A little over a month ago, Serbia voted on the composition of its parliament and more than 60 municipalities, marking the fourth time that Serbian leader Aleksandar Vučić and his party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), have brought forward elections in the twelve years they have been in power

Serbia or how a democracy could die

Serbian leader Aleksandar Vučić - PHOTO/FILE

"Democracies can fail not at the hands of generals, but of elected leaders, presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. [...] This is how democracies die today. Outright dictatorships, in the form of fascism, communism and military rule, have all but disappeared from the scene. Military coups and other violent usurpations of power are rare. Elections are held regularly in most countries. And while democracies continue to fail, they do so in other ways. [...] Today, democratic backsliding begins at the ballot box". 

This is the argument that Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt start with in their book 'How Democracies Die', and although these sentences are only an introduction to a much deeper analysis, they perfectly reflect what is happening in Serbia. 

A little over a month ago, Serbia voted on the composition of its parliament and more than 60 municipalities, marking the fourth time that Serbian leader Aleksandar Vučić and his party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), had brought forward elections in the twelve years they have been in power. There was no shortage of those who, in the face of this call to the polls, tried to shed some light on the political situation in the Balkan country, among them Peter Techet who, in a seminar organised by the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM) said very aptly, "Serbia is an example of illiberal democracy that shows that a democracy can be destroyed through the constant holding of elections". 

It was no secret, not only of the possible electoral fraud that was looming, but also of the unfairness with which the other parties were starting out. The SNS's use of public resources for its campaign, its control of most of the country's media spectrum, the intimidation - and all kinds of attacks - against its political opponents and the use of the entire clientelist network created over the years by the SNS were factors that had already been denounced - and demonstrated - before the elections. The Serbian think tank CRTA denounced that "the initial phase of the pre-election campaign has been characterised by inequalities between the participants in the electoral race, particularly in terms of the advantages gained by the ruling parties in abusing the institutions, which continues to further blur the line between them and the state. There are also doubts about the integrity of the electoral process, according to the CRTA's First Long-Term Election Observation Interim Report, presented on 23 November at the Belgrade Media Centre". 

Even with all this, the elections were held on 17 December, and just one hour after the polls closed, the SNS was already claiming victory. The opposition was reluctant to admit it. In fact, Miroslav Aleksić, leader of the left-wing coalition, 'Serbia Against Violence', the main opposition front to Vučić, declared that "there is no chance for the SNS to win in Belgrade". Furthermore, Aleksić denounced the fact that before the elections, 40,000 new ID cards had been issued to non-residents before the elections and stressed that the largest polling stations in the capital remained uncounted. 

In turn, both local and international entities, including observers from the OSCE and the European Parliament, were quick to condemn the electoral fraud and manipulation. 


Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that in the days following the announcement of the election result, the main streets of Belgrade were flooded with citizens denying the result and demanding a re-run of the elections, especially in Belgrade, where the opposition was expected to win. "We are on the streets demanding the annulment and re-run of the elections. We are against violence; the violence we have been experiencing for years under this government is getting bigger and bigger", said Nikola Pavlovic, in one of the streets of the Serbian capital cut off by students from the University of Belgrade during these protests. 

Protests that have not yet ceased, which have reached more than ten thousand demonstrators, have cut off the main streets of the capital, blocked access to institutional buildings and have already led to dozens of arrests. 

The chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party and member of the Serbian Coalition Against Violence, Dragan Đilas, wrote days later in POLITICO: "with the support of many young people, who were fed up with living in a country where violence is common and institutions do not matter, we invited citizens to protest peacefully until our demands were met, while Marinika Tepić and other members of Parliament continue their hunger strike". 

Reactions to such mobilisations were not long in coming, and as is often the case in the Balkans, especially in Serbia, accusations from the hegemonic blocs of European international politics followed. Vučić did not hesitate to claim that he had "irrefutable proof" that the West was fanning the flames of these protests. A theory that was echoed in Moscow, as Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency "the West's attempts to destabilise the situation in the country [Serbia] are obvious". 

These accusations have not gone down well with the Western bloc, and have led European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders to call on leaders across the political spectrum in Serbia to maintain a "constructive dialogue", rejecting the disinformation narratives disseminated by Russia. 


But as Dilas wrote, "initially, Bilčik did not even notice the significant irregularities in the elections. Even more surprisingly, there was no reaction to the insults and verbal abuse suffered by domestic and international election observers who spoke publicly about his findings. Sadly, we have come to expect such behaviour from our Western partners". 

He is not wrong, Vučić's autocratic drift has been far from silent. According to Serbia's constitution, executive power rests with the government, headed by the prime minister, which would leave the president's role largely ceremonial. Vučić was Prime Minister twice, from 2014 to 2016, and again (after calling early elections) from 2016 to 2017, when he was elected president. His replacement was Ana Brnabić, also part of the SNS. In practice, however, Vučić's position as party leader gives him control of the parliamentary majority and thus also of the government. Brnabić lacks her own power base and remains a loyal supporter of the president. 

