COM 03/2016

Electoral April in Serbia

Dr. Richard Stojar, Department of Security Studies and Analyses, Centre for Security and Military Strategic Studies, University of Defence, Brno, Czech Republic

Dr. Věra Stojarová, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Studies,  Department of Political Science, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic


Serbian parliamentary elections were due to be held by March 2018, but Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić decided to hold early elections being quite self-confident with opinion polls showing high ratings for his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and promising so a landslide win. The April elections were the third parliamentary elections in four years and the second consecutive elections to be called before the end of the parliament’s mandate. Vučić argued he needed a clear mandate from the voters for reforms to keep EU membership talks on track for completion by 2019 claiming that the elections should be “a referendum on whether Serbia wants to be a modern European country in 2020, whether it wants the future or the past”[1]. However, the real reason to call the early elections was to weaken the opposition, strengthen SNS position in the parliament, ridding the government of Socialists and last but not least to strengthen Vučić position within the ranks of SNS stemming from the expected victory on the regional and local level (early elections were called alongside already planned regional and local elections) and silence so the supporters of the Serbian president and SNS founder Tomislav Nikolić. However, only the last mentioned (strengthening of SNS on regional and local level) took place against all expectations.

Opinion polls showed, that SNS had support of al- most half of the electorate and even at the end of the polling day on 24th April 2016, the ratings showed more than fifty percent of the votes for Vučić party which made him to declare a historic triumph for SNS. Nevertheless, the results announced later on[2]meant unpleasant surprising for the leading party as it lost 27 mandates (out of 250) and fell to 131 seats.

Second came Ivica Dačić with the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) with 29 mandates while third came SRS with its frontman Vojislav Šešelj, who recently had come back from The Hague being acquitted in a first-instance verdict on all counts by the ICTY pending appeal. Having in mind that Dačić was once an enthusiastic follower of Slobodan Milošević and that Vučić collaborated with Vojislav Šešelj till 2008, we must come to a conclusion, that all three winners of the elections had once flirted with nationalism (SPS and SNS followers) or constantly manifest xenophobia, nationalism, chauvinism (SRS). Pessimistic comments then talk about the  return of the nationalist 1990s as more or less the same people won this race as in the first post-communist elections. Optimists would then see the ideological change of SPS and SNS founders (previously SRS members) turning it to be more pragmatic which in everyday life politics means less nationalism, more Europeanism.

What will change then in Serbia after the elections? One of the results of the elections is that, Vučić has lost his strong mandate and bolstered up the opposition’s status. Socialists also incurred heavy losses falling down to 15 seats. And who are the winners of these elections? Definitely nationalist parties which again entered parliament and grew stronger

–                we have SRS back and also the national-conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Vojislav Koštunica accompanied with a new far right friend

–                Dveri. The second part of the opposition is made by the parties which do not play the nationalist card led by the Democratic Party (DS), new parliamentary party Enough is enough (DJB) led by the former Minister of Economy in the Vučić government Saša Radulović and the discredited political player Boris Tadić leading a Coalition for a Better Serbia (SDS, LDP, LSV). Out of the democratic opposition, the definite winner is DJB, which did not surpass the electoral threshold in 2014 but succeeded to triple its share in 2016. The results show that the post materialist cleavage is still not important in Serbia, as the Green party (ZS, founded in 2014) gained only one seat. (The first time the post-materialist Greens of Serbia entered the parliament was in 2012 with one seat). Furthermore, the Green Party curiously registered as a party of the Slovak national minority in order to avoid the high requirements needed for registering (1 000 signatures instead of 10 000 signatures and also the fee is ten times lower; un- less a party wins at least one seat within the period of 8 years, it is to be removed from the list) and so qualified as a party of a national minority not having to surpass the 5 % threshold and gaining one seat with only 0,64% clearly misusing the system of affirmative action designed exclusively for the parties of national minorities.

Media outside Serbia describe the results of the elections as a great success of pro-western and pro-European orientated politicians. However, this interpretation does not completely correspond with the reality. The issue of Serbian integration into the European Union was not the key topic of the electoral campaign and was not even the reason why the early election was called. Vučić himself together with SNS declares the EU entry to be one of the key topics of his politics; on the other hand, he keeps also the contacts with the Russian federation and tries to balance between these two actors and their interests. The development of pro-Western orientated politicians and the constantly lowering of the criteria which a pro-European or pro-Western politician should fulfil in the post-Milošević era in Serbia is worth mentioning. Vučić himself is in the first place a political pragmatist being able to talk about the European values and the European course of Serbia and at the same time highlighting the strategic partnership with the Russian federation in the Balkan region based on the traditional Russian-Serbian relations. His transformation from the harsh nationalist and admirer of Greater Serbia into a moderate pro-European politician is in the context of his career plausible, but complicates his position in the party as well as in the society. In this regard, we must not forget to mention the speculation which ac- companied the quite surprising acquittal of Vojislav Šešelj by the ICTY. The assumptions talked about an effort of the West to protect the Serbian Prime Minister who as a collaborator of Šešelj within the ranks of SRS became famous for controversial statements and hate speech and so could be discredited or even prosecuted now.

