General elections were held in Serbia on May 6, 2012. These ‘all in one’ elections combined a presidential, parliamentary, local and regional (in Vojvodina) elections on the same day. The legislative election was scheduled, with all 250 members of the National Assembly up for reelection. All members are elected in a single national constituency through the d’Hondt method with a 5% threshold for parliamentary representation. However, President Boris Tadić, who was up for regular reelection (for a third term, because he served his first term prior to the adoption of the current constitution) in a few months, opted to resign from office and precipitate presidential elections which would coincide with the legislative elections. Local elections in addition to elections to the regional assembly of the autonomous region of Vojvodina were also held on the same day.
Since the fall of Slobodan Milošević, Serbian politics have been polarized around a pro-European, liberal and broadly centre-left current and a nationalist, traditionally pro-Russian and anti-European and largely right-wing current. In the past, the main representative of the latter current has been the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose historic leader is Vojislav Šešelj – currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although since 2003, under the de-facto leadership of Tomislav Nikolić, the SRS moderated some of its rhetoric and gained more political legitimacy and prominence as the main opposition party to the government, it has usually remained a staunchly nationalist party, subscribing to the idea of a Greater Serbia and generally opposing European integration. On the wider European and international scene, the SRS is usually perceived as a rogue anti-western pariah, and its staunch nationalist rhetoric over the years has hardly improved the party’s image. The SRS has been in opposition since 2001.
The pro-European current, led by President Boris Tadić, has usually been more divided. Since 2008, however, President Tadić’s Democratic Party (DS) has emerged as the main party both in a broad coalition of parties favourable to European integration and as the main opponent to the Radicals. Tadić has served as President since 2004. Under his tenure, Serbia officially became a candidate for EU membership on March 1, 2012, which followed the 2008 signature of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). Tadić is well liked on the European and international stage for his moderate, pragmatic and consensual style. However, Tadić, like almost all Serbian politicians, are staunchly opposed to Kosovo’s independence and wish to assert Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.
A more nationalist but still fairly moderate and pro-western party, former Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) has lost prominence and power in recent years. Its opposition to European integration following the 2008 election led to the party’s exclusion from government and Koštunica’s replacement by Mirko Cvetković, an independent close to Tadić’s party. The DSS was a conservative but fairly moderate opposition party during the Milošević years and was represented in most post-Milošević governments until 2008. In recent years, Koštunica’s party has been rapidly losing steam, falling victim to the bipolarization of Serbian politics between the incumbent pro-European parties and the opposition nationalists.
Since 2008, the DS has governed in coalition with the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by Ivica Dačić. The SPS’ main claim to fame is that it was the party of Slobodan Milošević, which has usually led to its exclusion from international social democratic circles and its branding as left-nationalist party. While the SPS retains clear nationalist inclinations, it now claims that it is committed to maintaining the country’s pro-European policies and has tried to rebrand itself into a moderate social democratic party. Ivica Dačić has emerged as a picky and powerful junior coalition partner, and he is even considered a potential candidate for Prime Minister.
The other main coalition partner has been the United Regions of Serbia (URS), a coalition of centre-right parties including, most notably, the pro-European centre-right G17+ and other smaller regionalist parties. The URS’ presidential candidate is incumbent cabinet minister Zoran Stanković.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is a liberal pro-European party, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Čedomir Jovanović, but it has usually been shunned from participation in government, perhaps because Jovanović is one of the only Serbian politicians who has publicly come out in support of Kosovo’s independence. A former ally of Tadić in the days of the united opposition, he has broken with his former ally, in part because of the former alliance between Tadić and Koštunica.
Since the 2008 elections, the biggest development in Serbian politics has certainly been the division of the SRS. The Radicals had become increasingly divided between a more moderate wing led by the de-facto leader Tomislav Nikolić and his deputy Aleksandar Vučić and a more radical wing, staunchly nationalist and anti-European, closer to Vojislav Šešelj’s radical nationalism. Nikolić, twice defeated by Tadić in presidential runoffs in 2004 and 2008, had sought to bring the Radicals on a more moderate but still fairly nationalistic path. In late 2008, the Radicals split as the moderate faction led by Nikolić and about 20 of the party’s 78 MPs walked out to form the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The split left the SRS as a marginalized ultra-nationalist far-right party led by Dragan Todorović. The SNS and Nikolić claim that they favour European integration, but only in the very long term. Their immediate focus, they claim, has been on improving living conditions, which it claims has been sacrificed to European integration by the Tadić government. However, not many people seem to take Nikolić’s alleged new moderation at face value. He claims that he favours European integration and supports the United States, but recently said that he would rather see Serbia become a Russian province than a EU member state.