A European Parliament report in 2019 already explained the decline of press freedom, the concentration of power in the figure of Vučić, the lack of electoral transparency and legal independence in the country, and the harassment of civil organisations. This same report, which told nothing that Serbian non-governmental organisations had not already been denouncing for years, reflected the violence present in Serbian institutions. 

Aware and fed up with this situation, Serbian civil society took to the streets in May last year. And they did not stop until the elections on 17 December. Every Friday, hundreds of people filled the streets of Belgrade calling for an end to this violence. These protests spread to other Serbian cities. From these mobilisations, the opposition has emerged. They also gave rise to the hope that the December elections would be held. It was these that forced Vučić, in a way, to bring the elections forward; the Serbian leader called them as a strategy so that his weight at the national level would help him, in turn, to win the municipal elections. I repeat Techet's words at that seminar: "you can destroy a democracy by constantly holding elections". 

But the collation and the 'Serbia against violence' demonstrations gave a different atmosphere to this election day. It was not that the SNS victory in the parliamentary elections was in doubt, but the ruling party was predicted to lose the capital. A hard blow for Vučić. 


If there is one thing that distinguishes the Western Balkan bloc, it is the strength of its social movements. Over the past two decades there has been no shortage of demonstrations of the strength of civil society, with varying degrees of success. In this regard, I cannot fail to mention Fernando Esteso's analysis for the European Western Balkans portal, 'Lessons in colour: what Serbia's protests can learn from North Macedonia'. In this text, the Balkans expert recalls the 2016 Colour Revolution in North Macedonia, when Macedonian civil societies spent months calling for elections and other measures in the small Balkan country. In Esteso's words, "the indisputably general grievance [that led to these protests] was the general perception of injustice and political impunity surrounding Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE-led government". 

The expert, while aware of the differences in the political contexts of the two countries and times, points out that "both the 2016 and 2023 protests, as well as many other demonstrations in between, are episodes from the same era, when citizens of illiberal regimes in the Western Balkans take to the streets to channel their grievances and outrage against the elite. In both cases, the social outburst of frustration and anger was met with denial by unaccountable elites, who dismissed the movement's demands and organised counter-protests to delegitimise them. A key element of both movements is their cross-cutting and decentralised nature: while both emerged and maintained their central support in Skopje and Belgrade, they quickly spread across the country and became a comprehensive inter-city movement with demands that resonate far beyond the capitals". 

For more than a month, with the exception of the Orthodox Christmas celebrations, Serbs have been on the streets protesting the election fraud that has long been proven. More than 450 violations took place on 17 December. Actress Svetlana Bojković, part of ProGlas, an initiative formed by Serbian intellectuals and public figures calling for electoral participation, presented the reports coming in from all over the country detailing the tactics employed during the elections. 

The list included cases of cancer patients awaiting transplants being manipulated into supporting the ruling party in exchange for moving up the donor list; enticement of elderly people with monetary incentives to change their residence; and deceased citizens reappearing on voter lists. 

Aleksandar Vučić refuses a repeat election claiming that 'Serbia against Violence' is encouraging such protests since it did not get the expected results, especially in Belgrade. And following these statements by the still president, the official results were published on 3 January by the Serbian Election Commission: the Serbian Socialist Party won 46.75% of the votes, while Serbia Against Violence won 23.66%. 

Again, the results were not agreed upon. Thus, on Friday 18 January, POLITICO published a letter in which high-ranking European politicians urged Ursula von der Leyen to investigate the Serbian elections. Twenty-four signatories, including Michael Roth, chairman of the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, and his French counterpart, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, as well as the chairmen of foreign or European affairs committees from across the EU, as well as the UK, Moldova and Ukraine. 


As noted earlier in this text, Vučić's increasingly autocratic rule in Serbia is neither new nor unknown, but the EU has chosen not only to look the other way but to dance to the Serbian leader's tune in order to bring him closer to the Western fold and away from Moscow. A strategy that not only is not working, but has given Aleksandar Vučić a sense of impunity, and Serbs a sense of abandonment. As Carniege Europe researcher Dimitar Bechev points out, "one might think that the country has long since moved beyond the lows of 1990. However, some Serbs have the feeling that the clock has been turned back to the era of former president Slobodan Milošević". 

The erosion of democracy in Serbia is clear, but so is the lack of awareness of it. However, reactions in the country are showing that the dynamics are changing; despite controlling the entire state machinery, the SNS has lost Belgrade - despite what the results say - leaving an opportunity for real change. And people are on the streets demanding it. 

"There are strong democratic voices on the ground, but they need to be organised, managed and channelled," explains Maja Stojanovic, executive director of Civic Initiatives, for the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). "It is necessary to use national legal instruments to show that they are controlled and do not work or, hopefully, to encourage some disobedient voices within these structures", she continues, but, in addition, "democratic Serbia needs the support of a strong and united West". 

Fareed Zakaria has long defined the term illiberal democracy, and Serbia is a regime that falls under such a concept - along with Hungary or Turkey. A lack of constitutional freedom that Serbs want to get rid of and have been demonstrating for months. And they have asked the EU to do so. The election enquiry is necessary. It is necessary to listen to the demands of the population. Democracy in Serbia needs to be safeguarded or we will see it die. In the words of Stojanovic: "the ball is in our court. It is time to act".