In-depth | Elections

The predictability of Serbian elections

By - 01.04.2022

The ultra right-wing dominates in Serbia’s presidential election.

According to some estimates, the turnout for the April 3 Serbian elections could be around 55% of the 6.6 million Serbians who have the right to vote. According to research conducted by the Civic Association of the National Coalition for Decentralization, a quarter of Serbia’s citizens are uninterested in who rules the country, while 14% of respondents said they were afraid to vote due to fear of losing their job or salary, and therefore decide go with the ruling party every year.

Still, this week presents an opportunity for all of them to go out and vote for the new parliament, for local assemblies in 12 municipalities and two cities, including Belgrade, as well as for a new — or perhaps an old — president.

The right to vote is held by around 1.8 million people in the diaspora, though a mere 40,000 registered to vote, which still constitutes a third more in comparison to the previous election.

The decision by Kosovo to not allow voting on its territory benefits the ruling party and President Aleksandar Vučić because although this is a symbolic number of voters, a number which can’t help them that much, the decision taken by Prishtina is being used in the election campaign. Kosovo remains one of the main topics in Serbia’s elections, both for the government and the opposition.

Apart from Kosovo, Russia and the war in Ukraine are topics that are playing an important role in the current election campaign.

Bojan Klačar, executive director at CESID, a citizens’ association that monitors Serbian elections, says that the public has “a traditionally pro-Russian sentiment and a rational view of the EU.”

“Every party that wants to perform well must consider the fact that in Serbia it is not easy to run a campaign. The Serbian public is complex, and even liberal or left-oriented parties aren’t in favor of introducing sanctions against Russia or recognizing Kosovo,” Klačar said.

Judging by the campaigns we are seeing, the 19 election lists and eight presidential candidates are fully aware of this.

The eight candidates

The presidential election has attracted most of the attention in this year’s campaign. The order of the candidates on the ballots was determined by a random draw conducted by the Republic Electoral Commission. Number one on the list, Miša Vacić, with the election motto “Serbian Patriot,” comes from a party called “Srpska desnica” (“The Serbian Right”), which he founded and leads. The issue of Kosovo’s status and the relations with Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) make up the key points in this candidate’s program. 

In his public appearances, Vacić has demonstrated that he is against all things European, that he opposes Kosovo’s independence and is a proponent of Russia. A frequent slogan of his is: “Make Serbia Great Again.”

Vacić was a member of the ultra-nationalist group “Pokret 1389” and later founded a group called “SNP 1389” (both referring to the year 1389, when the Battle of Kosovo took place). The goal of both groups is to contest Kosovo’s independence. For a certain period, he worked for the Office for Kosovo and Metohija, a Serbian government office, from which he was fired after public pressure.

In 2019, “Srpska desnica” managed to win a seat in the municipal assembly of Medveđa.

Stojković believes that a final decision on Kosovo and a potential membership in NATO should be made by citizens in a referendum.

Number two on the election list is Biljana Stojković, a candidate from the green-left coalition “Moramo” (We Must). The coalition formed during the 2021 environmental protests and consists of the groups “Ne davimo Beograd,” Environmental Uprising and the civic initiative Akcija.

Stojković is a professor at Belgrade’s Faculty of Biology and was active in environmental protests as part of the Parliament of Free Serbia, which was formed in 2020 by a group of intellectuals in Belgrade. 

Her attitude toward Kosovo is the most liberal in comparison to others. Still, her framework is based, in her words, on the Constitution of Serbia, where a preamble states that Kosovo is a constituent part of Serbia. However, Stojković believes that a final decision on Kosovo and a potential membership in NATO should be made by citizens in a referendum.

Number three on the electoral list is Branka Stamenković, representative of the Sovereignists’ coalition, led by the “Dosta je bilo” (Enough is Enough) party that she heads. They describe themselves as “a movement of decent people.”

Everything that applies to Miša Vacić in relation to Kosovo and the EU also applies to her. She opposes the recognition of Kosovo and NATO membership while supporting Russia and being in favor of the independence of Republika Srpska from BiH.

Stamenković was a member of the National Assembly from 2016 to 2020. Among other things, she launched the civic initiative “Majka Hrabrost” (Courageous Mothers), which advocates for improved conditions in maternity wards.

The fourth spot on the list for presidential elections is the former Chief of the General Staff of the Army of Serbia, a retired general, originally from Croatia, Zdravko Ponoš. He is a candidate from the opposition coalition “United Serbia,” consisting of the Party of Freedom and Justice, the Democratic Party, the People’s Party, and the Movement of Free Citizens. 

Presidential candidate Zdravko Ponoš publicly supported the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić in the past.

His political agenda mostly overlaps with that of President Vučić, meaning that he supports Serbia’s access to the EU but also opposes an independent Kosovo, where he was stationed during a part of his military career. In 2000, he received a medal from Slobodan Milošević. Later in his career, he was close to the former President Boris Tadić.