However, Nikolić has managed to tap into discontent and disillusion with the government. While European integration likely retains majority support, the enthusiasm for European integration is nowhere as high as in 2008. Frustration over high unemployment (over 20%), low wages, flat growth and government corruption has taken its toll on the government. Nikolić has said that he wants to shift the immediate focus over to living standards and political corruption. He supports tax cuts, opposes business monopolies and has promised a major campaign against corruption. His traditional anti-European and pro-Russian attitudes, which he claims he has moved away from (he does remain pro-Russian, however), may still serve as a chill for voters who are constantly reminded by the incumbent President that Nikolić would be a dangerous leader whose election would threaten the gains made by the country since 2000 and return the country to its 1990-status as a rogue pariah state. Tadić claims that Nikolić and his allies (smaller parties, including New Serbia) cannot be trusted with the task of moving Serbia towards EU membership in 2020.
Turnout was 58.7%, a bit lower than where it stood in 2007 and 2008. The electoral commission has reported the following numbers with 97% reporting:
Boris Tadić (DS) 25.33%
Tomislav Nikolić (SNS) 24.99%
Ivica Dačić (SPS) 14.24%
Vojislav Koštunica (DSS) 7.44%
Zoran Stanković (URS) 6.56%
Čedomir Jovanović (LDP) 5.03%
Jadranka Šešelj (SRS) 3.78%
Vladan Glišić (Ind) 2.77%
Ištvan Pastor (VMSZ) 1.65%
Zoran Dragišić 1.53%
Muamer Zukorlić (Ind) 1.41%
Danica Grujičić (Ind) 0.97%
Parliament (changes to dissolution)
SNS-NS 24.01% winning 73 seats (+43)
DS 22.07% winning 67 seats (-8)
SPS-PUPS-JS 14.54% winning 44 seats (+24)
DSS 7.00% winning 21 seats (+1)
Preokret (LDP) 6.53% winning 20 seats (+4)
URS 5.51% winning 16 seats (-8)
SRS 4.36% winning 0 seats (-57)
Dveri 4.34% winning 0 seats
VMSZ 1.77% winning 5 seats (+1)
SDA 0.72% winning 2 seats (nc)
Minority Coalition 0.64% winning 1 seats (nc)
None of these chosen options-minority party 0.59% winning 1 seat (+1)
The results did not reserve much surprise, with both contests ending in a dead heat between the two dominant parties of Serbia’s two dominant political currents; a dead heat which has become so common in the past two or three Serbian elections.
Both main candidates, Tadić and Nikolić both won very mediocre results and their respective parties (DS and SNS) did even worse. Compared to 2008, when Nikolić led the first round with 40% against 35.4% for Tadić, both main contenders in the presidential contest lost a significant share of their 2008 support.
Of course, the 2012 field of contenders was more impressive than the 2008 field. In 2008, the DSS had supported a lesser known conservative who placed third with 7.4% while the SPS’ candidate (an old SPS politico) had won only 6%. This year, the SPS nominated its fiery and ambitious leader and incumbent cabinet minister Ivica Dačić. Similarly, the presidential candidacy of former Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica likely helped matters for the DSS, which probably maximized its support thanks to the candidacy of its high profile leader. The candidacy of Zoran Stanković likely drew centre-right voters who had supported Tadić or Nikolić in 2008 (who was supported in that contest by G17+, which is now a member of Stanković’s URS party).
However, despite their mediocre showings, both Tadić and Nikolić remain by far the dominant political figures of Serbia, as they have been since 2004 or at least 2008. Both rivals will face off in their third runoff contest, which is likely to be as close if not closer than the 2008 runoff.
Nikolić definitely achieved his goal of establishing himself as the uncontested leader of the Serbian nationalist right. He had been followed by only a minority (21/78) of the Radical caucus when he founded the SNS in 2008, but, not too surprisingly, he utterly crushed the marginalized SRS this year. The Radicals, reduced to their core ultra-nationalist far-right core, were trounced by their former leader. The SRS’ presidential candidate, Jadranka Šešelj, won 3.9% of the vote while the SRS was thrown out of Parliament, winning only 4.6% of the vote. Yet, it is hard to see if he benefited significantly from washing off the SRS baggage and attaching a more moderate, “progressive” label to himself. A cursory look at the percentages rather shows that the SNS attracted the majority of 2008 Radical voters (the SRS won 29.5% in the legislative elections, this year SNS won 24.7% + the SRS’ 4.6%) and little more.
Ivica Dačić and SPS are the main winners of this election. In the presidential and parliamentary contest, Dačić’s party likely benefited from his populist, left-wing and somewhat anti-Western image, able to attract voters who were concerned about poor economic conditions and high unemployment but perhaps a bit wary of Nikolić’s old far-right image and the lingering doubts and worries associated with Nikolić’s party despite its successful rebranding of sorts in 2008.
