Perspectives | Elections

Vucic’s victory leads Serbia towards autocracy

By - 04.04.2017

Serbia’s newly elected president may lead the country on the same path as Turkey or Russia.

With only a slight amount of uncertainty, Serbia got its new head of state. What is new is only the post, whereas the face is very well-known. Aleksandar Vucic, who was the prime minister in two incomplete terms (2014-2016 and 2016-2017), will now switch from the seat of the prime minister to the seat of the president. He managed to win this post in the first round of elections, with around 55 percent of the electorate’s support.

The closest opponent to him, with around 16 percent of votes, is the non-partisan candidate Sasa Jankovic, the former ombudsperson, who didn’t hesitate to openly criticize the work of the state-run institutions while he was in his previous post. Probably due to this, government representatives and pro-government tabloids have been racing against each other to shamelessly rip Jankovic apart on their front pages (this has been done to all those who dared to publicly criticize the government). These “media,” under the control of the government, gave their bloodthirsty contribution in this “Blitzkrieg” election campaign as well.

Master of manipulation

During a month-long period, throughout the presidential race, there seems not to have been a single day in which tabloids and pro-regime televisions weren’t targeting opposition candidates as foreign mercenaries who planned to have a “Macedonian scenario” in Serbia; they were called traitors and Soros profiteers.  Simultaneously, on those same televisions, Vucic as a candidate of the ruling coalition received the greatest air time in informative shows (each praising him, of course), he was a guest almost every week (on stations that were favorable towards him, whereas he kept his distance from other stations). His “flying circus” was done a few hours before the election silence on one private TV station, where in a show — with guests including his parents — he offered assistance in front of the cameras to a young man from the audience; the lad “fainted” while everybody else remained stiff and were just watching.

Aleksandar Vucic is a master of media manipulation. He acquired this craft from the equally sciential and perfidious Vojislav Seselj, while he was a member of his radical right-wing Serbian Radical Party. Since Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party took over all levers of power, the current prime minister and newly elected president has perfected this aspect of ruling.

Many analysts in post-election commentaries say that this result could be a good basis upon which a new pro-democratic opposition could be constructed.

A chance for the opposition to consolidate?

In circumstances in which channels of communication with the voters in the most popular media were closed to the opposition, Jankovic’s second place and support of 16 percent of voters may be considered a success. After the Democratic Party (DS) lost the parliamentary parliamentary elections in 2012 — due to the arrogant and particracy politics of the then-leader and president of Serbia, Boris Tadic — and gave power to Vucic’s progressives, the result of the ex-Ombudsperson showed that it is possible to mobilize some of DS’s ex-voters. At least those who have been disappointed in the way the country has been led since the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime on October 5, 2000, and the assassination of Zoran Djindjic in 2003.

For comparison, the Democratic Party, that supported Sasa Jankovic, got a miserable 6 percent support in last year’s parliamentary elections, or around 230,000 votes, whereas Jankovic received close to 570,000 votes this year.

Many analysts in post-election commentaries say that this result could be a good basis upon which a new pro-democratic opposition could be constructed. Of course, that would rely upon opposition party leaders managing to overcome vanity and personal animosities and to free the way for Jankovic and people similar to him who are not politically compromised, which is — judging by past experiences — highly unlikely.

Inertia and blackmail, a path to victory

Despite the fact that Jankovic has the right to consider himself a victor of the elections in this dirty campaign, it is irrefutable that Aleksandar Vucic won the election easily in the first round. With support from many coalition partners, including the second-strongest Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), he won more than 1.9 million votes, which is 100,000 more than the number won by his coalition (then without SPS) in last year’s parliamentary elections.

The number of around half a million people working in the public sector is not negligible. Those people were practically blackmailed into voting for the ruling party and to keep their jobs by doing so.

It seems that his election results were not damaged by austerity measures, as part of which the government reduced pensions, contrary to the Constitution, nor by his autocratic attitude towards society and the media, or the affairs his ministers and close party collaborators partook in, or the particracy that took over every segment of society, or the unresolved demolition of private facilities in Belgrade’s Savamala quarter under the shadows of night, when masked people unlawfully detained passersby who witnessed this incident. It seems that none of this prompted voters to vote in larger numbers on April 2.

The reasons for this aren’t simple and are still being analyzed: In a dirty presidential campaign, as we already said, opposition candidates could have barely presented their programs equally to the current election victor. Also, the number of around half a million people working in the public sector is not negligible. Those people were practically blackmailed into voting for the ruling party and to keep their jobs by doing so. An equally important factor is inertia, according to which one part of the electorate gave its support to the person having the biggest chance of winning; in this case, it was Vucic.

A surprise in a white suit

Many had hoped that the newly elected president would have to go through two election rounds to take over this post. Therefore, some futilely hoped that there would be a bigger turnout that would prevent Vucic from crossing the election threshold of 50 percent, which is the condition for winning in the first round.

He succeeded in showing the government and opposition that a not insignificant number of people have lost trust in the system.

However, 55 percent of citizens used their voting right (which is 1 percent less than during last year’s parliamentary elections), so it could have been anticipated that it wouldn’t be difficult for the ruling coalition’s candidate to achieve its goal.

A bigger turnout wasn’t assisted by Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli, a fictive character in a kitsch white suit and traditional Serbian shoes, who is actually Luka Maksimovic. Due to his satirical attitude towards (Serbian) politics and politicians — namely, Beli didn’t give any false promises, but openly told his followers that he is lying to them and that he will become rich at their expense — Preletacevic got 10 percent of the vote, which cannot be neglected. By winning 325,000 votes and taking third place, he finished ahead of professional politicians with many years standing, like Vuk Jeremic, the former minister of foreign affairs, and Vojislav Seselj.

All things considered, it seems that young people were the ones who mostly voted for him, those who grew up on social networks and who believe that the current democratic mechanisms are corrupt.

By utilizing his humorous approach and theatrical performance, Beli didn’t manage to attract a sufficient number of abstainers in the election process, which would have made Vucic’s victory in the first round more difficult. However, he succeeded in showing the government and opposition that a not insignificant number of people have lost trust in the system. At the end, this has been proven by the turnout data.

The current prime minister will move into the Presidency at Andricev venac neighborhood, and if we judge by his current mode of governance, we should expect that Vucic will not be satisfied by the merely protocol powers in the hands of a president of the republic. It is a real threat that, modeled by autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vucic could place a passive figure in the prime minister’s post and keep concrete levers of power in his new position, which was performed with partial success by the former president Boris Tadic, who was also part of the Democratic Party.

In these circumstances, the opposition and citizens should get over the fact that a second election round is not happening as soon as possible, because they and the rest of Serbia could very soon find themselves in one of Dante’s circles.

Featured image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0

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