Serbia's election: more defeat than victory

The elevation of Tomislav Nikolić to Serbia's presidency, unexpected by many observers, owes much to the political record and direction of the country's coalition government, says Eric Gordy.

Eric Gordy
21 May 2012

Tomislav Nikolić, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has been elected the next president of Serbia. In the run-off vote between the two leading candidates on 20 May 2012, the estimate of the observer group CeSID is that Nikolić has received 49.7%, exceeding the 47% received by the incumbent Boris Tadić.

In defeating Tadić, who has been Serbia's president since 2004, Nikolić has also overturned the general expectations surrounding Serbia's immediate political future. These were that Tadić would again achieve a narrow victory and go on to serve a third term in office marked by major progress on accession to the European Union, a possible agreement with Kosovo over the territory's status, and the consolidation of the power of Tadić’s Democratic Party (DS) and Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS - its name notwithstanding, the party once led by Slobodan Milošević).

Yet the outcome, narrow as it is, reflects concerns and apprehensions among the Serbian electorate that were already apparent before the first round of voting on 6 May (the same day as the French presidential and Greek parliamentary elections, which meant the event was to a great extent neglected in the international media). These included the way that the DS-SPS bloc, which had ruled since 2008, was extending its control over all institutions and all patronage in the state.

The SPS has secured dominance over the ministries responsible for law-enforcement, education and public works, and in many ways deputy premier Dačić has behaved as if he was prime minister. In the meantime, there was a progressive weakening of the arguments that in the two previous elections had persuaded voters with reservations about the unresponsive and corrupt DS to swallow their priorities and vote to prevent Nikolić from taking power.

The right turn

An important step in this process was Nikolić's resignation from the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the Milošević-satellite party of which he had been a vice-president (the SRS's president is Vojislav Šešelj, currently in the Hague awaiting his verdict on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity). Nikolić then formed the SNS, taking most of the membership and leadership of the old party with him. The new group is declaratively in favour of the European Union, something it shares with every other party in the new parliament with the exception of the DSS led by Serbia's former president, Vojislav Koštunica.

The DS has hardly opposed its SPS coalition partner, and on its own account has sought to expand its credibility among hardline nationalists: by appointing as chief-of-staff the former commander of a unit connected with war crimes in Kosovo, by making Zoran Stanković (an associate of Ratko Mladić) consecutively defence minister and health minister, by declining to rein in the provocative local councils in the north of Kosovo, by initiating a campaign to rehabilitate (as well as to find and exhume!) the second-world-war fascist collaborator Draža Mihailović, and by maintaining an unprofitable hard line in foreign policy.

This indeed is the main factor that made Tomislav Nikolić a more palatable option for voters: not that he has moved toward the DS but rather that the DS began doing the things people had been warned his own SNS might do. Bring the parties of the old regime back to power? Done. Rehabilitate and glorify war criminals? Done. Escalate tensions with neighbouring states? Done. Undermine democratic institutions and the independence of the judiciary and civil service from political parties? Done. All the harm people had been warned to expect from Tomislav Nikolić had already been inflicted by Boris Tadić.

Every move Tadić made - from the coalition with the SPS that started as a relationship and became a dependency, to a political shift in the direction of the hard right - served to alienate voters who formed the core of the DS's support. These were the voters who represented the bulk of opposition to the Milošević regime that had fallen in October 2000, who supported the murdered prime minister Zoran Djindjić’s efforts to push through a radical reorientation of the state and society over conservative and nationalist resistance, and who maintained a transregional understanding of the society’s interests that conflicted with Tadić’s endorsement of confrontation with Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina (and occasionally with Croatia).

People in this group did not generally shift their support to Nikolić (and the small number of prominent figures that did, such as former politician Vesna Pešić and poet-publisher Dejan Ilić, justified the move in strategic terms). The rest were left with a feeling that no party deserved their support - which accounts for the relatively low turnout in both rounds, and for the campaign in favour of spoiled ballots that resulted in a relatively high number (4.6% in the first round, probably about 3.5% in the second).

The short view

In consequence, the result might be viewed less as a victory for Nikolić than as a defeat for Tadić. Tadić lost because he took for granted the support of voters on the left who ceased to think that he deserved it, and made a play for voters on the right who were never inclined to give it. This is also a mixed result: Nikolić will take the presidency, but the majority in parliament will most likely be a coalition of the DS, the SPS, and some smaller parties (including representatives of ethnic minorities).

The rebellion of urban, cosmopolitan and social-democratic voters against the DS has opened up a polemical argument in Serbia over recent weeks. Tadić’s debacle (as well as the swift decline in the fortunes of the anti-nationalist Liberal Democrat Party [LDP], which lost its lucrative seats on Belgrade's city council) is widely attributed to the large-enough number of people who decided to withhold their backing. A significant number of voices accuses these voters of betraying both the general interest and their own via an excessive gesture that punishes their friends.

The "boycotters" are for their part unrepentant. They justify their stance with reference to policies and coalitions for which they did not vote and to the authoritarian structures of the parties that claim their allegiance. And they respond to the charge of punishing their friends in the spirit of Joan Jett: you don’t lose when you lose fake friends.

The disagreement is unlikely to be settled, at least before the behaviour of the SNS in power becomes apparent - either confirming fears of a resurgent national polarisation or affirming the perception that the convergence between parties is now so complete as to render meaningless the sense of a difference between them.

Serbia's election prevents the DS and SPS from entrenching a shared monopoly of power. In the long run this may be good for democracy, but in the short run it is likely to mean that a weak president will face a discredited but determined parliamentary majority composed primarily of his opponents.

The period immediately after the election will probably see repeated confrontation and evident instability. That period, however, may be brief - both because the new president will have a strong motivation to call new elections as soon as he sees an opportune moment to get a more compliant government, and because the parliamentary majority will do all it can to undermine the president. The new constellation of power in Serbia will be unstable, unpredictable and contradictory - but it will be replaceable, in ways that could lead to improvement.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData