Serbia’s Vucic proved he is here to stay

Sunday’s electoral victory gave Aleksandar Vucic more space to manoeuvre in the international arena, and complete freedom to do what he pleases on the domestic stage.

Incumbent Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks at a news conference
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic addresses the media and presents the early results of the general elections in Belgrade, Serbia, 03 April 2022. [Andrej Cukic/EPA-EFE]

Aleksandar Vucic did it again. On April 3, Serbia’s incumbent president and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) scored a massive victory in the Balkan country’s presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections.

Due to the war in Ukraine, as well as Victor Orban’s somewhat unexpected electoral success in neighbouring Hungary, Serbia’s latest election did not get much international attention, but the re-election of Vucic will have major consequences both for Serbia and the wider region.

Another Vucic victory

Vucic, a right-wing populist with strong ties to Moscow, has been running Serbia, first as prime minister and then as president, since 2014. For some time, Serbian opposition groups had high hopes that Zdravko Ponos, candidate for the centrist Alliance for Victory coalition would defeat Vuvic by garnering support from his diverse detractors, from Belgrade liberals to far right nationalists, in the second round of the presidential election.

The incumbent, however, crushed these hopes by scoring some 60 percent of the vote and outright securing a new mandate in the first round of the election. Ponos, on the other hand, could only get 18 percent.

Vucic’s SNS also scored a win in the simultaneous early parliamentary election, with about 43 percent of the vote. The leading opposition coalition, United for Victory of Serbia, came second with 13 percent, followed by the SNS ally Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which got just under 12 percent. SNS does not have enough votes to rule alone, but it could form a government with either SPS or one or more of the three conservative/far-right blocs that made it into the parliament.

Vucic’s SNS also had a good showing in 13 of Serbia’s 14 municipal contests but in the capital, Belgrade, it seems it may fall short of gaining the 56 council seats necessary to elect a mayor. This means the opposition, including the far right, may score a valuable consolation prize in the capital should they join forces in the metropole’s assembly.

The opposition gave Vucic a run for his money

Sunday’s victory, however, did not come easy for Vucic and SNS.

In the last parliamentary elections, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020, for example, the opposition had provided Vucic’s party with an easy win by opting to boycott the polls. SNS swept more than 60 percent of the votes as a result.

This time around, however, they got their act together and fought with everything they had, building credible coalitions and fielding strong candidates such as Marinika Tepic – a Vojvodina-based politician who led the United for Serbia’s Victory party alliance.

They also utilised the momentum readily built against Vucic and his government, repeatedly reminding the voters of the ill-received policies and projects supported by the incumbent president, such as the mining project by the multinational Rio Tinto that drew mass protests earlier in the year.

The Moramo (We Must) alliance, consisting of green, left-wing and liberal groups, took inspiration from the left-wing Mozemo coalition which rose to power in the Croatian capital Zagreb and managed to score some 4.8 percent of the vote.

The opposition also succeeded in convincing more Serbs to cast a vote – on Sunday, some 58 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, an impressive 10 percent increase on the June 2020 election.

Overall, despite scoring an undeniable victory, SNS lost some 377,000 votes compared with the previous election, not an insignificant number for a country the size of Serbia.

To win, Vucic had to use all the leverage he had as the incumbent. He dominated the airwaves throughout the campaign season, even popping out of a mock refrigerator on a popular show on Serbia’s leading television channel TV Pink. The stunt, which got significant media attention, was a reference to a similar scene from a Vucic campaign video in which he emerged from a refrigerator to surprise a young couple.

The president also successfully stoked the fears generated by the war in Ukraine. Soon after the beginning of Russia’s invasion, the president’s savvy PR team changed his campaign slogan from “Deeds speak for themselves” to “Peace, stability, Vucic”. The message was spread on billboards throughout the country as well as on the front pages of the omnipresent tabloids aligned with the president. With the far right rooting for a Russian victory and beating the drums of war, Vucic appeared as the acceptable mainstream offering: friendly towards Putin, a figure the average Serb reveres, yet committed to stability and averse to adventurism.

What will the latest Vucic victory mean for Serbia and the region?

As is the case today, Vucic will undoubtedly continue to be pressured by European capitals to impose sanctions on Russia and prove his country’s bid to join the European Union is serious in the aftermath of the election. Belgrade already voted in favour of two UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but Europe wants to see Belgrade do even more.

Unwilling to take too strong a stance against the Kremlin, but also reluctant to upset the West, Vucic will likely use his recent reelection as a convenient excuse for inaction in the coming days and months. Indeed, the formation of a new cabinet, now that SNS has to share power with another party, might take quite a while, and Vucic can conveniently claim he simply cannot make any significant moves against the Kremlin until then. And if and when SPS leader Ivica Dacic, who has even stronger ties to Moscow than Vucic, joins the coalition, the president can easily blame his party’s coalition partner for Serbia’s lack of further action against Russia.

On paper, Serbia is a parliamentary republic where the prime minister calls all the shots. In practice, however, Vucic is in control, especially but not solely in the realm of foreign policy. For now, Vucic seems determined to continue with his balancing game between Russia and the West, and he will likely use the results of Sunday’s election to remain on course.

While this electoral victory gave Vucic more space to manoeuvre in the international arena, it gave him complete freedom to do exactly what he pleases on the domestic stage. Indeed, after demonstrating in a strongly contested election that a good chunk of Serbian society is still behind him (despite widespread irregularities such as voter suppression related to a low number of ballot boxes and harassment of election observers in certain areas) there is no longer any real check on his power remaining within Serbia. He not only still has a strong influence over the media, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the economy, but also a new 5-year mandate to freely strengthen his one-man populist regime.

What is more, with this latest electoral victory Vucic demonstrated to his counterparts in the Western Balkans that his in-between stance on the West and Russia presents a credible alternative to EU membership. And given the warm ties between Vucic and a number of member states’ leaders, from Hungary’s Orban to France’s Emmanuel Macron, Europe appears to be perfectly at ease with Serbia in its current form. To the chagrin of the EU’s true friends in Serbia who believe in democracy, accountable governance and the rule of law, Vucic declared on Sunday that he is here to stay.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.