On April 3rd, voters were allowed to vote again, but they were essentially treated as hostages of a corrupt system that only remembers them when it needs them - when it is time to vote. After these elections, all of us will go back to our everyday lives and wait for a new call from the ruling party whenever it decides to hold the next elections.
In the country held in captivity by Aleksandar Vučić and his party for a decade now, it should come as no surprise that the ruling party addressed the voters in this electoral cycle as part of its own system of subjects, instead of members of a truly democratic society.
Thus, in the April 3rd elections, voters were allowed to vote again, but they were essentially treated as hostages of a corrupt system that only remembers them when it needs them - when it is time to vote. After these elections, all of us will go back to our everyday lives and wait for a new call from the ruling party whenever it decides to hold the next elections. This is the state Serbia finds itself in after a decade of rule by Aleksandar Vučić and his party, which won these elections again using familiar methods. This victory is not as convincing as the one from the previous election cycle, in the sense that the ruling party will not be able to form a government on its own, but with its previous political partners from the outgoing convocation, it will have enough votes for a majority in the Serbian Parliament.
The success of the incumbent in the presidential elections in Serbia, who won about 2 million out of over 3.5 million votes, as well as the success of his coalition in the parliamentary and city elections in Belgrade, are as distressing as they are alarming, because the citizens of Serbia, at least according to the first estimates of the election results, are again at the mercy of one man running the entire state system.
The Election Campaign
The election campaign was toxic to political and social life in Serbia, especially because of the influence the media had on its course. According to numerous reports from international organizations, the media climate in Serbia, as well as the state and its institutions, have also been captured, media freedoms are declining, and freedom of speech is endangered. Thus, the campaign of President Vučić and the parties gathered around his coalition mainly dictated the tone and attitude that the media had towards other presidential candidates and lists for the parliamentary and city elections in Belgrade.
The Usual Process
The atmosphere that accompanied the election campaign in Serbia did not differ much from what we are already used to - the dominance of the ruling party in public space and its already tested mechanisms of misuse of state resources in collecting votes for itself and its satellites. This includes repeated cases of blackmail of employees in public institutions and companies founded and owned by the state, who, by order, were again used as extras at rallies of Vučić's party, while those who resisted the orders to attend party rallies of the ruling party, either faced mobbing or threats of losing their jobs. A number of irregularities that accompanied election day should be added to this, such as obstruction of the work of polling stations and ruling party tampering with voter rolls reported by the media, which will most likely not be taken into account or affect the Republic Electoral Commission declaring the election results legitimate.
The opposition, which decided to participate in these elections, i.e., decided that the boycott from 2020 was a failed solution, again failed to really reach out to the citizens, both because of internal divisions and mutual conflicts, as well as because of the type of campaign they led.
With the exception of the national minorities’ lists, the shattered opposition told practically the same story as in the previous campaigns - and in general, it seems, the opposition ran in the elections without a specific strategy, firstly on how the programs of opposition political parties differ from each other, and secondly, how they differ from the ruling coalition. With this, the opposition once again showed that apart from endless repetitions of the characteristics of Vučić's autocratic rule, there is nothing more it can offer citizens.
Perennial Electoral Topics
However, the citizens of Serbia know almost everything about the way the President of Serbia and his party rule - they feel it on their own skin every day, so just criticizing the way the state is run was not attractive to voters, despite a high turnout of almost 60% of registered voters, of which the ruling coalition won about 43% in the national parliamentary elections.
In addition, most opposition presidential candidates once again competed over who would be "more Vučić than Vučić himself" in the sense that their appearances were marked by nationalist rhetoric, especially when it comes to the independence of Kosovo and attitude towards Serbia's NATO integration. All the candidates were united on this, and that seems to be the only policy on which there is a consensus in Serbia - “no” to recognizing Kosovo and “no” to joining NATO. The fact is that this attitude showed the cowardice of the opposition parties, having chosen to bow to public opinion, which on both of these issues mostly supports the current state policy. This public opinion in Serbia has been carefully maintained and supported by the decade-long rule of Aleksandar Vučić, but also his predecessors, and there are no indications that anyone will stand in its way. In his first statement after the election results were announced, Vučić himself said that Serbia had "dramatically moved to the right", which is technically correct, because, of the 12 lists making it into Parliament, a third belong to the extreme right of the political spectrum.
The Treatment of Russia and the War in Ukraine
The impact of the world's number one issue on Serbia's campaign - Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine - was not insignificant, and although official Serbia has distanced itself from Putin's invasion (under enormous pressure from the US and the EU), it does not intend to impose any sanctions on Russia and join the western democracies that are trying to stop Putin's bloodshed that has lasted for more than a month. Playing "neutrality" between East and West, something many congratulate Vučić on, helped him create the illusion that Serbia is Switzerland (which itself, after decades of neutrality, imposed sanctions on Russia), although that comparison makes no sense.
On the contrary, official Serbia has de facto sided with Putin, the aggressor and the consequences of his "special action" in Ukraine, which resulted in the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in Europe in the 21st century, and which still has no end in sight.
This was achieved in two ways: First, through the shameless pro-Russian campaign led by the pro-regime media, which simultaneously supported Vučić's candidacy and his party's list. Namely, media outlets close to Vučić's party, the most widely circulated print and electronic media in the country, served as a megaphone for the Kremlin in Serbia and the region using Putin's propaganda vocabulary, while praising the decisions of the President and the Government of Serbia regarding his stance on the war in Ukraine. And second: the support for Russia was reflected in the direct actions of the highest state officials, who were not at all "neutral", but implicitly expressed support for Russia through their concrete actions.
During the campaign, the Russian ambassador to Serbia met with President Vučić, the Speaker of the Parliament Ivica Dačić and the Minister of Interior Aleksandar Vulin. After these meetings, "fraternal" ties between Serbia and Russia were underlined, which in itself speaks volumes about Vučić's so-called policy of "non-alignment" and whose side Serbia is actually on when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the massacre that Putin is carrying out there.
During the campaign, Serbia was also visited by European officials, who, as before, unlike our Russian "brothers", were merely declared to be "partners", although it was mostly their financial assistance and support, investments, and favorable loans during decades of support to Serbia that have made numerous infrastructure projects possible, with Vučić referring to these in the campaign as if he had personally donated them to the citizens of Serbia.
New Topics and New Hopes
Presidential candidates and representatives of the lists for the parliamentary elections during the campaign mostly spoke on the same topics that we have heard countless times so far. The only new topic that has finally emerged as relevant is ecology. It should be noted that this did not happen by itself or overnight, but that the years of work and protests organized by green associations of citizens and others, managed to raise environmental issues to the level of "key issues of state."
However, almost all lists and presidential candidates spoke about these topics in unprofessional, often contradictory language, without a clear plan to address the burning issues on which the lives and health of a huge number of people depend. This is despite the fact that according to a recent poll, environmental problems, air, land, and water pollution are four of the six most important topics for citizens at the national level, while ecology is the number one problem for the citizens of Belgrade.
The coalition that stood out from the cacophony made by other parties were activists and associations of citizens gathered around the green-left coalition "Moramo”, which, taking everything into account, has made a significant breakthrough in the political life of Serbia, winning, according to preliminary results, 12 seats in the national parliament and 13 seats in the city council of Belgrade. About 60 associations and groups of citizens have gathered for the first time around one presidential candidate (one of only three women running) and a list for the National Parliament and the Belgrade City Assembly. During the campaign, they managed to put the issues of ecology, rule of law, workers’ rights, and social justice at the center of their campaign and start a conversation about them in public.
“Moramo” is a group of small but dedicated associations from all over Serbia that stand steadfast against Vučić's policy of turning Serbia into a mine and a destination for foreign companies to extract profit by using dirty technologies, all with huge state subsidies. As the representatives of the coalition "Moramo" pointed out in the campaign, the Government of Serbia has already earmarked about 40 locations throughout Serbia where it plans to open new mines, and six mini-hydro power plants have been announced, continuing to destroy the quality of the environment and the lives of the people it has set back enough in previous years. These "small people", each in their own environment, bravely protested against plans that would either displace them from their homes or turn them into slaves for Chinese and other multinational companies, which has become the practice of Vučić's government in previous years.
When these protests reached Belgrade, with the support of the initiative "Ne Davimo Beograd", which has been opposing environmental and all other kinds of devastation of the capital city for years, and around which the broad coalition "Moramo" has now gathered, the pro-regime media, just like the previous years, satanized these people as "foreign mercenaries" and destroyers of public order and peace, instrumentalized by Western countries to undermine Vučić's rule. The media was joined by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, who defamed these activists on national television during prime time, but their most vocal critic was the Minister of Interior, who openly referred to them as foreign mercenaries. However, these were gatherings of ordinary people without significant political experience who decided to break out of Vučić's prison and fight for their own rights, and therefore the rights of all citizens of Serbia.
It is encouraging that these groups have come together and organized themselves politically and ran in the elections, because they raised certain questions which will now be difficult to ignore. Although they were not spectacularly successful in terms of the number of votes, due to being ignored, stigmatized, and mistreated by the media, as well as due to their lack of strong party infrastructure, and attacks from all sides by the "big parties", their presence in the National Assembly of Serbia and the City Hall of Belgrade will be difficult to ignore and, perhaps more importantly, their success proves that activist political organizing in Serbia is still possible and that it yields results.
Conclusion - There is a Ray of Hope, but...
But, one should have realistic expectations, because the victory of Aleksandar Vučić and his party is a sure sign that he and his coalition, if they manage to form a government at all levels with traditional partners, which is the most likely outcome suggested by the first election results, will continue to destroy even the smallest, attempt at changing his policies, policies that will continue to lead Serbia in the familiar direction of corruption and isolation, as well as the collapse of basic democratic values. However, for the first time, they will now have to face an authentic green-left group in Parliament, which will certainly loudly oppose their already proven disastrous policies.
With everything that awaits us in the coming years, we must find a spark of optimism in the success achieved by the “Moramo” coalition and in the fact that self-organization and political action of individuals in Serbia is still possible. We can either join in and support that fight in the new cycle of the poisonous rule of Aleksandar Vučić, or keep being hostages to his politics.