The Meaning of Vučić's Election Victory for Serbia and the EU

The Meaning of Vučić's Election Victory for Serbia and the EU

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On April 24, Serbia has elected new parliaments – in most of the municipalities, in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and on national level. As expected by party leader Aleksandar Vučić, the alliance of parties led by his Serbian Progressive Party is the clear winner on the national level, with 48.2 per cent of the vote (131 out of 250 seats in parliament). The previous government partners, namely the electoral ticket led by the Socialist Party, have won 11 per cent (29 seats). The Progressive Party has succeeded in expanding its power in the entire country, also gaining the majority in Vojvodina for the first time. There is nothing standing in the way of a rerun of a government coalition with the Socialists on the national level.

Two messages were spread in the course of the election campaign: continuation of economic reforms, progress concerning European integrations and efforts concerning regional stabilization by means of cooperation – progress towards the future instead of a return to the past. It is a message welcomed by Europe. The other message was: 50 plus X, which actually stood for: expanding the progressive Party’s reign, reducing the opposition to just one party and destroying the remains of a critical general public. Measured against this, party leader Vučić cannot be satisfied. Contrary to his expectations, 7 coalitions will head to the parliament instead of 4, which was the case previously: apart from the Democratic Party (6%; 16 seats) and the Social Democratic Party /Liberal Democratic Party /League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (5%; 13 seats), the liberal anti-partocracy movement "Enough is Enough – Saša Radulović" (6 %; 16 seats) and the extreme right-wing, Russophile, anti-NATO und anti-EU greater Serbian parties – Democratic Party of Serbia / Dveri (5%; 13 seats) and Vojislav Šešelj‘s Serbian Radical Party (8.1%; 22 seats) have also overcome the 5% threshold. In addition, several minority parties are again represented in parliament, including – astonishingly – the Green Party as a Slovakian minority party[1]. The increase of the number of coalitions in parliament comes at a cost for the hitherto government – in form of 41 seats. What should come as an even greater annoyance for party leader Vučić is the diversity of the opposition, consisting of several pro- and anti-European coalitions. The lone opposition via the anti-European Radical Party of his former boss and friend Šešelj, using the latter as a scarecrow, would have provided him with the possibility of gaining the profile of a modernist and a European, one who is internally only contradicted by the "wrong side". Now this will be more difficult. For, lacking credibility is and remains to be Aleksandar Vučić’s greatest problem. This is not only due to his past as nationalist rabble-rouser and oppressor of media freedoms in the service of Milošević; his credibility problem is based on systematic reasons, as he is sending different messages to the EU and to his supporters. Addressing the EU, he is promising a modern, democratic Serbia while, on the other hand, he is promising a form of populist majority dictatorship.

Every Two Years – Prime Minister Vučić Turns to the People and Disregards the Constitution and the Institutions

The decision that, after only two years, early elections were again to be held in Serbia was announced by the Serbian Prime Minister at his Serbian Progressive Party's executive committee meeting. He has fueled speculations on this issue for weeks. The poll results were favorable. What could prevent him from seeking another four-year term of office by means of new elections? For instance, an argument against new elections came in form of the Constitution. Namely, the dissolution of parliament and calling new elections belongs to the President's jurisdiction. The head of government is obligated to present a convincing justification to the President on why he is no longer able to conduct governmental affairs on the basis of the mandate acquired after the 2014 election – which was also a snap election. A good thing, then, for the Prime Minister that President Nikolić immediately granted his wish for new elections. As soon as he receives the request, as he said on the same day, he would call new elections. Thus the election campaign was launched, without the need to observe the rules concerning the election campaign. Even in times of normalcy, head of government Vučić is already omnipresent in the media devoted to him. But he had a couple of weeks until the official dissolution of parliament, in which he was able to lead an election campaign without competition. Every construction site he opened, every foreign visit welcomed by him – everything turned into an unrivalled election campaign. It is only on the day that new elections are announced that the media are obligated to represent parties or coalitions competing for power in a "fair and impartial manner".

The justification used ultimately by Prime Minister Vučić to convince his President of the necessity of new elections offered no sign that the government no longer had the required majority in Parliament; no indication that there were harsh conflicts with the coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia, in terms of policy orientation. Instead, Vučić declared the "establishment of a different, modern and successful Serbia (to be) complete". And now, in order to "secure the European standard of living and establishment of our country's clear and unambiguous path towards the future", he deems a clear mandate necessary "to round off the reforms which will enable our country to reach the entrance to the European family of nations". This is no justification, once again it is election campaign. Of course, this was no longer a matter of an actual justification, as prescribed by the Constitution. The President had already consented. But presumably – not without conditions.

A Referendum on Aleksandar Vučić

Party leader Vučić clearly had several reasons for new elections: conflicts with the President, dissatisfaction among the party activists, delay of unpopular economic measures. To all of these questions, he is seeking one reply: strengthening of his position in the party, the state and society. In order to achieve this, he is converting the elections for the national parliament into a referendum on his persona.

EU – Kosovo – Russia: Conflicts between Vučić and President Nikolić

In recent years, there have been repeated conflicts between Vučić and the President who, as the founder of the Progressive Party, has a considerable power base. Nikolić has a generally skeptical view of Serbia's accession to the EU, whereas he altogether refuses joining EU at the price of recognizing the Republic of Kosovo. He is also critical of the process of "normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo" which has been introduced as of 2013. He refuses the agreed upon dissolution of parallel Serb institutions in Northern Kosovo. Since he threatened to release his own "Kosovo Platform" by means of which the Parliament could have set limits to the normalization process, the Serbian Government (temporarily) gave up this essential part of the integration of the Serb-dominated North into the Kosovo institutions. It refuses to transfer Serb institutions in the fields of healthcare and education to Kosovar institutions. In terms of emotions, but also strategy, Nikolić wishes for a clear direction towards Russia, whereas Vučić makes deals with NATO and USA hoping to receive EU-membership as a reward for doing so. In such a situation, new elections provide a good opportunity for postponement of a tug-of-war between the party leader and head of government, and the President, by means of a referendum on the former; as a reward for his cooperation, Nikolić has consolidated his power base in the parliamentary group. He has accommodated numerous pro-Russian candidates (Nenad Popović of the Serbian People's Party; the brother of Bogoljub Karić who lives in exile in Moscow and is being criminally prosecuted by Serbian authorities, as well as the pro-Russian journalist Miroslav Lazanski) and Aleksandar Vulin's Movement of Socialists on the ticket. It is estimated that, overall, about 40 per cent of the deputies of the coalition led by the Progressive Party will be affiliated with President Nikolić. Details remain unknown, as the composition of lists does not take place during internal party elections, but behind closed doors.

Getting Serbia under Control

This is where positions on election lists and future jobs in the government and the public sector are being promised, it is where loyalty to the great leader Vučić or to President Nikolić is being justified and reaffirmed. The prospect of lucrative proximity to power has always driven people in the Serbian post-Milošević era to join the party in power. Vučić‘s Progressive Party is a party of those who have missed out on the plundering of public assets and state enterprises prior to 2012 and who are now impatiently awaiting the conquest of further parts of the state and the public sector in order to fulfill their interests. Thus, the party has turned into a mass movement of several hundred thousand members that acts against the establishment of the rich and powerful. Its symbols include the criminal prosecution and arrest of the country's wealthiest tycoon on counts of corruption – an action still pending decision by the court, but immensely popular; Miroslav Mišković is the main embodiment of  profiteers in the lootings which had been introduced under Milošević and persisted during the Tadić regime. The other symbol are fake diplomas (exemplified by the President's suspected  purchased degree) and the (according to experts, however never investigated by a proper commission) plagiarized dissertations of leading Progressive Party politicians and the party leader's close friends, namely the Minister of Interior Nebojša Stefanović and Mayor of Belgrade Siniša Mali. The common message: performance does not pay off, it is networks and loyalty that really count. We'll get our share together. "Together, we can accomplish anything!" – as one could read on one of the Progressive Party's election posters. New elections serve the interests of this very mass movement which can best voice its claims in the polarizing election campaign; and one of its intentions is the establishment of a unitary rule throughout Serbia, one in which the Progressive Party controls everything and delivers it to the party members' free disposal – from the President, through the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina which had been governed by variants of the oppositional Democratic Party for the past 15 years, down to the municipalities. Total partocracy. And since the Progressive Party had no familiar faces to offer in Vojvodina and primarily at the local level, a synchronization of elections on all levels promised to produce the greatest success – for, on all levels, list no. 1 offers just one person: Aleksandar Vučić, the leader of this mass movement. "Aleksandar Vučić – Serbia Wins".

Delay of Economic Reforms

An additional reason for these snap elections can be sought in the fact that Serbia, under supervision of the International Monetary Fund, has committed to a reform program requiring unpopular measures, which would reach full swing only after the elections. In the period between 2012 and 2014, the ruling coalition comprised of the Progressive Party and the Socialists has ballooned the national debt, from 45 to 75 per cent of the domestic product. National bankruptcy was within reach. This trend was not halted, however it could be decelerated through fiscal measures taken since the 2014 elections. The necessitated cuts in pensions and salaries in the public sector (which are high in comparison with those in the private sector) were unpopular, but relatively simple. The relaxation of layoff regulations and acceleration of building permits were important steps, used as means of shedding parts of the socialist legacy. But the IMF is now awaiting the next reforms: rationalization of the relatively large public sector, meaning dismissals and introduction of a meritocratic private economy, privatization of state-owned enterprises, i.e. insolvency of state-owned enterprises which have for years been in the red, increasing the state deficit and unable to come up with investors. Redirection of state payments from consumption to public infrastructure, restructuring of the financial sector which needs to overcome the problem of bad loans and transform into a credit market based on the Serbian dinar instead of the hitherto Euro-basis, as was the case previously. All of that was on the agenda back in late 2013. However, party leader Vučić sought a delay by means of new elections. This has also happened this time. Accordingly, the IMF has postponed its report, which will indicate numerous unredeemed promises, until the formation of a new government.

Movement in the Election Campaign

It is still unclear whether the opposition parties will present enough evidence to contest the elections. It is possible that there is a deal between the opposition and the government: the lists that have scored results around or exactly at 5% enter the parliament, too, and in return, one would refrain from investigating the election. That remains to be seen. OSCE, which had monitored the election, remains silent.

However, it is already certain that there were numerous violations – of both rules of fairness and the law. The ruling party and particularly its leader Aleksandar Vučić were represented in all media out of all proportions and in a positive light. The small opposition parties, on the other hand, were read, heard and seen at a much lower level and in negative light. This was particularly pronounced in the case of public and private television programs. There are reports according to which heads of state-owned enterprises have threatened their workers with resignations in case of a poor score for the Progressive Party. There are countless reports of Progressive Party activists buying votes: for 1,000 dinar or a portion of macaroni. Prior to entering polling stations, activists have handed voters a pre-filled ballot and had them return empty ballots which they have received at the polling station. Others had to prove their loyalty by delivering a photograph of their ballot paper together with their ID card. The Serbian electoral roll has for a long time been in need of updating. The fact that it contains, apart from a multitude of Serbs living abroad, a whole range of deceased persons, renders it well suited for electoral fraud.

Vračar – a Municipality of the Middle and Upper Class is Contested

A particular form of electoral fraud became known in several districts and municipalities whose residents traditionally do not vote for the Progressive Party. In those cases, numerous persons totally unknown in those neighborhoods were newly registered in the electoral roll – presumably with support of the Ministry of Interior. One of such districts, in which the Progressive Party had intended to tip over the majority to its advantage, is the municipality of Vračar, the smallest Belgrade district which had been governed by the Democratic Party since the 1990s, and where the party's headquarters are situated. Besides the electoral roll manipulation, this municipality also witnessed the candidacy of a list which, using a duck as its main symbol, acts against the largest construction project championed by the Prime Minister and the city of Belgrade: the list entitled "Duck – No to the Belgrade Waterfront". This project is indeed highly contested, as it promises to transform a large, previously undeveloped area on the bank of the Sava into a second Dubai, without tender or public debate. And indeed, the opponents of this project – which has to do with  urban development, citizen participation and corruption – do deploy a large yellow duck which they float up and down along the future construction site of "Belgrade Waterfront" with the slogan "Let us not Drown Belgrade". However: the list "Duck – No to the Belgrade Waterfront" is not backed by activists who oppose the project, but Progressive Party activists aiming to divide the civic camp in Vračar and in two other districts on the banks of the Sava. Fortunately, the Progressive Party's breakthrough has not succeeded here, or in the neighboring Stari Grad municipality. It did become the strongest party. Still, overall, the educated middle and upper class of those districts has expressed a narrow preference for the Democratic Party and the list "Enough is Enough – Saša Radulović" which was only founded in 2014.

