Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian president, announced a few weeks ago that parliamentary elections would be brought forward, as well as elections in sixty municipalities, including the country's capital

Elections in Serbia: the reflection of an illiberal democracy


"This has been the most violent campaign" said Ema Štefanac, coordinator of the Capacity Building Program of the organization Civic Initiatives Belgrade, in a talk organized by the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM, for its acronym in German) to analyze the Serbian elections to be held this Sunday.

Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian president, announced a few weeks ago that parliamentary elections would be brought forward, as well as elections in sixty municipalities including the country's capital. This is not the first time that the Serbian leader has brought forward elections; in fact, it is the fourth time since he came to power in 2012. In the last eleven years, only once have deputies of the Serbian parliament served for the entire term of office. Taking into account all elections held in this period at different levels, December 17 will be the seventh time Serbian citizens will be called to the polls.

Electoral advancement is a strategy already used by Aleksandar Vucic in the past; a tool to undermine the consolidation of opposition parties and parliamentary groups. "Serbia is an example of illiberal democracy that demonstrates that a democracy can be destroyed through the constant holding of elections," Peter Techet, IDM research associate, rightly pointed out at the same meeting.

serbia  Aleksandar Vucic
Serbia. Aleksandar Vucic

A total of 18 lists are running for the 250 seats in the Serbian Parliament in next Sunday's elections. However, it is true that there is a different atmosphere ahead of this week's call to the polls. This electoral advance is not only a strategy of Vucic to consolidate himself in power, but also responds to the request of the opposition for the same.

Serbia against violence

The shootings in Belgrade last May that ended with 19 dead provoked a reaction in the Serbian population. For weeks, residents of major Serbian cities took to the streets to protest against the violence in the country. A campaign dubbed "Serbia against violence" blamed the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) for promoting violence in the country. A movement that also demanded concrete measures such as the resignation of Interior Minister Bratislav Gašić, the head of the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA),

Aleksandar Vulin, and the Minister of Education, Branko Ružić; or the immediate cancellation of programs that promote violence, among others. These protests began as a reaction to the violent incidents in May, but ended up encompassing the whole issue of violence, holding the Vucic regime responsible for it.

serbia elecciones 2023 oposicion.jpg

A movement that was soon appropriated by the opposition forces, creating one of the coalitions running against the SNS. Thus, 'Serbia Against Violence' is now a coalition list grouping the Freedom and Justice Party (SSP), the Democratic Party (DS), the People's Movement of Serbia, the Ecological Uprising, the Green-Left Front, the Serbian Center (SRCE), the Zajedno, the Citizens' Freedoms Movement (PSG), the Romanian party and the New Face of Serbia movement.

"The goal is that together, united with the citizens, we will choose a Serbia of the future without violence, a safe Serbia, in which everyone will be satisfied, both young people and pensioners," said Miroslav Aleksić, leader of the grouping, at a press conference in front of the Serbian National Assembly Chamber. All these parties are pro-European, center and left-wing.

The second opposition bloc is the far-right nationalists, who failed to agree on a pre-election coalition, so they will face voters in two camps. Both of them have an ultra-conservative profile and Kosovo as the main point of their program.

However, even if part of the opposition has been able to agree and Vucic and his party's popularity has been damaged in recent years, little hope remains for a change. "The SNS uses whatever it takes [to win] what feels undemocratic," Štefanac lamented at the meeting organized by IDM. Freedom House labels Serbia a "hybrid democracy" where "democratic institutions are fragile and there are substantial challenges to the protection of political rights and civil liberties."

Civil society and independent media in Serbia face a hostile atmosphere where smear campaigns against organizations or individuals by SNS officials, as well as by SNS supporters and pro-government media are common. Serbia ranks 91st in this year's Reporters Without Borders report, where "journalists are threatened by political pressure and impunity for crimes committed against them." One example of this is that the Electronic Media Regulatory Agency (REM) in the country only issued broadcasting licenses to country only extended national broadcasting licenses, for the next eight years, to four strongly pro-government television stations.

Kosovo sets the electoral agenda

Instability in the country is not only centered on protests against violence. Serbia continues to grapple with the "Kosovo issue". An issue that has escalated in recent months and whose latest chapter occurred last September in the Banjska monastery, when a group of Serbian terrorists seized the temple. A Kosovar policeman was killed in such an operation and, once again, stability in the region was in danger.

The dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is the priority of the International Community in the region, which is pressing both parties to sign the Ohrid Agreements that would oblige Serbia to recognize Kosovo de facto. Something that Serbia is resisting.

However, the Kosovo issue is much more complex than what the international actors from Brussels put forward.

The situation of the Serbs in Kosovo has not yet stabilized, nor have their demands been implemented. Something that Belgrade uses to its advantage. Now, in view of these elections, the Kosovo issue -from Belgrade- is covered from a domestic perspective, and neither the ruling party nor the opposition have different visions on this issue.

None of the fronts raises the recognition of what it considers its province. It was months ago when I heard the phrase "no Serbian president wants to be remembered as the one who lost Kosovo" (it should be noted that for Serbs Kosovo is the cradle of their identity) that perfectly reflects this resistance.

