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Serbian elections: Vučić tightens his grip amid fraud accusations

Berta López Domènech

Date: 21/12/2023
The incumbent Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), in power since 2012, secured 48% of the votes in the country’s parliamentary elections on 17 December. However, the vote was marred by irregularities and fraud allegations. Reports emerged about observers being attacked, episodes of vote-buying, ballot box stuffing, and irregular busing of citizens – and ministers – from the Bosnian entity Republika Srpska to Belgrade to vote for the ruling party throughout the elections’ day.

In such circumstances, it is not surprising that Serbia Against Violence (SPN), the opposition coalition formed out of the anti-government protests that have inundated Belgrade and other Serbian cities since May, fell short of dethroning SNS. Yet, with 24,3% of the votes, the SPN achieved the highest result for the opposition since SNS took office in 2012, surpassing 20% share for the first time.

The EU should not ignore serious election fraud allegations and pretend business is as usual. But Brussels should not halt Serbia’s EU enlargement process in response. Instead, the EU should wake up to the urge to reverse Serbia’s autocratic trend and streamline the dialogue with democratic actors – both political and civic – in Serbia to bring the EU candidate closer to the Union’s standards.

Neither free nor fair

Irregularities were already reported in the run-up to the elections, including unequal access to media, pressure on votes – especially on public sector employees – vote buying, and misuse of public resources. The OSCE concluded that the elections had taken place in unfair conditions and an uneven playing field favouring the incumbents. While none of this might be new, the climate of violence and intimidation set off in this vote by ruling elites against the opposition was unprecedented.

The international response (or lack thereof) was also a sign of the exceptionality of the occasion. No EU leader congratulated President Aleksandar Vučić and SNS for the victory. None except one: the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán.

Western actors such as the EU, the US, and Germany were instead vocal about their concerns regarding fraud allegations and called on Serbian authorities to investigate the reported irregularities. The Socialist Group in the European Parliament and MEPs Viola von Cramon and Klemen Groselj, who took part in the European Parliament’s Election Observation Mission, shared similar qualms. MEP von Cramon even offered to mediate a party dialogue between SNS and the opposition on behalf of the European Parliament.

Tightening the grip

The events of these elections confirm the severe democratic setback that Serbia has been experiencing over the past decade and which, gained the label of “electoral autocracy”. They showcase the reach of SNS’s institutional capture and the popularity that President Vučić still enjoys as an important part of Serbian society. President Vučić has portrayed himself as a strong leader, the only one who can maintain stability and economic prosperity in the country. Often exploiting a narrative based on the victimhood of the Serbian people, he has built a profile as a defender of Serbia and the only one capable of handling the West.

Despite officially not running in the elections and notwithstanding his role as the country’s President, Vučić has been the main face of the electoral campaign, including on SNS billboards, actively participating in the party’s rallies and media debates. Even the SNS’s electoral list was named after him. So much for a clear separation between the state, the party, and the leader.

To be sure, the opportunistic call for early elections has become a strategic political manoeuvre for Serbian leaders to deflect attention from the reform agenda, avoid addressing pressing issues, time elections when they can best favour the chances of the incumbent government, and keep the country in a perpetual campaign mode.

The tactic, coupled with a harsh campaign against the opposition and the popularity of President Vučić, worked this time as well. The Serbian Progressive Party gained so many seats in the National Assembly that it can now govern without its junior coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which received the worst results in 15 years (6.7% and 18 seats).

It also worked despite the sociopolitical situation in the country, marked by widespread popular discontent. Notwithstanding months of massive protests against the President and the government, rising inflation, increasing pressure to resolve the Kosovo issue, and uncertainty over Serbia’s responsibility in the Banjska attack in northern Kosovo, SNS managed not only to maintain its grip over the institutions but also to improve its electoral fortunes.

Yet again, while falling short of ousting the SNS, the Serbia Against Violence coalition succeeded, for the first time, in embodying a credible democratic and pro-EU alternative to the current regime. Its results are encouraging and might be a sign of hope that the SNS’s power grip can be loosened and Vučić’s power monopoly can be brought down in the future.
The odds of SNP eventually pulling this change off will inter alia depend on the ability of the different parties in the coalition to stay together to consolidate the political project initiated in October and address several issues. Domestically, it will need to expand its constituency beyond Belgrade, attracting voters away from the SNS. Building identifiable and charismatic leadership will likely be crucial. On another note, the Serbia Against Violence coalition will need to strengthen ties with like-minded partners in Brussels and across the EU. Greater international support will contribute to reinforcing its domestic leverage.

Stolen victory in Belgrade?

While SNS won comfortably the National Assembly, the outcome was much tighter for the Belgrade City Assembly, with preliminary results placing the SNS in the lead with 39% of the votes but followed closely by the SPN with 34%. With such a narrow difference, allegations that electoral fraud might have altered the final results become serious. Stefan Schennach, leader of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) observation delegation, went as far as to affirm that “the victory in Belgrade was stolen from the opposition”.

These accusations reverberated among people. Hundreds of Serbian citizens and the leaders of Serbia Against Violence gathered on Monday and Tuesday evening in front of the Republic Election Commission in Belgrade to protest against the alleged irregularities and to demand the annulment of the Belgrade election result. Two of the SPN leaders announced they would be starting a hunger strike until their demand was fulfilled. Following the two days of protests, the rerun of the election in 30 polling stations was announced. A cosmetic measure that would not really address the demands of the opposition, as it will affect less than 0,5% of the total polling stations.

The EU cannot ignore such developments and should be firm in its call to investigate potential irregularities in the electoral process. But Brussels should not halt Serbia’s EU enlargement process in response. Doing so would not reverse the country’s autocratic turn but might be used by incumbents to toughen the already strong anti-European integration sentiment.

Instead, the favourable outcome of the pro-EU opposition, which represents almost a quarter of the Serbian population, should encourage the Union to expand its list of interlocutors in the country. To help reverse Serbia's autocratic turn and bring the country closer to EU standards, European institutions and member states should be smart about strengthening their engagement and support for Serbia's political and civic democratic actors who can bring about change.

Berta López Domènech is a Junior Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions Programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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