Everything uncertain, except the winner
After less than two years, Serbia is about to hold new parliamentary elections March 16. Even though the voting is just a week away, most people show little interest in the campaign, but turnout is still expected to be relatively high. The upcoming election is unique in that it is not about who will win, as the winner is already known. It is the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of Aleksandar Vučić, the incumbent first deputy prime minister.
The election race is rather for Vučić’s junior coalition partner in the government. It won’t necessarily be the winner of the second place. It can be any party that will manage to meet the threshold (5% of all voters who participate in voting, including invalid ballots) and thus enter the parliament.
Prime Minister Dačić’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) is currently the second in terms of popular support according to most relevant opinion polls. The former ruling Democratic Party (DS), now led by former Belgrade Mayor Đilas, and former President Tadić’s new party are struggling for the third place. The contest seems to be extremely tight (in some polls Tadić has a little more votes, in others Đilas). And in addition to Dačić, Tadić and Đilas’ parties, it is only the Liberal-democratic Party and Vojislav Koštunica’s nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia that are expected to win some seats in parliament, though barely exceeding the threshold.
According to opinion polls, Vučić’s popularity is so high that his party might even win an absolute majority, so he might not need a partner at all. Unless Vučić intends to change the constitution, which will require approval by two thirds of MPs.
While there is no doubt as to who will lead the government, everything else is uncertain.The campaign is full of populist messages and unrealistic promises. Interestingly, Kosovo and other “big national topics” have been rarely mentioned, except by minor nationalist and Russophile parties. The focus is almost entirely on the economy. All candidates agree on the need for deep structural reform, but differ on the type of measures and methodology of implementation. Some, including Vučić, are proposing a shift toward a more liberal, market-oriented model. Others, like Prime minister Dačić, are calling for even more state intervention.
Top priorities for whoever is in power after the elections will be rationalization and reorganization of an oversized public sector and creation of a more attractive environment for direct long-term investment. The outgoing government has taken some steps in that direction, but that’s a small part of what has to be done if Serbia is to avoid financial collapse.
Vučić’s frequently repeated insistence that he will not give up on sweeping economic reforms, however painful they are, has not degraded his popularity thus far. The secret of Vučić’s success lies in his bold action against high-level corruption and organized crime. Delivering on his promises, Vučić has revived at least a portion of people’s lost hope. That’s an encouraging sign.
The problem is, however, that people tend to support changes only so long as their personal lives remain unaffected. The main challenge to the next government will be how to mitigate social consequences of reforms, especially in the early stages of implementation. This will require extraordinary effort, but it is the price that has to be paid for lack of courage and decisiveness on the part of previous administrations.
And what about the opposition? Once powerful, the DS is in steep decline and a deep crisis of identity after suffering defeat in the 2012 elections. It is no longer even the second strongest political force, pushed out of that position by Dačić’s SPS. The latest in a series of blows came when former Serbian president and DS leader Boris Tadić left the party and formed his own following a period of heavy infighting with his successor at the party’s helm, Dragan Đilas. Both DS and Tadić’s new party should be happy if each of them gets between 5 and 10 percent of votes.
DS is desperate to attract parts of the electorate that are bitterly opposed to Aleksandar Vučić. High party official Borko Stefanović recently went so far as to warn that Vučić’s victory is likely to lead to the “Ukrainian scenario” in Serbia, but his statement immediately backfired on his party’s rating. The strategy of DS in the campaign basically boils down to claiming they are the only party that is not going to form a post-election coalition with Vučić’s “Progressives.” Unfortunately for DS, Vučić obviously has no intention of calling them into a coalition, either.
Meanwhile, the Democrats and other critics of Vučić have been accusing him of establishing a “soft dictatorship.” Their fear is that Vučić’s nearly unprecedented popular support, coupled with too much power in his hands, could seriously undermine the already fragile democracy Serbia has achieved. But there is little difference between Vučić and most of his predecessors when it comes to authoritarian tendencies. Not to mention that the reforms awaiting the next government will require a firm hand on the tiller.
After all, it is not bad for a country to have a highly popular mainstream politician at a time when many countries, including a number of developed Western democracies, are experiencing a crisis of representation and democratic legitimacy, with extremist parties and fringe movements gaining ground. But that’s another story.
Vis-a-vis European integration, Belgrade will look to trade any progress in normalization of relations with Kosovo for concessions from Brussels on various chapters of accession talks. Such an approach carries a clear risk. If Brussels demonstrates too much leniency, Serbia could be allowed to proceed without satisfying all the criteria, particularly in areas such as human rights, media freedoms and the rule of law. They will demand a lot of attention in the years ahead.