The EU topic did not belong to the main ones in the pre-electoral campaign and was shadowed with the issue of economic and political reforms and the strong mandate for their realisation. Even though the results of the elections are being interpreted as a clear victory of pro-European political forces gain- ing 85 % of the votes, this rather reflects the stances and interests of political elites than those of Serbi- an society. The support for EU integration has been constantly on decline, the former optimistic vision from the first decade of the 21st century are out of sight and the long integration process with an un- clear perspective is for the Serbian society rather tiring. The attractiveness of membership is weakened by the development in the neighbouring member states as it shows that the membership does not guarantee economic growth and ever-lasting stability. Neighbouring Bulgaria was caught, shortly after its accession, in long-term economic problems, similarly, Croatia underwent an economic recession in 2013 after joining the European Union, and, finally, the critical economic-political situation of Greece balancing on the edge of state bankruptcy shows that optimistic expectations from the past were an illusion. This development is reflected by the Serbian society, which is according to a public survey the most euro-sceptical in the Western Balkans: only 24 % of survey respondents see EU membership as a good thing, 44 % neither good nor bad while 27 % see it as a bad thing (comparing it to euro-optimist Kosovo with ratio 89 % good thing, 8% neither good nor bad, 2% bad thing). Around fifty percent of the respondents expect the accession to the EU to hap- pen by 2030 while 33% think it will never happen[3]. Therefore, EU accession is seen positively only by political pragmatists such as Vučić and the economic groups which would potentially profit from the EU subsidies, while the rest of the society sees EU accession rather with scepticism.

The return of SRS into the parliament is not that surprising as the publicity around the Šešelj acquittal and release from The Hague electrified the former firm SRS voters. The halo of national martyr and invincible defender of Serbian rights helped Radicals to surpass the electoral threshold. SRS hoped to achieve 20 % and Vojislav Šešelj right after the election shared his disappointment with the result but said “in future debates we will show we are superior to our opponents”. Quite interesting is the development of the far right formation Dveri, which in the last two elections did not surpass the electoral threshold (missing only 0,67% of the votes in 2012 and 1,46% of the votes in 2013) and it seemed that the movement is on decline. Having in mind, that Dveri appeals to the similar electorate as SRS and partially also SNS, we can only talk about a partial success of nationalistic rhetoric in these elections. There is still a question mark whether the oppositional role of Dveri which pragmatically allied before the elections with DSS will help to strengthen or weaken the party.

And who will be in the government? Gaining 131 seats out of 250, there is actually no real need to search for a coalition partner. Nevertheless, in or- der to access the European Union, Serbia needs to approve a new Constitution (deletion of Kosovo from the preamble) for which 2/3 of the parliament are needed. When we count SNS mandates with the mandates of SPS, the 2/3 are not achieved. As Vučić announced, “he will not ally with the people who only wait to stab him in his back, but only with good people”. He affirmed to ally with the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM) but also said that he can have 190 MPs in 24 hours including Socialists and Radicals whose only condition is to leave the pro-European integration path and he quite amusingly added that he can have even 210 MPs but he does not want that, as that would mean the return of old and bad politics[4]. This possible rapid shift from a pro-European politician into an anti-European describes entirely the chameleonic nature and pragmatism of Vučić. All in all, who will be in the government is now in the hands of only one person in Serbia. Whether with Radicals in the government, or in the opposition, Serbian politics will become again turbulent and it will be quite difficult to make an agreement virtually on anything.

To sum it up, if Vučić knew the results, he would have never called the early elections which turned out to be meaningless and can only serve as an excuse for the previous governments not having enough time to implement necessary reforms. Prior the elections, the opposition in the parliament was negligible (DS and SDS) which was completely changed by the April voting. The stronger opposition either in a form of the critics of partitocracy (DJB) or in the form of the nationalist SRS, Dveri and the national-conservative DSS will have a chance to impact political


[1] Serbian Premier Calls For Early Parliamentary Elections In April. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. 2nd March 2016. Available online at serbian-premier-vucic-calls-for-early-parliamentary-election- april-24/27584168.html.

[2] This article was written on 29th April and the final results were still not announced. The counting of votes was dramatic namely for Coalition of Dveri and DSS and also Coalition for a Better Serbia (SDS,LDP,LSV) oscillating close to the threshold

[3] Balkan Barometer 2015. Public Opinion Survey. Regional Cooperation  Council Secretariat. Sarajevo  2015,  pp. 45-47. Available online at BalkanBarometer2015_PublicOpinion_FIN_forWeb.pdf.

[4] Vučić: Neću u vladu sa nekim ko gleda da zabode nož u leđa. B92. 29.4.2016. Available online at http://www.b92. net/info/vesti/index.php?yyyy=2016&mm=04&dd=28&nav_ category=11&nav_id=1125718.