What is particularly remarkable here is the success of the economist Saša Radulović. He was appointed Minister of Economy in 2013 by Vučić, in order to impress the IMF and appease the EU which was scheduled to decide on the outset of the accession negotiations in late 2013. After Radulović had realized that he was only supposed to stand for a ostensible reform willingness, he stepped down, prior to the new elections in spring of 2014. Since then, his message has been: party rule in Serbia must be vanquished. Because, under the circumstances of partocracy, which was not invented by the Progressive Party, but further propelled by it, the rationalizations and privatizations demanded by the IMF and the EU do not lead to economic liberalization, but to a strengthening of the position of party members who buy up privatized media and other enterprises under favorable conditions and use them for expansion of political control of jobs and the public discourse. In his criticism, Radulović is able to rely on numerous other critics of the ruling parties' anti-liberal practices: Ombudsman Saša Janković or the report by the Anti-Corruption Council On the Possible Impact of Public Sector Institutions on Media, through Financing of Advertising and Marketing Services. They, and many others, compile evidence on a daily basis indicating that Serbia's transformation from state economy to market economy has gotten stuck at the level of party economy. It is another question, though, whether Radulović has an economic program which points Serbia's path away from the party economy and provides more than an expansion of a low-wage sector for foreign direct investments – one that would be supported by the middle and upper class. It is therefore possible that "Enough is Enough" will, as indicated by its protest name, join the satirical and parodic anti-parties which have existed in Serbia at municipal level for a while.

A Vote for the European Union?

The ambassadors of EU member-states have supported party leader Vučić's project of new elections from the very outset. After all, his message was that he wanted a mandate for reforms and European integrations. So it comes to no surprise that they, and the government-friendly press of their countries, now interpret Aleksandar Vučić's election victory as a vote for the EU. They probably do not foster any illusions when it comes to the authoritarian features of the current and upcoming Serbian Government and the autocracy of the current and upcoming Prime Minister. What they do appreciate about him, and rightly so, is his measured, balanced and reconciliatory tone which contributes to regional stability in the easily inflammable Balkans. A stability which, ever since the Ukraine conflict, has been additionally jeopardized through the West's geostrategic confrontation with Russia. For, here, too, spheres of interest are overlapping. Russian foreign policy is attempting to enfold its interference potential in Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. In case of Serbia, it puts far more emphasis on the President and leader of the Socialist Party Dačić then on Prime Minister Vučić who is viewed with criticism by the Russian-influenced media in Serbia. It is by means of financial support and annual progress reports along the path of EU-accessions that the rulers of these EU membership candidates are rewarded for their resistance to Russian pressure and willingness to cooperate with the West – most clearly in the form of envisaged NATO membership. Thus, an increasing number of "stabilocracies"[2] have formed in the Balkans, used by the EU as protection from further crises in its immediate neighborhood and new waves of refugees and emigration. But is the EU enlargement policy the right instrument for that? There are good arguments for stabilizing the Balkan region by means of integration into NATO. However, is it to the EU's benefit, as the British Minister Theresa May recently asked, to furthermore increase its heterogeneity and internal tension through the admission of countries such as Serbia, Albania and Turkey in exchange for stability? The Dutch referendum on the Ukraine Association Agreement is also a clear vote against further enlargement of the EU. On the other hand, the EU has assured the prospect of accession to the Balkan countries during the 2003 EU Summit in Thessaloniki. It should adhere to that. Reliability and loyalty to principles are valuable commodities – in foreign relations but, of course, also in the attitude towards EU citizens. The EU has made a promise to the latter that there shall be no free ticket for any candidate country when it comes to democratic principles. That is why the EU has to review the instruments which can do so more successfully than in the cases of Bulgaria, Romania and even Croatia. The Copenhagen Criteria are the benchmark for EU accession. They have provided the basis for EU enlargement towards Central and Eastern Europe. Other instruments are needed for the national consolidation and stabilization of the region. Under the given geostrategic conditions,  it primarily needs to address issues of common foreign and security policy – issues which, ever since the large-scale EU enlargement towards Eastern and Central Europe, have all been addressed by means of accession to NATO.

It is to be hoped that the EU will be able to bring itself to a clearer course one day. Until then, it will welcome an autocrat's election victory as a vote for the EU.

 

Andreas Poltermann and Paola Petrić

Heinrich Böll Foundation Belgrade

 

 

[1] Minority parties do not have to overcome the 5% threshold. They gain a seat in parliament with much less votes than needed by the general parties. Of course, the minority status represents an invitation to misuse. It has not been revealed to the voter why the small Slovakian minority of Serbia is a green party. Still, its full name is: "Party of the Slovakian Minority – Green Party."