Analysis: Election ‘win’ for Serbia’s Vucic might yet backfire

As questions about the elections mount and protesters take to Belgrade’s streets, the president faces a rare challenge to his authority.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks to the media in his party headquarters after a parliamentary and local election in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023. Serbia's governing populists claimed a sweeping victory Sunday in the country's parliamentary election, which was marred by reports of major irregularities both during a tense campaign and on voting day. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks to the media at his party headquarters after parliamentary and local elections in Belgrade, Serbia, on December 17, 2023 [Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo]

For 48 hours from Sunday night, the victory of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was total, overwhelming, sweeping, crushing. His ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) had on its own secured a majority in the National Assembly with twice as many votes and seats as their closest opponent. It also swept the regional and municipal elections, winning councils in 165 cities and towns, including the capital, Belgrade. All other parties together claimed just nine cities and towns.

Vucic had won his second five-year term in 2022 by thrashing his closest competitor by 41 percentage points. As Sunday’s landslide was confirmed, the 53-year-old uncontested ruler of Serbia joined his ecstatic ministers, parliamentarians and supporters at party headquarters to claim the ultimate political achievement — dominating and winning elections in which he did not even run.

Initially, just one little speck of dust smudged his party’s accomplishment. Although the strongest party in municipal elections in the capital, the SNS ended up short of an outright majority.

Still, its leaders were confident that with their political experience and control of money, public contracts, lucrative jobs and board memberships in public companies, they would overcome that hindrance. They would need to persuade only six first-time councillors from a newly created movement led by a 69-year-old retired doctor to lend them support. In their 10 years in power, the Progressives have learned how to satisfy the human desires of people they need.

So they boasted, gloated, denigrated and belittled their opponents and teased and mocked their humiliated erstwhile coalition partners.

Reduced to half his Socialist Party’s (SPS) previous strength, Ivica Dacic, leader of the SNS’s almost-guaranteed coalition partner, was close to tears and almost offered to resign. Almost, because admitting failure in Serbia is a sign of weakness.

Serbia Against Violence (SPN), the hotchpotch main opposition group, was convinced that its appeal to modern, sophisticated, urban and educated voters would at least secure it the crown jewel, the city of Belgrade. But seemingly paralysed by the shock of the results, opposition leaders took almost three hours to muster the courage to face the cameras, stuttering incoherently, devoid of any idea of what to do next.

Opposition supporters, who actively campaigned on social media networks, reacted furiously, openly venting their anger at such passivity and demanding their leaders get their act together and fight back against alleged electoral fraud.

Many posted firsthand accounts, videos and photos of apparent irregularities, especially in Belgrade. Videos showed “voters” being bussed in from ethnic Serb-controlled parts of neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina with new identity cards in hand but unable to find their polling stations in the city blocks where they purported to reside. Clips exposed scores of Bosnian-registered minivans converging onto the biggest sports hall in the city. Sensing that the human cargo was in town to vote for the SNS, activists demanded an explanation from the arena management, only to be told that they were extras for a film.

Still, the SPN only regained its composure on Monday. Even before the final count put the Progressives less that 30,000 votes ahead of the SPN in the capital, the opposition had charged that 40,000 ballots were fraudulent. The implication was clear: It believed that without the irregular votes, the SPN would have taken Belgrade. On Monday evening, opposition supporters took to the streets.

Nearly 10,000 protesters blocked the Electoral Commission, finally energising their leaders to take the lead and demand an annulment of the elections and a new vote for the capital.

Vucic and his party remained invisible and silent. Their likely calculation: The media they tightly control, especially national TV stations and a posse of newspapers and portals, all owned by media tycoons who depend on the president for their wealth – and often freedom – would not report on the protests. Invisible to most citizens, the protests would neither grow nor spread and a combination of freezing December temperatures, the holiday season and frustration at fruitless waiting would make them fade away just like many times in the past.

That plan might have worked but for two foreigners who within 48 hours of the Progressives’ victory parade showered it with freezing rain.

First, Stefan Schennach, a member of the Austrian Parliament and the head of the Council of Europe’s election observers, addressed the cameras. Not mincing his words, he said it had not been a fair election: “The victory in Belgrade was stolen from the opposition.” A report by observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) followed, spelling out several irregularities.

The next strike to Vucic’s hopes came from across the Atlantic. On Tuesday, United States Department of State spokesman Matthew Miller asked Serbia to investigate the irregularities, urging it to “work with the OSCE to address these concerns that have been raised”.

Meanwhile, the only international leaders to congratulate Vucic on his party’s victory were fellow strongmen: Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Azerbaijan’s Ilhan Aliyev. Even the Serbian president’s nominal allies whom he often proudly claims as personal friends, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, had lower-ranking officials send the congratulations.

The writing on the wall is clear: Whatever wider geopolitical importance Serbia might have, this time the world is unlikely to allow Vucic to trade that for manipulating democracy. The democratic world wants Belgrade to elect its City Council honestly and transparently.

Vucic might yet have celebrated too soon.

Source: Al Jazeera