While the SNS uses Kosovo as one of its main rhetoric, the main opposition front does not take it as a priority; the coalition 'Serbia against violence' focuses its campaign on ending the illiberal regime that Vucic and his party have created, but does not even consider recognizing Kosovo's independence. Indeed, "the Kosovo issue" is the only common ground between all the groupings.

But, as far as Kosovo and these elections in Serbia are concerned, there are two facts to keep in mind: first, Kosovo Serbs are voters (although they will have to cross the border to be able to do so) and it is a niche that Vucic is not forgetting. The Serbian president is expected to bring free buses to northern Kosovo to transport Kosovo Serbs to the polling stations - as he has done before when he wanted to use this community. On the other hand, Kosovo is the issue that most worries the international community and explains the attitude of the Euro-Atlantic bloc towards Serbia.

Putin Vucic 2023

In this respect, Serbia not only refused to sign what was agreed in Ohrid but, in recent months, has been responsible (more or less directly) for the incidents in northern Kosovo; from the block resignation of Kosovo Serbs from Kosovo institutions and the subsequent protests demanding the creation of the Association of Serbian Municipalities (AMS) - something that Pristina must comply with as stipulated by the Brussels Treaty (2013) - to the Banjska bombing; which violates the stability agreements between Belgrade and Pristina.

However, the international position in this regard has not been even-handed; while there was no hesitation in sanctioning the Pristina government for resisting to comply with the demands of the Serbian community, the tone with its Serbian counterpart has not been the same.
"The EU is trying to keep Serbia in its orbit," asserted Alejandro Esteso, a PhD candidate at the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, at the IDM meeting. Serbia is one of Russia's main partners in the region, one of the few European states that has not applied sanctions against Putin's government for the invasion of Ukraine.

And while it is true that when the Balkan country decided not to toe the Western line in this regard it was criticized for trying to "sit on two chairs," it seems that the strategy - and tone - of the Western bloc has softened in order to keep Vucic in its fold. "Vucic is playing a game of being between the EU, Russia and China by not taking a position on any of the hot-button issues," Techet said at the meeting.

An undemocratic election campaign

Moreover, it seems that the SNS's totally undemocratic campaign does not arouse concern among international partners either.

The election campaign of the still ruling party, as Štefanac rightly said, "has been the most violent so far". It has been based on the use of the entire clientelist network that the SNS has been weaving for years in the country; intimidation and threats about jobs in the public sector have been constant in influencing voters. In addition, members of the opposition have denounced blackmail through the publication of videos and other private information.

The same Council of Europe underlined that the election campaign is characterized by "an unprecedented level of negative language, fear-mongering negative language, scaremongering, attacks on the opposition and journalists, and serious problems affecting the media."
Other striking strategies of the Serbian leader have been the announcement of grants of 10,000 dinars (90 euros) to high school students. Something that the opposition accused of bribing voters with public money. In addition, the Serbian president and some of his ministers have opened TikTok accounts in order to attract younger voters.

serbia 2023 elecciones

In response to this, the ProGlas initiative has emerged, driven by Serbian intellectuals and public figures to encourage as many people as possible to go to the polls and vote for one of the opposition parties.
For his part, Aleksandar Vucic, who is not a candidate in any of the three electoral races-he renewed his mandate as president in April 2022-, is leading the SNS campaign using a thoroughly personalistic strategy focused on discrediting his opponents and mass voter recruitment using the institutional apparatus, accompanied by highly visible populist measures.

The north of the country has been involved in a large police operation (in collaboration with the Hungarian police) against refugees near the borders; reception centers and transit camps have been evicted and closed, thousands of people have been sent back to the south of the country and even to Bulgaria, and activists in the area have been victims of attacks and police harassment. A campaign that the residents of towns such as Sombor or Subotica themselves labeled as "propaganda".

This Sunday the Serbs will decide the composition of their Parliament, but also the government of about 60 municipalities, Belgrade among them. Municipalities strategically chosen by the current government in order to take control -the rest of the cities will hold elections next year-. In this regard, Vucic hopes to use his national popularity to win in most of the localities that also go to the polls this Sunday.

However, Belgrade has always been the stronghold of the pro-European liberal parties, currently in the opposition, which makes the capital the most closely contested election race. Belgrade is home to a quarter of Serbia's population and produces more than half of the country's GDP.

Few people, in Serbia and internationally, doubt the SNS's majority in parliament; somewhat more questionable is its victory in the municipal elections -although this would not be surprising either. However, these elections do have certain peculiarities. First, the Serbian case demonstrates, as has already been pointed out in this text, how a democracy can be destroyed through the abuse of elections.

On the other hand, it has been the same violent way of doing politics of the SNS that has mobilized the Serbs for months and has managed to get part of the opposition to create a front with a central objective: to put an end to an illiberal system that has been in place for twelve years. If there is one thing that Sunday's elections will make clear, it is the deterioration of democratic institutions in Serbia.