The morning after the elections held on June 21, Serbia woke up in a de facto autocratic system. The election threshold, reduced from 5% to 3% just for this occasion, was crossed only by three parties: The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by Aleksandar Vučić, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by Ivica Dačić and SPAS led by Aleksandar Šapić.
In practice, this means that no one from the genuine opposition bloc will be a part of the new Assembly: For the past eight years, the socialists have been in a coalition with the progressives and will remain their strategic partners, regardless of whether they will formally be part of the new-old government, whereas it seems likely that Šapić will take the place of the cooperative, servile opposition.
Therefore, the new parliament will faithfully reflect the current political unanimity in Serbia.
Vučić had his most convincing career victory while dribbling on an empty field. Although there were as many as 21 election lists, the vast part was made up of SNS clones, whose sole purpose wasn’t to enter the parliament but to simulate Potemkin pluralism.
The largest part of the genuine opposition — regardless of what we may think of them — has decided to sit out this game on the bench, boycotting the elections due to the undemocratic circumstances. At first sight, this kind of decision can look counterintuitive: How do you overthrow an autocrat if you don’t participate in the elections?
The art of ruling
Still, the boycott was at this point the only sensible way to resist the slow decline into absolutism.
Before they resorted to it, the Serbian opposition tried everything. They opposed Vučić from both the standpoint of somewhat liberal and right-wing positions, they proposed old party members and new faces, such as the former ombudsperson Saša Janković, for political appointments, they established new parties and formed coalitions, they protested with citizens associations and under their own flags. None of this proved useful.
Part of the reason lies in their muddled biographies and problematic attitudes but the fact is that their maneuvering space has been significantly reduced due to Vučić’s art of ruling, which is based on three complementary factors: Media control, state instrumentalization in favor of his own party and election manipulation.
Unlike Milošević, who rigged elections multiple times and suffocated democracy by assassinating political opponents, killing journalists, using cordons and water cannons, Vučić mostly relies on “soft power.”
During the eight years he has reigned, Vučić successfully created a political climate where the outcome is clear even before elections are called. Controlling the media plays an exceptionally big role in that.
Most of the electronic and print outlets, both national and in Belgrade, are on the short leash of the Progressives, directly serving his propaganda and building Vučić’s personality cult. Public criticism, as one of the preconditions to control the government in a democracy, has been mostly paralyzed due to this.
The second factor spreads the tentacles of the Progressives to almost all public institutions, starting from the state prosecution, the police, security services and the military, to the judiciary, different agencies, and all levels of power.
By purging ill-suited staff and appointing party militants, the SNS has managed to gradually instrumentalize the majority of the state apparatus, thereby disabling the investigation of crimes committed by their officials and effectively placing them above the law. The police aren’t investigating who demolished the buildings in the Belgrade neighborhood Savamala to pave the way for constructing Belgrade Waterfront but have successfully arrested a whistleblower for discovering the corrupt dealings of the state-owned factory “Krušik,” with the involvement of the interior minister’s father.
Here we reach the point of election manipulation and the answer to the question: Why was the opposition boycott inevitable?
The ritual of validating the personality cult
If you decide to be the rival of Vučić and his party, you can expect anything. His tabloids can accuse you of killing a man and covering it up, or that you are preparing an assassination of the president. They can declare your wife a drug cartel boss, and your party treasonous.
Those ruling the country will respond to each of your criticisms by accusing you (louder and with more resources) of doing the same thing you are accusing them of, or that you’re even worse t. They may accuse you of being a thief but the prosecution won’t react so as to leave space for eternal suspicion of your character. If you file a defamation lawsuit, the courts will stall your proceedings until they become senseless.
In the meantime, the government will abuse public office and use state resources for a straightforward purchase of votes.
Instead of being the opportunity to express citizens’ volition, Serbian elections have turned into a ritual of validating the Leader’s personality cult, with the accompanying ceremonial process of switching the opposition back to factory settings. These aren’t fair elections but a street fight where one of the participants has been carefully tied to a chair. Boycotting means refusing to sit on that chair voluntarily.
Certainly, there is still the issue of how do we change this system and what do we gain by not participating? Apart from not being lynched during the election campaign.
We should be utterly honest in this regard: In the short run, we certainly don’t get anything out of it. If you don’t participate in the elections, you can’t win, and even Milošević was overthrown on the streets only after he lost at the polling stations.
In the longer run, things look a little different though.
The first immediate consequence of the boycott is the truncated legitimacy of the government and the further aggravation of the internal political crisis in Serbia. The boycott only accelerated the process of reaching the point where Serbian democracy has been inevitably heading since the Serbian Progressive Party came into power — it turned Serbia into a Belarusian-like autocracy.
Instead of waiting for several other election cycles to pass and for him to stomp the opposition into a statistical nothingness, Vučić conquered the whole parliament immediately, which means there are no more Assembly boxing bags, serving him daily to blame them for everything deficient happening in the country. Even more importantly, he is now in the clear for foreign policy as well.
The SNS now has a two-thirds majority, enough to change the constitution. This means that the international community will pressure him to do what the West has wanted him to do for years — to recognize Kosovo’s independence.
On Saturday, June 27, Vučić will meet with Hashim Thaçi in the White House, while the status negotiations under the auspices of the European Union are set to continue in July.
On the other hand, the self-serving Serbian opposition has made the first move of this kind; they sacrificed something and will dramatically feel the loss of financial support, media attention and accompanying privileges, which is a way to gather a small portion of the valuable credibility among voters.
Handing the parliament to Vučić has brought the EU into the position of cooperating with an unmasked autocrat, which may not lead to a public reaction but will put pressure on the international support that has already been shaky in the recent year. The opposition is getting an opportunity to finally cleanse its own ranks.
The more cynical among us would say that Vučić is giving himself more of an opportunity to shoot himself in the foot with his gaffes. This may not be much but it’s a start.
And we desperately need a start, even if it is a difficult one.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.