In any case, Dačić and the Socialists have probably achieved what they wanted: being the kingmakers in both the presidential and legislative contests. Ahead of the runoff, Dačić’s voters represent the largest reservoir of votes for both candidates. From my very cursory knowledge of Serbian politics and from the hypothesis I drew up above, it would not appear that Dačić’s voters lean heavily in one direction or another. Dačić’s goal is likely to be Prime Minister, an office he is in good position to extract from either his current partner (DS) or the opposition (SNS). With 44 seats, the SPS has more than doubled its caucus (+25 seats from 2008) and becomes a very strong third party rather than the small junior ally it had been in 2008. While it does remain a third party behind the SNS (73 seats) and DS (67 seats), it is in a very good position to demand significant concessions in return for a coalition deal (or a presidential endorsement). All the more because both SNS and DS had fairly mediocre results.
On the other hand, Koštunica’s party found itself further marginalized. In 2008, when it had already lost significantly (losing 13 seats) it polled just over 11.5%. This year, it won only 7.2% and 20 seats in the parliamentary contest and Koštunica barely outperformed his party with 7.7%. In 2008, it had already lost its kingmaker status and was thus excluded from government. This year, it cannot provide a majority to either SNS or DS, meaning that it will probably be excluded anew from any new coalition or if it is included it will not be as the main junior partner but rather the fourth-placed sidekick. My understanding is that Koštunica and the DSS find themselves increasingly marginalized, losing steam from their place as a semi-nationalist, semi-‘European’ or at least moderate party, thus being torn to its left by DS and to its right by SNS.
In terms of the other parties, the URS’ presidential candidate, Zoran Stanković, did fairly well winning 6.1% and outperforming his party by a full percentage point. The URS is left with 16 seats, and its support may prove crucial in the formation of a new government. The LDP did particularly well in the legislative elections, taking 6.6% and 20 seats. In the presidential contest, Čedomir Jovanović, did not do as well.
Over the next weeks, the two main developments to watch will be the runoff between Tadić and Nikolić and future coalition negotiations. In the presidential runoff, a narrow margin between both candidates is to be expected. Tadić likely remains the favourite, because he does remain a less polarizing figure than Nikolić whose political past and lingering penchant for nationalist declarations (such as the one about Serbia being better off as a Russian province) invokes some worry with more moderate and pro-European Serbians. But could Nikolić stand to benefit, in the runoff, from his less radical and more moderate image? His campaign on social issues, the economy and corruption might strike a chord with Socialist voters who are, like Nikolić, likely more concerned about those issues than they are about foreign relations and European integration. Tadić will not miss the opportunity to remind voters about the risk carried by a President Nikolić, whom he claims would practically ruin all the progress made by Serbia since 2000.
Coalition negotiations, in which the SPS is key, will take place alongside the runoff campaign. A grand coalition between DS and SNS, the big enemies of Serbian politics, can be excluded entirely. However, while the incumbent DS-SPS-URS retains an absolute majority, and all three current partners seem amenable to continuing that game, the SPS wants to shift the cards around. Dačić, must it be said again, wants to be Prime Minister and it seems as if he’s going to do anything he can to become Prime Minister. He has said that he will talk with DS first and personally appears to be favourable to Tadić’s re-election. The other major potential option could be a nationalist coalition between SNS, SPS and DSS in which Dačić could still be Prime Minister. Tadić has warned that he would not be blackmailed by Dačić, and there could be some divisions between the two on the crucial issue of European integration. Observers seem to expect that the incumbent government, likely with the cards shifted, will remain in power. The LDP is being considered as a coalition partner, but they don’t really get along well with the SPS and Dačić will make sure that he does not need to govern with them.
In Vojvodina, I do not have seat numbers, but the pro-Tadić coalition leads with 23% against 19.7% for the SNS and 12.9% for the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats. The SPS places fourth with 12.4%. The Hungarian minority coalition, VMSZ-SVM, representing the small Hungarian minority in the autonomous region, won 6.8%.
In Belgrade, incumbent mayor Dragan Đilas (DS) defeated the SNS-led coalition handily, taking 35.2% and 50 seats against 25.7% and 37 seats for the list backed by Nikolić.
If Nikolić wins and the SNS forms or participates in government, which is probably more likely this year than at any point in the recent past, Serbia’s relations with EU and its future path of European integration would probably find themselves turned upside down. The west remains quite worried about Nikolić and his sabre-rattling nationalist past, and the more pro-Russian and east-leaning foreign policies of Nikolić could endanger Serbia’s good relations with Europe. At any rate, such a result would be the first time since 2000 that former allies of the Milosevic regime (though the SRS’ relation with him was always conflictual) directly rule the country.