In the past, Ponoš publicly supported the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić and he now opposes Russian sanctions, although he did condemn the invasion of Ukraine.

Further down the list after Ponoš is Milica Đurđević Stamenkovski, who people in Serbia often call “Milica Zavetnica” because she is a representative of the extreme right-wing party Zavetnici (meaning “Patron Saints,” or “those who keep their vows”), which was founded in 2012. Their focus is mainly centered around Kosovo.

Members and sympathizers are known for their participation in protests against the “Mirëdita, dobar dan” festival in Belgrade. The festival’s name comes from the phrase for “good day” in Albanian and Serbian. At one protest against the festival Đurđević Stamenkovski stated: “To Mirëdita, we can only say ‘good night.’” 

Zavetnici have so far participated in three election cycles but never managed to cross the election threshold and enter parliament.

The sixth spot on the ballot is taken by current President Aleksandar Vučić. Before he won the last presidential elections, when he replaced his party colleague Tomislav Nikolić, he served as prime minister. He has been heading the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) since 2012, when they started taking part in the Serbian government.

Number seven on the list is Miloš Jovanović, a representative of the Democratic Party of Serbia and the “Nada” (Hope) coalition, which is made up of the Movement for the Renewal of the Kingdom of Serbia, the Democratic Party of Serbia, and 25 citizens’ associations. Jovanović and the list he represents advocate for the resurrection of the Kingdom of Serbia and they say that their potential electoral victory would represent the first step in restoring a parliamentary monarchy. He opposes Kosovo’s independence and says the status quo is the best solution.

In 2012, he won enough votes to enter parliament, where he continued his term in 2013.

The last on the ballot is Boško Obradović, who leads the ultra right-wing movement Dveri (which means “Holy Doors,” referring to the doors of a church). He also leads “Patriots’ Front,” formed in December 2021 alongside groups like the Serbian Monarchist Party of Serbian Unity and the National Movement for an Upright Serbia. They also want to restore the monarchy, oppose the independence of Kosovo and favor the independence of Republika Srpska from BiH.

Obradović is one of the founders of Dveri, a movement active since 1999. In the 2014 elections, they didn’t win enough votes to join the parliament but managed to do so in the 2016 snap elections. 

No alternative in sight

Zoran Vuletić, president of the political organization Civic Democratic Forum, says that he isn’t certain whether the upcoming elections can bring about any changes in Serbia. “The biggest shortcoming of the coming elections is that there isn’t a single party or coalition participating with an alternative policy to that of the current government,” Vuletić said, adding that the basic reason for this is the fact that the 1990s haven’t been dispensed with properly in Serbia. “That’s the biggest problem facing Serbia.”

The projections of the electoral results seem to favor Vuletić's prediction that no change will come.

Vuletić says that for more than 20 years the past has been manipulated and that the war in Ukraine and drawing of “false parallels with the NATO bombing of Serbia” have contributed to this belief even further. “As we haven’t conducted an analysis or reached a conclusion of what happened to Serbia and its neighbors during those years, today all politicians are uniformly purporting that Ukrainians and Russians aren’t the ones fighting in Ukraine, but NATO and the Russians are, “Vuletić said. “It is shameful.,” 

He mentions the importance of the issue of Kosovo, emphasizing that the public has been “lobotomized” for years with statements that Kosovo is part of Serbia, “we are getting to a point where we have a nation that doesn’t know what has been going on for the past 20 or 30 years.”

The projections of the electoral results seem to favor Vuletić’s prediction that no change will come.

The New Third Way organization, consisting of young people who conduct political analyses, estimates that Vučić could win 52% of the vote. Right behind Vučić could be Zdravko Ponoš with 28%. When it comes to the parliament, they predict the victory of SNS with 45% of the vote, estimating that United Serbia could win 20% and the Moramo coalition another 6%.

The most unpredictable campaigns will be in Belgrade. Although it is expected that SNS will win most of the votes with its partners, some think that they won’t have sufficient numbers to form the government alone. However, it is estimated that the Moramo coalition could win around 10% of the vote in Belgrade.

Just over seven days before the elections, on March 25, 38 NGOs and 36 professors addressed an open letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, voicing their concerns about pre-planned voter fraud. In the letter, they ask the commission to increase the current capacities of the OSCE Mission in Serbia in order to prevent fraud. “Cheating with votes is a common practice in Serbia,” the letter states. “Although the government agreed to have observers present, the mandate and scope of work of the OSCE are insufficient for combating this challenge,” the signatories claim.

Currently, the OSCE Mission has 250 observers to cover 8,255 polling stations.

In the previous parliamentary elections, held in 2020, SNS won 60% of the vote alongside coalition partners. The parliament was left with barely any opposition, except for minority deputies including Albanians and Bosniaks.

Feature photo: Dejan Kožul.