Perspectives | Democracy

The opposition to Vučić missed its chance

By - 05.04.2024

Opposition politicians failed to capitalize on the unrest caused by the May 2023 shootings.

The mass shootings in Serbia in May 2023 — one at Vladislav Ribnikar elementary school in Belgrade and the other in the villages of Dubona and Malo Orašje — left 19 people dead and enraged countless Serbian citizens. This led some observers to anticipate a shift in Serbian politics and forecast the development of a new political bloc opposing Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. 

There were early signs that changes may be afoot. On May 7, 2023, Minister of Education Branko Ružić resigned, after initially blaming the school shooting on the internet, video games and “Western Values.” The next day, individual citizens, informal groups, civil society organizations and opposition parties marched in Belgrade in a silent demonstration of grief that grew into anger with the Vučić government. 

Then-prime minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić blamed foreign intelligence services for the protests, while Vučić described them as a potential “color revolution.” Nonetheless, the demonstrations continued and became known as the “Serbia against violence” protests. 

The protest organizers made seven demands, ranging from an extraordinary session of the National Assembly on the security situation to the dismissal of Aleksandar Vulin, director of the Security and Information Agency, to banning broadcasting violent content and reality programs.

However, despite the popular mobilization and potential for political change, hopes for defeating Vučić electorally were ultimately not realized due to a combination of poor strategic choices by opposition political leaders and electoral manipulation. 

The Inquiry Committee, abolished

After several weeks of protests, 193 of 250 deputies in Serbia’s National Assembly voted to form an Inquiry Committee to investigate the two mass shootings. This came at the request of the opposition in the assembly. 

A second session was to be held six days later, but before that session could take place, the committee was abolished without a formal legal procedure. This came at the partial request of parents of children killed at Vladislav Ribnikar elementary school, who feared that the committee session could jeopardize the official investigation. 

The parents worried that the committee “could threaten the further unhindered conduct of the prosecutor’s investigation and criminal proceedings, because facts and evidence of importance for the legal conduct of the proceedings could become public before the trial,” according to a letter from their representative.

With the abolition of the Inquiry Committee, the topics of public security policy and institutional violence were removed from discussion in Serbia’s highest legislative chamber. The “Serbia against violence” protest organizers took this as an indication that Vučić’s government was “hiding behind the pain” of the murdered children’s families “to avoid the risk of the government being more visibly accountable for the outbreak of violence in society through the work of that parliamentary body.” 

That the killed children’s families wanted the prosecutor’s office to remain the primary investigative body while the protest organizers decried the end of the Inquiry Committee highlights the degradation of rule of law and deeply-rooted institutional distrust present in Serbia.  

Aleksandar Olenik, a lawyer representing the families of the murdered in Ribnikar school said that the killings show “that the system under the rule of the SNS [Serbian Progressive Party, Vučić’s ruling party] is rotten and ineffective,” adding that “Everyone is to blame.

With the abolition of the National Assembly’s Inquiry Committee, the topics of public security policy and institutional violence were removed from active discussion in Serbia’s highest legislative chamber.

A missed opportunity

The public discontent stemming from the May shootings offered the political opposition to Vučić a chance to translate widespread dissatisfaction with the country’s direction into political consequence. Yet it failed to capitalize on this chance. 

One of the reasons for this was a lack of constructive dialogue between the opposition’s political leaders and the public. Rather than engaging in a conversation with the protesting masses, political leaders engaged in one-way communication with protesters. This failure to consult the wider public limited the protests’ electoral potency.

This failure to consult the wider public limited the protests’ electoral potency.

While the protests were initially criticized by Vučić’s ruling camp, they soon drew criticism from others who deemed them insufficiently transformative and lacking a meaningful political platform. Other critiques of the protest emphasized the lack of a revolutionary structure of political organization or the failure to mobilize workers, the academic community and other interest groups.

After the summer protests in dozens of local communities, in early September, part of the united opposition called for early parliamentary elections across Serbia and local elections in Belgrade. 

Vučić agreed to the fresh parliamentary elections and local elections in Belgrade while also announcing local elections in Vojvodina province. Whereas Vučić’s popularity had suffered in the Serbian capital, taking the electoral campaign outside of Belgrade meant that the Belgrade-centric opposition to him could be overshadowed.  

Electoral manipulation 

On November 1, 2023, elections for 65 of the 174 local self-government units were officially scheduled for December 17 and the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia was dissolved. The opposition hoped to consolidate the anti-Vučić vote in a single block, reaching an agreement to run together in a single electoral list 

The parliamentary election results announced by Serbia’s Election Commission showed a decisive victory for Vučić’s electoral list, “Aleksandar Vučić – Serbia must not stop,” which received almost 47% of the vote. The “Serbia against violence” electoral list, meanwhile, only garnered around 24% of the vote. 

However, the election took place with numerous irregularities. Observers from the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) recorded about 700 visits by high-ranking state officials to local communities, primarily those where local elections are held.

However, the election took place with numerous irregularities.

These observers sent over 50 reports, mostly to the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media and Agency for Prevention of Corruption. The reports noted cases of abuse of public resources, official campaigns, parties’ illegal activities, negative campaigns and hate speech.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) noted that “the campaign was marked by strong polarization, aggressive rhetoric, discrediting of personalities, verbal violence and inflammatory speech.”

The ODIHR also added that the supervisory Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) took a passive approach to regulating media behavior during the campaign. This can be seen by looking at the media coverage received by the different candidates: CRTA calculated that Vučić received 14,500 seconds — just over four hours — more coverage on national television programs than all opposition representatives combined.

Vučić counted on movement of voters from municipalities where local elections were not being held to municipalities where elections were planned. Manipulations of the voter register were also observed in the case of voters from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who were registered en masse at the same addresses in Serbia.

In one such case, an employee in the Registry Office of a town near the Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia border was given 67 identity cards of people from the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina by his superiors, with a request to change the permanent residence for all of them. 

CRTA’s report notes that on September 21, 2023, 67 people from Republika Srpska were registered in Serbia’s voter register with permanent addresses in the Surčin municipality. The report then adds that temporary residences for those voters were registered on November 23, 2023 in the original employee’s town, implying that these 67 people from Bosnia and Herzegovina were registered multiple times in different jurisdictions in Serbia.

Ultimately, a resolution passed by the European Parliament noted that there were “numerous procedural deficiencies” in Serbia’s December 17, 2023 election and European Parliament members called for an independent investigation into irregularities in the election. 

What did the opposition get wrong?

As soon as the call for elections was presented as an opposition plan, the protestors’ other demands were ignored. Once the elections were scheduled, these demands would only become concrete plans if the opposition won the majority of votes in the elections. Thus, the “Serbia against violence” list wasted the opportunity to use the protests’ concrete demands as a basis for creating a public security policy.

As soon as the call for elections was presented as an opposition plan, the protestors’ other demands were ignored.

The expected public security policy was nowhere to be found. Policies articulating options and solutions to problems causing dissatisfaction and unrest in the broader polity were absent as well. 

Thus, the opposition missed a chance to listen to the public and develop a political platform and policies aimed at deconstructing the institutional violence perpetuated by Vučić’s government. It focused instead on promoting its own political leaders rather than advocating for the full list of demands that emerged in the aftermath of the May 2023 shootings. Assuming that maintaining the status quo level of public discontent would be enough for victory proved to be misguided. 

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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