Serbia Before the Elections: Change is On the Horizon


The dirty campaign and heightened pressure are indirect evidence that the Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) ratings are in decline, which makes a change of government in Belgrade seem possible. The coalition Serbia Against Violence has presented the Progressives with a serious competitor for the first time, so the brunt of the campaign was borne by Aleksandar Vučić himself - even though he is not up for election.


zlf group photo

For the first time since the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power, Serbia is heading for elections with an uncertain outcome: researchers have raised the prospect of a change of government in Belgrade, and a redistribution of power at the state level is also not inconceivable.

That is why the time has come to pull out all the stops in defense of the government: the dirtiest means are used to demonize the opposition, and voters are subject to widespread attempts at bribery and increased pressure. The brunt of the campaign was taken on by the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić personally - even though he is not up for election. His presidential mandate is set to expire in 2027, and he is no longer the head of the SNS, but this was no obstacle for the party to use his name for all electoral lists.

So far, the SNS government has organized five elections, always in the spring (2014, 2016, 2017, 2020, 2022). These will be the first elections to take place in the winter term, on December 17. Parliamentary elections have been called (although it is not clear why), as well as elections for the Assembly of Vojvodina and 66 municipalities and cities, including Belgrade (though local and provincial elections are supposed to be held in spring of next year). To facilitate this, the presidents of the selected municipalities resigned simultaneously, without a reasonable explanation.

An interesting interpretation was given by Milan Stamatović, the president of the municipality of Čajetina, until recently an opposition member, now an SNS coalition partner: according to him, this is how the SNS can move its supporters from municipalities where elections are not being held to municipalities where there will be elections, thereby increasing its chances of winning.

This is only one of the reasons for the assessment that the integrity of the elections is threatened in advance, as indicated by the conclusion of the pre-election observer team of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, that the pre-election campaign is "very polarized" and "marked by an unprecedented level of negative campaigning and fear, attacks on the opposition and journalists and serious issues related to the media".

It is clear why the SNS is working more diligently than ever before on electoral engineering. It has barely been a year and a half since the last elections, but the atmosphere has changed significantly. There was an observable "awakening" of the citizens and the fear of repression by the authoritarian government has disappeared. This is in large part due to the shock caused by the mass murder of 19 victims in Vladislav Ribnikar Primary School and the villages around Mladenovac at the beginning of May.

These two massacres, to which the government reacted poorly, were the trigger for strong, months-long protests entitled "Serbia against violence" in Belgrade and throughout Serbia. The progressives tried to retaliate with their "Serbia of Hope" rally on May 26, which turned out to be a debacle.

The number of people gathered, bused in from all over Serbia, was noticeably smaller than the number of participants in the anti-violence protest, and many left before Vučić's speech. It was an undeniable indicator of the vacillation and attrition of the former SNS electorate.

It seems that the story of the "golden age" is no longer as effective as it used to be. After peaking at 16.2 percent in the spring, inflation has moderated but remains among the highest in Europe. Enormous price increases have impoverished the citizens, so social discontent has increased, as manifested in numerous strikes. At the same time, however, voters have become more susceptible to various forms of bribery.

Activists and officials from SNS all over Serbia have been distributing "aid" and "gifts", to which the Anti-Corruption Agency has persistently turned a blind eye. Budgetary funds are being distributed publicly to different categories of citizens, and this "good news" is always brought by Vučić himself.

Researchers say that, since the spring, the rating of the SNS has dropped by several percentage points (five to seven), but Vučić is still significantly more popular than the party, although not completely stable (for the first time, he has more negative than positive ratings). The government's campaign is completely in line with those assessments - only Vučić is visible, he speaks at rallies, appears on television almost every day, and has recorded numerous videos in which, among other things, he visits citizens across the country.

While the government bases its struggle for survival on the exploitation of Vučić's cult of personality, the opposition is trying to turn the growing civil discontent to its advantage. According to surveys, however, there are still more opponents of the government than supporters of the opposition ("I would vote against the government, but I don't know for whom").

Nevertheless, there is noticeable progress, despite the difficult media conditions, the aversion of citizens towards political parties, but also internal conflicts, most often motivated by personal rather than ideological reasons.

On the wave of the Serbia Against Violence protests, parliamentary parties with a civic, pro-European orientation have managed to establish constructive cooperation that led to the formation of an electoral coalition of the same name, with the addition of some extraparliamentary parties (Srce, led by Zdravko Ponoš) or newly created organizations (People's Movement for Serbia , created after the departure of Miroslav Aleksić from the People's Party of Vuk Jeremić). 

Opposition unification is still incomplete - negotiations with Boris Tadić's party failed, so the former president of Serbia has turned to an alliance with the ideologically unrelated Saša Radulović.

The civic opposition has presented itself to the public in a positive light, especially during the parliamentary struggle that followed the protests against violence. One of the most difficult tasks - expounding on the request to form a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee to examine the circumstances that led to the massacres was taken on by Radomir Lazović from the Green Left Front (ZLF). In addition to his record-breaking floor speech which lasted for eight hours, and being one of the most active MPs, Lazović has profiled himself as a talented polemicist. The rest of the caucus was not far behind either, as it distinguished itself by thoroughly preparing for debate.

With this, a green-left organization has shown that progress is possible even in a predominantly right-wing society, which is one of the most important changes on the political scene since the previous elections. In its transformation from the Ne davimo Beograd movement to the ZLF party, part of its initial informality disappeared and its unusual way of organizing was replaced by a more classic party form, but with one novelty: the party has two co-presidents, one man (Lazović) and one woman (Biljana Đorđević).

Research has obviously shown that voters approve of the activities of the ZLF, which is also indicated by the fact that the coalition list for the parliamentary elections, made based on data on the strength of the organizations, reserves 14 percent of the seats for ZLF representatives. Among the first 71 candidates, who are believed to be certain to enter the Parliament, 10 are ZLF candidates, and the first place went to Lazović, followed by Miroslav Aleksić. In Belgrade, first on the list is Mila Popović, the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, the single strongest opposition party, and Dobrica Veselinović from the ZLF is second.

The attempt at unification on the right, failed, however, despite the involvement of several prominent "national" intellectuals. Only Dveri and Zavetnici joined together, and they are running under the name "National Gathering". The NADA alliance (Nova DSS and POKS) has survived, and Vuk Jeremić's People's Party, which is running independently in the elections, has now definitely moved to the right.

In addition to failing to create synergies by running together - which, according to researchers, is a significant advantage of the Serbia against Violence coalition - the right-wing parties, with their disjointed performance, run the risk that some of them end up below the electoral threshold of 3 percent.

The list of entities running for election is extensive once again - 18 lists were registered for the parliamentary elections and 14 for the Belgrade elections. That is why a significant number of votes from opposition-oriented voters may be wasted by going to parties that would end up below the census. At the same time, the participation of lists that are suspected of being connected to the regime facilitates manipulation when determining the results (voting with the ruling party in electoral commissions).

Even in Belgrade, where, according to research, the SNS performs relatively poorly, the balance of power is such that a change of government might require the cooperation of civic and right-wing parties. There is also the idea of creating a temporary government, which would be fixed for a short period, with the task of preparing new elections under fair conditions. The readiness for such an agreement was most clearly expressed by the coalition Serbia against Violence and NADA.

At the state level, researchers say, even if they can once again form the government, the SNS will need a partner, most likely the Socialists. This would be a significant change compared to the multi-year period in which SNS wielded absolute power and a reason for additional upheaval in the no longer monolithic ranks of the party.

That perspective puts Ivica Dačić, the leader of the Socialists, in the position of having to swear allegiance to Vučić to allay suspicion. For now, there is insufficient evidence that he could change his mind and change the fate of Serbia again, as he did in 2012, when he left the coalition with Boris Tadić and enabled the SNS to come to power. Endowed with a profound political survival skill, however, Dačić is not certainly not blind to the fact that, in the coalition Serbia against Violence, Vučić is faced with a serious competitor for the first time.

Let us end with an interesting fact: both Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s and the DOS coalition in the 2000s were in power for 12 years each. The SNS came to power in 2012.