Category Archives: Serbia
Legislative elections were held in Serbia on March 16, 2014. All 250 seats in the National Assembly (Narodna skupština), Serbia’s unicameral legislature, are elected by closed party-list representation for a four-year term with the entire country as a single constituency. Parties must win 5% of the vote to qualify for seats, but there is no threshold for ethnic minority lists.
Serbia is a parliamentary republic, although the directly-elected President holds significant constitutional and customary powers. The Prime Minister of Serbia is responsible to the National Assembly, but the President proposes the name of the Prime Minister to the National Assembly after consultation with parliamentary groups. The President also has the power to dismiss a government, dissolve the National Assembly and has a suspensive veto over legislation. This early election was called by President Tomislav Nikolić; the last election having been held in 2012, the legislature’s term could have lasted until its legal expiration in 2016.
Context and Parties
The 2012 Serbian elections marked a significant realignment in Serbian politics. Tomislav Nikolić, the candidate of the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka, SNS), was elected President in the second round, defeating incumbent President Boris Tadić, who had been President of Serbia since 2004. The significance is that Nikolić’s victory marked the first time since 2000 that former allies of controversial Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević returned to power in Serbia.
After Milošević was deposed following his defeat in the September 2000 Yugoslavian presidential elections, to the opposition candidate Vojislav Koštunica, Serbian politics came to be dominated by parties and politicians who had opposed Milošević, while radical nationalists and Milošević’s former supporters were generally excluded from power.
The opposition to Milošević was spearheaded by an ideologically diverse group of Serbian intellectuals, who came together to challenge the one-party system of socialist Yugoslavia. These intellectuals founded the Democratic Party (Demokratska stranka, DS), which was initially held together by little more than opposition to the socialist-cum-Milošević regime. The party’s ranks included liberal intellectuals concerned by human rights and democracy in Serbia, but also nationalists who were dissatisfied with the position of Serbs in the Yugoslav federation. The latter nationalist faction, led by Vojislav Koštunica, split from the DS in 1992 to create the Democratic Party of Serbia (Demokratska stranka Srbije, DSS), which allied with Vuk Drašković’s conservative nationalist (but pro-Western and anti-communist) Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) in the 1992 elections.
Milošević led the Socialist Party of Serbia (Socijalistička partija Srbije, SPS), made up of the bulk of the former ruling party (the League of Communists of Serbia). The SPS under Milošević was a typical ruling party in semi-authoritarian regime: backed by a strong state apparatus (including security forces), holding together a broad range of supporters through patronage, corrupt and populist. The SPS was backed by regime apparatchiks, the bureaucracy, managers and employees in state-owned enterprises, newly enriched oligarchs who did well thanks to the regime and poorer citizens dependent on patronage or tied to the party. It is debatable whether Milošević had profound nationalist convictions of his own or if he opportunistically used nationalism to gain and maintain power.
Milošević maintained an ambivalent relationship with the far-right Serbian Radical Party (Srpska radikalna stranka, SRS), an ultra-nationalist party led by Vojislav Šešelj. At times, the radical nationalism and ethnic chauvinism preached by Milošević was quite similar to that of Šešelj, who enthusiastically supported the idea of a ‘Greater Serbia’. Unlike Milošević, however, Šešelj had been imprisoned by the communist regime and his belligerently nationalist views were certainly genuine. The SRS was founded in 1991 by Šešelj and Tomislav Nikolić, and enjoyed strong popular support under Milošević’s regime, placing second behind the SPS in 1992 and 1997, winning 28% in the 1997 election. The SRS was active in paramilitary units in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, responsible for war crimes. In the early 1990s, until 1993, Milošević allied with the SRS, before breaking with them to promote an image as a peacemaker around the time of the Dayton Accords. In 1997, after the SRS did particularly well in elections, it entered into a coalition government with Milošević’s SPS, during the Kosovo War. In the 1990s, under Šešelj’s leadership, the SRS was radically nationalistic – advocating ethnic cleansing, strongly opposing the Dayton Accords and taking strongly anti-Western stances (speaking in terms of a ‘conspiracy’ against Serbia led by the USA, the Catholic Church and Western Europe).
The DS and DSS, along with numerous small parties, formed the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) to oppose Milošević in the 2000 elections. Vojislav Koštunica was elected President of Yugoslavia, defeating Milošević in a contentious elections. A few months later, in December 2000, the DOS won parliamentary elections in Serbia, taking 176 out of 250 seats. Zoran Đinđić, the leader of the DS, became Prime Minister, until his assassination in 2003. However, with Milošević removed from the picture, the opposition movement fractured again. Koštunica opposed Milošević’s extradition to face trial at the ICTY, while Đinđić ultimately gave the green light for the former leader’s extradition. By 2001, the DSS left the government and new elections were held in 2003.
SRS leader Vojislav Šešelj turned himself in to the ICTY in 2003; he remains in The Hague, awaiting verdict for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although Šešelj remained the SRS’ official leader, Tomislav Nikolić became the SRS’ de facto leader in Serbia. Under Nikolić’s leadership, the more radical aspects of the SRS’ rhetoric were silently dropped in favour of economic issues and a new approach favouring international cooperation. Nevertheless, the SRS retained its pariah status and remained excluded from power. In the eyes of foreign observers, despite rhetorical moderation, the SRS remained an ultra-nationalist party connected with suspected war criminals and strongly opposed to European integration. Electorally, after being trounced in 2000, the SRS soon regained substantial popular support – in parliamentary elections between 2003 and 2008, the SRS consistently won 27-29% while Nikolić won up to 48% in presidential elections (runoff ballots) in 2003, 2004 and 2008.
The SPS, now without Milošević and having lost access to the spoils of power, was severely weakened and took a major drubbing in 2000 (13.8%), 2003 (7.6%) and 2007 (5.6%). The SPS was now led by Ivica Dačić, who was a low-level apparatchik under Milošević; under Dačić, the SPS tried to improve its image, presenting itself as a moderate social democratic party. Nonetheless, few accepted the SPS’ ostensible moderation at face value, given that it continued to express nationalist sentiments and was still, in the eyes of foreigners, ‘the party of Milošević’. In Serbia, the SPS was less ostracized than the SPS, and after the 2003 election it offered minority support to Koštunica (now Prime Minister of Serbia)’s cabinet.
Although the DS did poorly in the 2003 elections (12.6%, against 17.7% for the DSS), the DS’ new leader, Boris Tadić, elected after the assassination of Zoran Đinđić in 2003, was elected President of Serbia in 2004, defeating Nikolić with 54% in the second round. In 2007, the DS made major gains in parliamentary elections, becoming the second largest party (behind the SRS) with 22.7%, while Koštunica’s DSS won 16.6%. Nevertheless, Koštunica remained Prime Minister (forming a coalition with the DS), in an uneasy ‘cohabitation’ with Tadić. As President, Tadić strongly promoted reconciliation and cooperation with Serbia’s former enemies – he apologized for those who suffered crimes committed by Serbian forces, visited Srebrenica on the 10th anniversary of the massacre and apologized to Croatia for war crimes committed during the war in Croatia. Tadić strongly supported EU membership – Serbia began negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2005 and Serbia initialed a SAA in November 2007. Prime Minister Koštunica strongly opposed the SAA, leading the coalition to collapse and new elections called for May 2008.
In February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. The issue, too complex to be explained at length, is an extremely contentious issue in Serbia and poisons Serbia’s relationship with the EU and the US. The US, Canada and most EU member-states (with the notable exception of Spain) recognized Kosovo’s independence; Serbia, whose 2006 constitution defines Kosovo as an integral part of its sovereign territory, viewed Kosovo’s declaration of independence as illegal and has refused to recognize its independence. The issue of Kosovo has been one which transcends the traditional pro-Western/anti-Western divide in Serbian politics: Tadić and the DS strongly opposed Kosovo’s independence. Only the small Liberal Democratic Party (Liberalno-demokratska partija, LDP), a centre-left opposition party led by former student leader and DS defector Čedomir Jovanović, has come out in favour of Kosovo’s independence.
Tadić was reelected to a second term in office in 2008, defeating Tomislav Nikolić in the second round with 50.3% of the vote. In May 2008, Tadić’s DS-led coalition (which included G17+, a small pro-European centre-right party led by economist Mlađan Dinkić) won a major victory in parliamentary elections, winning 38% of the vote against 29.5% for the SRS. The DSS suffered renewed loses, winning only 11.6% and 30 seats. The SPS and LDP also made gains. After tortuous negotiations, the DS formed a pro-European government with Ivica Dačić’ SPS, excluding the DSS and SRS. Mirko Cvetković, an independent backed by the DS, became Prime Minister.
Following the 2008 elections, the SRS finally exploded, split between de facto leader Tomislav Nikolić and his deputy Aleksandar Vučić and a more radical wing, staunchly nationalist and anti-European, led by the ‘exiled’ Vojislav Šešelj. Nikolić and Vučić founded the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in October 2008. The SNS represented a moderate and polished right, untied (at least in theory) to the ultra-nationalism of the war years and claiming to support, in the long run, European integration. Although on the right, the SNS was fundamentally populist – with promises to increase taxes on the rich, reevaluate privatizations and helping the ‘losers’ of the transition to a market economy. Nevertheless, the SNS still faced trouble at getting its new face accepted, given Nikolić and Vučić’s pasts and continued statements by SNS leaders indicating sympathy for the SRS’ old nationalist rhetoric – Nikolić once said that he’d rather see Serbia become a Russian province than join the EU. The SNS rapidly replaced the SRS as the main opposition party; the SRS collapsed into oblivion, forming a tiny far-right rump.
Serbia ratified the SAA shortly after the 2008 elections, officially applied for EU membership in December 2009 and received candidate status from the EU on March 1, 2012. Tadić, facing recession, high unemployment (nearly 25%) and a frozen IMF loan, focused his third reelection campaign (in 2012) on the issue of European integration – strongly emphasizing the benefits of EU membership for Serbia, and presenting himself as the only candidate who could guarantee European integration. Tadić effectively presented the presidential (and concurrent legislative) elections as a referendum on his policy of European integration, which he claimed would allow Serbia to attract foreign investment and create jobs; he warned against an ‘uncertain’ path with former radical nationalists like Nikolić. In contrast, Nikolić emphasized daily life issues (the economy, jobs, poverty), which he claimed had been ignored by Tadić’s government. Nikolić promised lower taxes and fighting corruption and the tycoon’s monopolies. While claiming to support EU membership, Nikolić stressed that other issues mattered more and tempered Tadić’s optimistic promises of EU-backed growth and prosperity by saying that candidate status meant little and that EU membership would not come before, at least, 2020. He also refused joining the EU at the expense of relinquishing Serbian claims to Kosovo.
In the first round, Tadić won 25.3% against 25.1% for Nikolić. In the legislative elections, the SNS won 24.1% against 22.1% for the DS. The kingmaker was Ivica Dačić, who won 14.2% in the presidential election, placing third ahead of Koštunica (7.4%); the SPS won 14.5% in the legislative elections, gaining 24 seats to win 44 seats against 73 for the SNS and 67 for the DS. The DSS won 7% and 21 seats; Jovanović won 5% in the presidential election and his coalition took 6.5% and 19 seats in the legislative elections.
On May 20, Nikolić, in a major surprise, was elected President with 49.5% against 47.3% for the incumbent, Tadić. Nikolić’s victory, according to Serbian observers, owed more to a rejection of the incumbent and the country’s struggling economy. Although Tadić had presented the election as a ‘referendum on the EU’, upon his victory, Nikolić was quick to stress that his victory didn’t mean a repudiation of Serbia’s ‘European engagement’. Nevertheless, because of Nikolić’s biography and controversial statements he had made, his victory did not fail to worry Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and the EU. Nikolić, as noted above, was a leading SRS member until 2008. Between March 1998 and October 2000, during the SPS-SRS coalition, Nikolić served as Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia (and later the FR Yugoslavia). His deputy, Aleksandar Vučić, served as Minister of Information in the same government, muzzling journalists and media which criticized Milošević. Nikolić supported the idea of a Greater Serbia until 2007 or so, before changing his opinions ahead of the 2012 election. In 2012, Nikolić stated that Vukovar (an ethnically mixed Croat-Serb town in Croatia, the site of a bloody battle and massacre in the Croatian war) was a ‘Serb city’ and that Croatians have nothing to go back to there. In June 2012, Nikolić said that there had been no genocide in Srebrenica. As a result of his comments on Vukovar and Srebrenica, the leaders of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.
Ivica Dačić successfully used his kingmaker position to his own advantage. Using the SPS’ equidistant position between the DS and SNS and his alliance with the DS, he managed to become Prime Minister at the helm of a SPS-SNS-G17+ coalition. Vučić became Deputy Prime Minister, nearly as influential in the government as Dačić himself. The government declared that it would continue to press on with EU integration, fight organized crime and address economic concerns (living standards, jobs, poverty). The alliance between two former supporters of Milošević, including one man (Dačić) seen as his protege, worried the EU and some felt that the EU-sponsored dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, which had begun in March 2011, was in danger.
As he stepped into office, relations with Croatia were at all-time low. In November 2012, the ICTY’s acquittal on appeal of two suspected Croatian war criminals (Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač) enraged Serbia and its government, with Nikolić saying that Croatians were celebrating their crimes while Serbian views that the ICTY was a kangaroo court designed to persecute the Serbs were reinforced.
However, the government proved surprisingly pragmatic on the issue of Kosovo. In December 2012, Dačić met Hashim Thaçi, the Prime Minister of Kosovo – the two men previously loathed one another, with Dačić having previously stated that he’d kill Thaçi if he ever met him. With EU pressure and mutual desire for EU ‘rewards’, the two countries made significant progress. Pragmatic, Dačić told Serbs that Kosovo is lost and that the focus should be on finding an acceptable solution for both sides – for Serbia, this largely means security and rights for the Serbian minority in Kosovo, which numbers about 120-130,000. In April 2013, talks ended in deadlock, but a deal was ultimately salvaged between Serbia and Kosovo. Under the agreement, Serbia does not officially recognize Kosovo’s independence, but it concedes authority over the entirety of the territory to Kosovo’s government; Kosovo, in returns, allows for the creation of a community of Serbian majority municipalities in Kosovo which have devolved powers over education, healthcare, the nomination of the Kosovo police chief for the north and other matters. Serbs in Kosovo were rather unhappy with the deal, but under Belgrade’s pressure – political and financial – to comply, they will do so (Belgrade has been funding northern Kosovo municipalities since 1999). In November 2013, local elections throughout Kosovo – including the intransigent north – were fairly successful, despite disturbances and calls to boycott in northern municipalities; Serbia strongly encouraged Serbs in Kosovo to participate.
In return for the deal over Kosovo, the European Commission recommended to open accession negotiations with Serbia. Screening of the acquis began in September 2013. Meanwhile, negotiations over a SAA with Kosovo began in October 2013. Accession negotiations with Serbia began in January 2014.
Domestically, Aleksandar Vučić, the Deputy Prime Minister, became very popular thanks to an anti-corruption drive. In the biggest coup for him, Miroslav Mišković, a powerful Serbian tycoon, was arrested in December 2012 for gaining illegal profit in a 2005 privatization deal; Mišković had taken advantage of lucrative privatizations during Đinđić’s government. Vučić, frustrated by the 2012 deal which saw Dačić become Prime Minister despite the SNS having the larger caucus, had been conspiring to bring down the government and have fresh elections since early 2013. The talks over Kosovo pressured Vučić to keep his cool. Within the SNS, Vučić has been in a bitter row with Nikolić and at a 2013 convention, Vučić purged many Nikolić supporters.
In January 2014, Vučić finally got what he wanted – snap elections. The SNS said that it wanted a clear mandate and solid majority to implement major economic reforms. The real reason is likely that the SNS wanted to take advantage of their wide lead in polls, and the sad state of the opposition. The economy is in bad shape; Serbia experienced a double-dip recession with negative growth in 2009 and 2012, growth resumed in 2013, with 2% growth (likely the same this year). Unemployment is 25%. The budget deficit, despite austerity policies, is projected to be 7.1% in 2014; the debt is over 60% of GDP; and foreign investment has been lower than expected. The SNS supports major, and painful, reforms which are conditions for an IMF loan. These austerity policies will include structural reforms in labour laws, pensions and bankruptcy regulations; cuts in the bloated public sector (which employs 10% of the population); privatization of many state-owned debt-crippled enterprises (major employers and dispensers of political patronage); cutting subsidies and raising taxes. The SNS promised to create jobs, thanks to billions in investment from the United Arab Emirates (which provided a soft loan to Serbia, and whose leaders, Vučić said, want to invest in Serbia). The SNS is flanked by Lazar Krstić, the young American-educated technocratic finance minister since September 2013. As finance minister, Krstić implemented painful public sector wage cuts, subsidy cuts for public enterprises and tax increases. Last summer, Vučić hired the disgraced former IMF director-general, Dominique Strauss-Kahn as an economic adviser.
Saša Radulović, the economy minister since September 2013, resigned in January 2014. He accused Vučić and the parties of impeding his reforms (labour laws, bankruptcy, privatizations), blasted opaque deals with foreign investors (Arabs, Chinese, Russians) and pointed at corruption in cabinet. The government, influenced by unions and the SPS, but also the SNS, has been blamed by foreign investors and credit agencies for lacking commitment to reforms. In January, Fitch downgraded Serbia’s credit rating.
The SNS allied with four smaller parties: its 2012 allies New Serbia (NS, led by Velimir Ilić) and the leftist Movement of Socialists (led by cabinet minister Alexsandar Vulin); now joined by the Social Democratic Party (SDPS) and Vuk Drašković’s SPO (allied with the LDP in 2012). The SPS ran with its two traditional partners: a pensioners party (PUPS) and Dragan Marković’s United Serbia.
Vučić moved quickly to exploit the sad state of the opposition, reeling from its surprise 2012 defeat. The DS has been very divided since Tadić lost reelection in 2012. In November 2012, Tadić was replaced a DS leader by Dragan Đilas, the mayor of Belgrade (often seen as the third most powerful office in Serbia). Under his administration in Belgrade, the city got a new bridge and upgraded public transit but the municipal opposition charged that he racked up debts. In November 2013, a coalition of the SNS, DSS and the SPS (which had until then governed in coalition with Đilas’s DS in Belgrade, despite its national coalition with the SNS) voted him out of office – sparking local elections alongside this election. The local coalition between the DS and SPS put the national DS in a funny spot: its last remaining nationally-prominent position was dependent on a governing party’s support, and could hardly afford to go too hard against the SPS.
Đilas’ campaign attacked the SNS’ populism and warned of the ‘autocratic threat’ presented by Vučić. Indeed, some observers and Serbians have raised concerns of authoritarianism if the SNS won full power – similar to Hungary’s Orban, or Vladimir Putin.
The DS was further hampered by public infighting between Đilas and Tadić, the latter attempting to regain control over the party. In January 2014, Tadić failed in a comeback attempt to remove Đilas from the DS’ leadership. In February 2014, Tadić closed speculation by announcing the creation of his new party, the New Democratic Party (Nova demokratska stranka, NDS) – in alliance with the tiny Greens. The NDS ran in coalition with the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), Dušan Petrović’s Together for Serbia (ZZS) and two small Vojvodina parties. Tadić failed to build a broad opposition coalition uniting everybody outside the DS and DSS; talks with the LDP failed and the United Regions of Serbia (URS), a centre-right (but anti-austerity) party led by Mlađan Dinkić (a former leader of G17+, which merged into the URS) decided to run alone because of differences between Dinkić and Tadić.
The infighting came at a bad time for the opposition. Since losing power in 2012, 57 DS members have been arrested for corruption while in office. The government reopened an old judicial investigation against Đilas. The SNS’ full conversion to European integration has reduced policy differences between the two major parties; the DS had little new policies or major differences from the SNS.
Vojislav Koštunica, who in a funny twist is probably further to the right of the SNS, ran a strongly Eurosceptic campaign for his weakened DSS. The DSS accused the SNS of being “bound hand and foot with the EU”, which he blames for Serbia’s economic crisis. Koštunica declined an offer from the far-right Dveri movement to run in a nationalist coalition with the SRS. Dveri finally ran alone, while the SRS allied with extremists from a clericofascist party and a far-right movement.
Turnout was 53.12%, down from 58.7% in 2012 and 60.7% in the 2008 legislative elections.
SNS and allies 48.34% (+24.29%) winning 158 seats (+85)
SPS and allies 13.51% (-1%) winning 44 seats (nc)
DS 6.04% (-16.03%) winning 19 seats (-48)
NDS and allies 5.71% (+5.71%) winning 18 seats (+18)
DSS 4.24% (-2.76%) winning 0 seats (-21)
Dveri 3.57% (-0.77%) winning 0 seats (nc)
LDP and allies 3.35% (-3.18%) winning 0 seats (-13)
URS 3.04% (-2.47%) winning 0 seats (-16)
Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians 2.11% (+0.36%) winning 6 seats (+1)
Enough of That 2.08% (+2.08%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SRS 2% (-2.62%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Party of Democratic Action of Sandžak 0.95% (+0.26%) winning 3 seats (+1)
Party for Democratic Action 0.68% (+0.68%) winning 2 seats (+1)
Others 1.15% (-3.31%) winning 0 seats (-2)
The SNS won a huge landslide, winning 48% of the vote and a large absolute majority in the National Assembly – the first time a single list has an absolute majority since the opposition’s victory in 2000, and the SNS’ victory is more impressive than that of the DOS in 2000 because, unlike the DOS which was made up of two parties (DS and DSS) of equal strength, the SNS is the only relevant party in its coalition. With such numbers, it’s clear that Vučić has the ‘mandate for reforms’ that he asked from voters when moving for snap elections. It is also clear that the SNS has no alibi to delay the reforms it promises.
Vučić’s success is largely the result of his anti-corruption campaign which made him famous and very popular while he was Deputy Prime Minister. In a country used to but fed up with sleazy politicians, oligarchs (and the mix of the two), Vučić’s populist anti-corruption campaign capitalized on this sentiment and aptly exploited it to partisan gain for his party. The anti-corruption drive was also a strategy by the government to direct popular anger in tough times towards other people – in this case, corrupt tycoons.
Anti-corruption crusades, promises for jobs and investment and support for EU membership have replaced Vučić’s past nationalist talks of Greater Serbia. The success, thus far, of EU negotiations have also boosted the SNS’ standing, while there appears to be little nationalist backlash against it from the Kosovo dealIn contrast to the weak, tired and divided opposition, Vučić came across as the only ready and able leader who would take the ‘tough measures’ needed. Vučić also exhibited strength, resolve and determination – popular traits.
His campaign also was quite populist, which is one thing which hasn’t changed in the SNS. During the campaign, Vučić rescued an 11-year old boy from a car stranded due to a blizzard, and his stunt was broadcast on national television.
The SNS also won the municipal election in Belgrade, winning 42.5% against 16.1% for the DS and 11.6% for the SPS. The SNS will have 62 seats in Belgrade, an absolute majority, against 23 for the DS, 16 for the SPS and 9 for the DSS. Zorana Mihajlović, a SNS cabinet minister, will become mayor of Belgrade. The DS, obliterated electorally, now lacks any major office of nationwide prominence.
The opposition was decimated. The results for the DS and DSS were particularly bad, while outgoing PM Dačić performed quite well – in his own words, he survived a political tsunami. On the far-right, the SRS fell even further.
Vučić is now in an extraordinarily powerful position, with a huge majority and a clear mandate. He promises ‘tough’ reforms and to continue the fight against corruption. Serbia’s struggling economy will be the government’s priority, and it will be forced to implement austerity measures if it wants to receive an IMF loan, which was frozen in February 2012. In order to diffuse potential popular uproar against the austerity measures, many feel that Vučić will, his majority notwithstanding, form a coalition government. The SNS has said that it will need other parties at its sides to implement reforms which it recognizes will be tough for the population. Dačić’s SPS has declined to join a coalition, seemingly, and says it will oppose reforms aimed ‘against’ workers and retirees. Relations between Dačić and Vučić have been bad over the past two years, and the SPS is angry at the SNS for snap elections which means that it loses access to state patronage. It also remains to be seen whether or not Vučić succumbs to the temptations of authoritarianism. His party is more powerful than any Serbian party has ever been since Milošević fell from power in 2000.
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.