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Lessons from Serbia's general election

The Serbian election results are not as 'ordinary' as they first appear.

Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Held for the third time in the last four years, the official purpose of these elections was to strengthen Serbian society’s resolve towards the pro-EU path.

This is at least according to what the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic had said. The actual purpose of these elections however, was to reinforce PM Vucic’s rule, granting him another four years of reign over this struggling Balkan nation.

Like many Serbian leaders before him, Vucic gambled heavily by calling for early elections, and, just like many before him, he might have just put too much at stake. Although the coalition around the Serbian Progressive Party did win an easy majority, scoring an incredible 49% of the popular vote, the new parliament will still look a lot different than just two months ago.

Overview

According to the State Election Commission, seven parties in total have entered Serbian parliament. These seven parties can roughly be divided into three distinct groups.

Firstly, we have a gigantic coalition around Vucic’s Progressive Party, boasting 49% of the vote. Just like before, the coalition around Progressives has received enough mandates to independently form a government. However, since the political responsibility is too high, one should expect that Vucic will invite another party to share that burden. Additionally, the Socialists, Vucic’s former coalition partners, won a steady 11%, which flags them as a second strongest political force in the country.

The second group is constituted by a bloc that mostly represents a disappearing middle class in Serbia. The Democratic Party won 6%, and remained in parliament in spite of extensive internal turmoil.

Democrats will try to work together with a socio-liberal coalition led by experienced politicians, Tadic (former president of Serbia), Jovanovic, and Canak who won 5% of the popular vote, bordering the parliamentary threshold. Joining them in this bloc is Dosta je Bilo, a citizens’ movement gathered around an ex-Minister of Economy – Sasa Radulovic with a surprising 6% of the vote won. Dosta je Bilo will enter Serbian parliament for the first time

The third group is constituted by two right-wing parties, positioned on different ends of that spectrum. At the far right, the Radical Party, now with their Hague vindicated leader – Seselj, scored a surprising result of 8%.

With the main task of bringing Serbia closer to Russian geopolitical influence, and as far away from EU as possible, the Radicals will work closely with a Pro-Russian coalition of DVERI and Democratic Party of Serbia (boasting threshold worthy 5%), in that pursuit.

Lesson 1 – Change of political landscape in Serbia

Once the results came in, an average bystander would think that nothing really changed that much. However, now with seven parties in parliament, and Vucic’s coalition boasting a little over half of the seats, the Serbian house of legislature will look and feel much more democratic than before.  

Consequentially this will result in a change of political narrative, opening up the Parliament to ideological debates that were clearly lacking from previous assembly. In particular, the appearance of two very distinct political options – nationalistic DSS-DVERI and liberal Dosta je Bilo, will certainly shake up the dormant political discourse in Serbia.

Taking into account the perils the far right’s presence in the highest legislative body in Serbia entail, a newly found parliamentary dynamism will propel a more democratic atmosphere within Serbian society.

It is safe to expect that DSS-DVERI will challenge a lot of pro-EU positions the government holds, which, in essence, will lead to an aforementioned long missed debate in the parliament. It is also expected that Dosta je Bilo will challenge the ruling party on cases of glaring corruption and political misconduct, skewing a PR image government has been trying to build for itself for the last four years.

The biggest loser

The current electoral system in Serbia worked in favor of the opposition this time. With five opposition parties in parliament, both the Progressives and the Socialists have to satisfy themselves with fewer seats than last time. As a result, Vucic’s party will not only receive 27 seats less than what it had prior to these elections, but will also need to share them with its coalition partners.

As a result, it is safe to say that Aleksandar Vucic, the untouchable Prime Minister of Serbia is the biggest loser of 2016 elections. Ahead of him he will have a functioning parliament and a serious opposition coming from both ends of the political spectrum.

On top of that, Vucic will have to deal with his own party members, who have waited long enough for their share of political privilege. Finally, with the opposition now in parliament, Vucic’s government will be heavily scrutinized for every move they make, providing a much needed level of resistance to a tour-de-force performance of Progressive Party’s perpetual PR campaign. 

The real question is how Vucic will respond. Surely under Vucic’s mask of calmness lies at least a pinch of concern for challenges that await. Regardless of whether his desire and intention for Serbian people is genuine, or just an incredibly well-thought out marketing scheme, Vucic will have to do something he hasn’t done in past four years.

He will have to become a politician once again. By doing this, Vucic will lose his self-made Moses-like image and with it, a leadership aura that made him untouchable in the eyes of common folk.

The biggest winner

Citizens’ movement Dosta je Bilo, formed a mere two years ago, won more than 270,000 votes. A meteoric rise of more than 200% makes this movement a clear winner of 2016 Elections. Somewhat pioneering ideas of justice, transparency and unparalleled fight against nepotism and corruption, Dosta je Bilo captured the imagination of middle-class Serbia, assuming a comfortable position of vocal electoral underdog.

Dosta je Bilo has had a steady rise of membership and support in the past two years. In 2014 Sasa Radulovic, leader of the movement, decided to participate in the elections with a severely limited budget, focusing his campaign primarily towards social media.

The result was weak – DJB scored meager 1.7% of the popular vote. This was just the beginning though, and since then the DJB movement continued to grow. A combination of a few solid public displays and a distinct message in a sea of political gibber-gabber attracted thousands of frustrated voters to the movement.

Furthermore, DJB positioned itself very distinctively at the very center of the political spectrum. Combining ideas of universal social healthcare with free market capitalism, the citizens’ movement tried to present a political package that was to combine best of two. Their ideological indifference assured that middle class could easily identify with policies at hand, regardless of their own ideological beliefs.

Finally, DJB movement was the only one with a set of completely fresh faces running for parliament. University professors, doctors, lawyers, ordinary people who want to make their country a better place.

A powerful message that resonated heavily with the middle class who is long sick of same-old political elite. Many identified with the movement, and once the ideological differences were put aside (or accumulated even), it was quite clear that Dosta je Bilo is heading into the right direction.

Final Remarks

The 2016 elections turned out to be much more than just a way for PM Vucic to reinforce his political invulnerability. Presidential elections are just around the corner, and it will take no more than a year for the opposition to see how strongly it can position itself against what until only recently seemed like the unstoppable political power and prowess of Aleksandar Vucic. 

About the author

Milos Davidovic is a recent MA Graduate from Lund University, Sweden. His professional and academic interests span across fields of democratization, comparative politics, and political theory.

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