.rik.parlament.gov.rs/tekst/9386/ukupni-rezultati-izbora-za-narodne-poslanike-narodne-skupstine-2020-godine.php.
[2] [Online]. Available: http://rs.n1info.com/Izbori-2020/a616754/RIK-usvojio-Izvestaj-o-ukupnim-rezultatima-parlamentarnih-izbora.html. [Accessed 14 July 2020].
[3] [Online]. Available: https://www.dw.com/en/serbia-elections-whos-left-besides-vucic/a-53869625. [Accessed 14 July 2020].
[4] [Online]. Available: http://rs.n1info.com/Izbori-2020/a606907/Izbori-2012-Poraz-Tadica-i-DS-Dacicev-preokret-i-dolazak-SNS-na-vlast.html. [Accessed 14 July 2020].
[5] M. Lavrič and F. Bieber, ““Shifts in Support for Authoritarianism and Democracy in the Western Balkans”,” Problems of Post-Communism, pp. 1-10, 2020.
[6] [Online]. Available: https://balkaninsight.com/2020/06/17/birn-fact-check-has-serbias-ruling-party-kept-its-promises/.
[7] A. Schedler, “The Nested Game of Democratization by Elections,” International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale De Science Politique , vol. 1, no. 23, pp. 103-22, 2002.
[8] [Online]. Available: https://freedomhouse.org/country/serbia/nations-transit/2020.
[9] [Online]. Available: https://balkaninsight.com/2019/02/16/serbia-opposition-offers-protest-movement-agreement-with-people/.
[10] [Online]. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/06/30/serbias-ruling-party-just-scored-landslide-victory-heres-why-opposition-boycotted-election/.
[11] [Online]. Available: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/09/how-aleksandar-vucic-became-europes-favorite-autocrat/.
[12] [Online]. Available: https://www.europeanpressprize.com/article/series-articles-corruption-organized-crime/.
[13] [Online]. Available: https://balkaninsight.com/2018/11/22/serbian-minister-s-father-mediated-weapon-sales-to-saudis-11-22-2018/.
[14] [Online]. Available: https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/2019_CPI_Report_EN_200331_141425.pdf. [Accessed 14 July 2020].
[15] [Online]. Available: https://freedomhouse.org/country/serbia/freedom-world/2019.
[16] [Online]. Available: https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/06/26/up-to-200-000-citizens-to-vote-again-in-serbian-election-opposition-accuses-government-of-further-manipulation/.
[17] [Online]. Available: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/serbia/455173.
[18] For those interested, there is a video clip on YouTube:, [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcSH69O37M8.
[19] [Online]. Available: http://balkans.aljazeera.net/vijesti/kako-su-vranjanci-glasali-za-madare.
[20] S. Bedord, ““The Election Game:” Authoritarian Consolidation Processes in Belarus.”,” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, no. 25, pp. 381 – 405, 2017.
[21] [Online]. Available: https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/05/27/elections-in-the-time-of-corona-democracy-on-life-support/.
[22] [Online]. Available: https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/05/18/meeting-of-the-national-assembly-of-serbia-fails-to-reassure-that-the-executive-is-not-all-powerful/.
[23] [Online]. Available: https://www.danas.rs/drustvo/nejasno-po-kom-zakonu-drzava-prati-telefone-gradjana/.
[24] [Online]. Available: https://www.eurosport.com/football/serbia-lets-25000-attend-soccer-derby-as-coronavirus-lockdown-eases_sto7772193/story.shtml.
[25] [Online]. Available: https://balkaninsight.com/2020/06/22/serbia-under-reported-covid-19-deaths-and-infections-data-shows/.
[26] [Online]. Available: http://rs.n1info.com/English/NEWS/a612824/Serbia-s-anti-COVID-19-Crisis-Team-Face-masks-mandatory-in-public-transport.html.
[27] [Online]. Available: http://rs.n1info.com/English/NEWS/a617414/Vucic-declares-weekend-curfew-in-Serbian-capital.html.
[28] [Online]. Available: http://rs.n1info.com/English/NEWS/a617478/Protest-in-front-of-Serbian-parliament-over-announced-curfew.html.

 

 

  • kimkwanho

    A superb write-up on the state of politics in Serbia, the movements that brought everything to the current state and all the forces small, numerous and large, both domestic and international, that are part of the tragic play. I’ve learned so much, thank you for writing.

  • by Gorica Popovic

    MA in Political science at the University of Vienna, with focus on International security and Eastern Europe; Research focus: Eastern Europe and Western Balkans, rise of authoritarianism, political participation and opposition in authoritarian regimes; Baltic security; nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament.

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    Contact: sofie.bedford@ucrs.uu.se