Perspectives | Elections

Belgrade’s best shot

By - 09.03.2022

The elections in April could be the beginning of change in Serbia.

On February 15, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, without an explanation, disbanded Parliament on recommendation of the government and announced new snap general elections. Along with presidential and local elections, Serbia will be voting for new parliamentary representatives on April 3.

The election campaign is already quite irregular. The government is actively buying support through one-time financial assistance payments to citizens along with other clientelistic practices. It is also misusing the voter list. But in this election cycle, the outcomes could differ from what the Leader intends, especially in Belgrade.

Serbia’s capital of over a million people is the opposition’s best chance in the past 10 years to finally inflict a significant electoral challenge to Aleksandar Vučić.

Two opposition lines

Belgrade has long been plagued by corruption, flawed urban development, traffic snarls and pollution. But unlike many smaller municipalities in Serbia, it also has a sufficiently large middle and working class that isn’t dependent on party affiliation. Certainly, for the long-running dissatisfaction of Belgraders with the current state of affairs to turn into electoral changes, credible political alternatives are necessary. And they will have them this time around.

For starters, this time the opposition has completely skipped the stage where they unsuccessfully negotiate about a joint mayoral candidate. Doomed to failure in advance due to vast differences in attitudes, such actions have in previous electoral cycles created an atmosphere of disunity and distrust that rubbed off on voters. An important lesson has finally been learned: it isn’t reasonable to expect the left and the right, nationalists and progressives, to agree on a candidate who will be acceptable to everyone.

In the upcoming elections in Belgrade, the opposition will offer at least two lists with a chance of achieving good results.

Although the electoral system uses the D’Hondt method, which favors the strongest list, participation in the election of two or three different groups formed around common values actually offers the opposition a better shot at attaining a post-election majority because it reduces the chances that voters from either end of the political spectrum will remain home on election day due to dissatisfaction with a “compromise” candidate.

In the upcoming elections in Belgrade, the opposition will offer at least two lists with a chance of achieving good results. Though there will be more options than just these two lists, by “opposition” I mean only those lists that we can be certain will not form a coalition with the current ruling party.

The highest hopes rest in Vladeta Janković. He is a university professor, the former Serbian ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Vatican, as well as a close associate of former Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica. Janković has a biography with no major gaffes that the tabloid machinery of Vučić’s regime could exploit. A number of well-established opposition parties and leaders stand behind this conservative eurosceptic, including the Party of Freedom and Justice led by Dragan Đilas, the Democratic Party headed by Zoran Lutovac, the People’s Party led by Vuk Jeremić and the Movement of Free Citizens headed by Pavle Grbović.

The anticipated counter-campaign will attempt to reduce him to a puppet of Dragan Đilas, former president of the Democratic Party and Belgrade’s former mayor, who today heads the Party of Freedom and Justice.

In pro-government media, the public addresses of officials and even Instagram posts by parliament members, Đilas has for 10 years been portrayed as the ultimate evil and the embodiment of the previous government’s corrupt practices. Đilas’s support for Janković’s candidacy is treated as unmistakable proof of the candidate’s poor character, corruption, and even treason. In short, tying Janković to Đilas represents the fastest way to discredit him.

The electoral list Janković heads is made up of members of multiple parties and will strive to position itself as the strongest opposition option, rallying people who will go out to the polls only if they think victory is possible.

Janković is an ideal choice for such a coalition. He doesn’t create further polarization among parties with his views and he can be pushed to the front to at least partially soften the bad reputation that the tabloids are everyday trying to pin on his coalition. He is not a charismatic leader but the voters they want to attract aren’t looking for one. They just seek a decent, neutral option they won’t feel ashamed to vote for.

The success of the second opposition group, however, is arguably even more important for the final result of Belgrade’s elections.

A lampshade for a mayor

The green-leftist coalition MORAMO (WE MUST), is comprised of the movement Ne davimo Beograd (Don’t Let Belgrade Drown), the citizens’ platform Action, the Environmental Uprising movement, the Roma Forum of Serbia and several other smaller groups and individuals, including the founder of the association Defend the Rivers of Stara Planina, led by Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta. 

Their mayoral candidate is the political scientist Dobrica Veselinović, or, as they call him, the “dobrinačelnik” — a portmanteau combining “Dobri,” meaning both “good” and the beginning of Dobrica’s name, with the ending of the Serbian word for mayor, gradonačelnik. The nickname came from Twitter and is now being used by the coalition’s supporters.

The biggest assets of this coalition is its pristine reputations and the numerous small but indisputable positive acts they’ve performed.

If both lists attain good results, Vučić's party could lose Belgrade after many years in power.

Instead of empty slogans, the “Don’t Let Belgrade Drown” activists have been planting trees for years, participating in public talks on changing urban plans and consistently protesting about municipal problems. As the years went by, their organization grew, presenting a genuine rarity in the political scene of Serbia because not a single affair or scandal has been linked to them.

Their biggest challenge will be to break through the media isolation imposed by the regime and reach a sufficient number of voters. The primary tactic of the government is to limit their access to the media sphere as much as possible.

If both lists attain good results, Vučić’s party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) could lose Belgrade after many years in power. An additional cause for the potential demise of SNS in Belgrade could come from within. Vučić has appointed the mayor of the Novi Beograd municipality, Aleksandar Šapić, as the leader of the electoral list.

The former water polo star paddled into politics through the ranks of the Democratic Party (DS). Then he founded his own Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS, wordplay meaning salvation) and claimed that there was no chance he would enter into coalition with SNS, and then almost immediately afterwards melded his party into SNS.

Belgrade’s mayor, however, is elected indirectly through the city assembly, so it’s still uncertain whether SNS’s candidate would be Šapić.

Namely, Belgrade is currently led by pediatric surgeon Zoran Radojičić, a member of SNS and a person with no political significance, appointed as a lampshade for the man many consider the real mayor, Goran Vesić. Vesić is a Machiavellian figure and operative of former Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić and an advisor to former President Boris Tadić. Today, he is part of Aleksandar Vučić’s circle of close associates and someone who pulls the strings behind the scenes in Belgrade.

First and foremost, his name is associated with his incompetence in leading the metropolis and with the rise in uncontrolled construction, the felling of trees, and a slew of other sordid affairs. Even a monthslong informal mayoral campaign didn’t result in him being entrusted to lead the electoral list, but he still has lofty ambitions.

Vesić and Šapić see each other as competition and both have their party loyalists whom they are pushing forward at the expense of the other. The smoldering internal rift among Belgrade’s SNS cadre could quickly turn into a sabotage movement against Šapić during the election campaign, although SNS will highlight Vučić even in local elections, not the other two men.

Will the leader on the poster ensure victory or accelerate collapse? Maybe it’s not all about Vučić this time around.

After 10 years of election cycles filled with defeat, party divisions and internal strife, the opposition in Belgrade is finally in a place where it can swing the pendulum of Serbian politics to the other side. For this to actually materialize, there will need to be outstanding results from the coalitions headed by Janković and Veselinović, with as few opposition votes as possible directed to the other opposition candidates.

The only way to attract those votes is to persuade voters that victory, even if only in the capital city, is an achievable goal and that the time has come for Vučić’s reign to begin falling.

Feature image: Dennis G. Jarvis via CC.



This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.

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