Perspectives | Politics

Vučić’s favored opposition

By - 19.04.2022

Serbia’s ultra-right has the media and invasion of Ukraine to thank.

Elections in Serbia ended predictably with the re-election of President Aleksandar Vučić in the first round of presidential elections. At the same time, Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) ended up first, with 120 out of 250 seats in the Serbian Assembly. Though they came out ahead, this is the first time that SNS will not be able to form a government on their own since Vučić has been at the head of things.

But it’s other things that worry Aleksandar Vučić. The first is that there will be a repeat of the vote in multiple Belgrade polling stations due to severe irregularities. He notified the public of his other concern on the night of the April 3 elections, when he noted in a worried tone that “Serbia has shifted dramatically to the right.”

The basis for this claim lies in the fact that three right-wing election lists — the Nada coalition headed by the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), a coalition headed by the ultra-nationalist party Dveri, and the party Zavetnici — won a total of 35 out of 250 seats in the Serbian Assembly.

This supposed growth — but which is in actual fact a stagnation of the right — is the result of the war in Ukraine, which the right was able to capitalize on. They also had a level of free access to television and the press that the opposition is not granted and literally no one criticized them throughout the campaign.

The whirlwind of war

The ruling SNS had to balance out its messaging so as to not alienate the European Union, but at the same time to not provoke their voters, whom they’ve pushed to support Russia. The war was an unavoidable topic throughout the election campaign and the media in Vučić’s orbit, including tabloids and the state broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia, conveyed more or less open support for Vladimir Putin.

From public gatherings to television studios, the leaders of Zavetnici, Dveri and DSS repeatedly stressed their devotion to Russia, emphasized that they would never impose sanctions, justified the invasion and pointed out in their statements that Vučić is allegedly working against Russian interests.

The media focus on Ukraine created an opening for Serbian right-wingers with an overt pro-Russian attitude, making it easy for them to pass the 3% electoral threshold. As for their ideology, it was afterthought this time around. 

The pro-Russian rhetoric would not have reached a large number of voters if not for the media under Vučić's control.

Additional evidence of this can be found in the fact that a party that labels itself leftist, the Socialist Party of Serbia led by Ivica Dačić, managed to reverse its 10-year trend of decline and in the first time since the 2012 election increased its vote share. The reason is the same. Dačić is one of the key proponents of Russian interests in Serbian politics, with his party cultivating traditionally close ties to Putin.

Unlike them, other right-wing parties, including the Suverenisti and Vojislav Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party (SRS), didn’t focus extensively on supporting Putin in their campaigns and came in under the electoral threshold for the second time in a row.

But all the strong support of the right for Russia would not have reached a large number of voters if those parties had not had full access to all the media outlets under Vučić’s control.

Without any sort of direct attack on the president’s reputation, the tabloid press covered the activities of right-wing parties in a predominantly positive fashion, by directly broadcasting or publishing their statements, especially when critical of the civic opposition. Television stations, including those with national coverage, regularly provided them space on mainstream political talk shows. This came along with charitable coverage, which was wildly dissimilar to how the regime’s media treated the opposition until recently.

A look into the past

To see where Serbia’s right is stronger than it was in the past, let’s compare this year’s results with the most recent relevant elections in 2016 when the turnout (56%) was similar to this year’s (58.7%).

Four years ago, unlike the previous election cycle held almost two years ago, the opposition didn’t boycott the election, though the conditions in which they were organized have not improved. The result was that instead of convening an Assembly with government representatives and 19 representatives from minority parties we got a bit of diversity. The electoral threshold was crossed by an additional five lists this year.

The Albanian national minority is now left without a single representative in the Assembly, partly due to a low turnout compared to two years ago and partly because the Albanian vote was split between two lists on this occasion. One was led by the former representative Shaip Kamberi and the other headed by Shqiprim Arifi, the newly elected mayor of Preševo municipality.

What becomes clear is that the right-wingers who passed the electoral threshold in the past — including Šešelj’s SRS and the DSS-Dveri coalition — jointly won an identical number of Assembly seats as the right did in 2022, which is 35. If the former threshold of 5% had been valid this year, only DSS would be joining the new Assembly.

The friendly media treatment during the campaign also supports the argument that Vučić is artificially pumping up the right-wing opposition.

You can’t really say that the current right is more extreme than before. Vojislav Šešelj, who didn’t pass the threshold this time, is a convicted war criminal who built his career on hate speech and his party is a group of warmongering chauvinists. In comparison to them, Zavetnici, which did pass the threshold, seems rather moderate. 

SNS is also a right-wing populist party that owes part of its high rating to openly nationalistic rhetoric. But at the same time, many representatives who gathered around them and Dačić’s Socialist Party, including Vladimir Đukanović and Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, are known for their ultranationalistic attitudes, even more extreme than those of any representative from DSS.

The SNS orbit

The right has actually reached its goal because Vučić sees them as the preferred opposition. The right-wingers’ main attacks against Vučić are that he is a traitor and the West’s puppet: an ideal foil against which Vučić can show off his patriotism, which is one of his favorite topics.

Accusations abound that some of these parties are actually part of SNS’s orbit, with financial ties to them.

Last week’s vote by representatives of DSS and Zavetnici against objections submitted to the City Election Commission due to irregularities during the Belgrade local elections provides further basis for such assumptions. The friendly media treatment during the campaign also supports the argument that Vučić is artificially pumping up the right-wing opposition in order to present himself to the West as a moderate option and a barrier to pro-Russian movements that seek to distance Serbia from the EU.

Of course, there’s irony in the fact that the media, which for decades has encouraged the Serbian public to adore Russia and see Putin as a rock star, has been in Vučić’s pocket for a whole decade. And the patriotic right will, if need be, do the same thing that the right-wing party of Aleksandar Šapić did when it joined the Assembly in 2020: it will join SNS.

In this case, the firefighter is also the arsonist.

Feature image: K2.0