What the elections mean for Serbian democracy

I am re-blogging my analysis of the Serbian elections written for the new Balkans in Europe Policy Blog.

When Aleksandar Vučić gave his victory speech on Sunday, after the resounding victory of his Progressive Party, his seriousness seemed in no proportion to his success. For the first time, since the second multi-party elections in 1992, can a single party govern the country alone. With 48.34% of the vote and 156 (of 250) seats in parliament, the party does not require a coalition partner, unless it wants a majority to the change the constitution.  There are dangers in this victory, both for the victor and for the Serbian democracy. First, Vučić and his party might have won a Pyrrhic victory. The elections were triggered by Vučić to diminish the rule of the prime minister Dačić and his socialist party. While he achieved this (although the SPS remains as strong as before in terms of votes), he cannot blame bad decisions on a coalition partner if he is to govern alone. It is thus unsurprising that despite the large majority, SNS seems to want to include some other parties in government. However, even if this were to be the case, the SNS will have a hard time bringing about early elections, as it did this time around. This technique, a favorite among incumbents in the region, (esp. in Macedonia and Montenegro) of getting re-elected when opinion polls are favorable, will not be easily available to the new government. Finally, the weaknesses of the party will become even more apparent. It failed to run a visible candidate for the mayor of Belgrade, as it lacked convincing and popular politicians, besides Vučić. If the party is to govern effectively, it will quickly need to increase its capacity, since cloning Vučić, as some satirical photomontages suggest, is not an option.

The risks for the Serbian democracy are equally apparent. A large majority, in a political system that is used to coalitions, bears its risks in the best of circumstances. However, Serbia lacks checks and balances to hold their governments under control. To some degree, coalition governments have been (flawed) alternatives to checks and balances. With few independent institutions, many loyal media outlets and two of the three opposition parties more eager to work with the Progressives than to criticize them, there is a risk that there will be too few critical voices in these institutions. The focus of outsiders on the Serbian government delivering on Kosovo has also muted external scrutiny of un-democratic practices. Not least, the elections themselves are a reflection of a problematic understanding of democratic processes. As a result, the elections do raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Serbia. It seems unlikely that the new government will become authoritarian, or step back into Miloševićs shoes, but Serbia might move away from democratic consolidation and towards a hybrid system that we can observe in other countries of the region.

In addition to this development, the elections have also highlighted the decline of the right and a general decrease of ideological differentiation in the party landscape.

The decline of the extreme right

A key feature is the continued decline of the extreme right and conservative parties in Serbia. For the first time since 2000, Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia is no longer represented in parliament. After being mocked as a “kombi party” for its ability to fit all members into a van in the 1990s, it is back at its beginnings. The opposition to EU integration and focus on Kosovo has not paid off.  Similarly, other parties, on the nationalist end of the spectrum, fared badly. The Serbian Radical Party continued its decline from 4.62% to 2% and Dveri, a more recent extreme right wing group, dropped from 4.34% to  3.57%. In addition, even smaller right-wing groups split less than one percent. This overall decline of the extreme and conservative right is an important, and easily overlooked, development in Serbian elections. It can be attributed to three factors: First, the populism of the Progressive Party itself, constituted by former radicals, has been able to absorb some of the vote. Second, the fragmentation of these parties—various talks of pre-election coalitions among Radicals, DSS, and Dveri failed—discouraged voters to choose any of them. Thirdly, the trend is part of a regional development. In Croatia, but also in Romania, the extreme right has declined in the context of EU accession. As the EU effectively rejects such parties, they become less attractive as most citizens are (skeptic) supporters of EU accession. Kosovo, and other national issues, also no longer figure into the agenda that voters care about.

Lack of Alternatives

The elections were fought among parties that all formally share the same goals and have no discernable ideological differences. All parliamentary parties want to join the EU, talk of “reforms” and oppose corruption. As a consequence, there is no reason that the incumbent would not win, when there is no alternative that is different. Besides the ideological similarities, most parties also demonstrated a willingness to form pre-election coalitions with parties whom they have few commonalities, and display, even for Serbian standards, a surprising lack of respect for democratic principles. When Boris Tadić made his comeback, after breaking with Djilas and the Democratic Party, he did not form his own party, but the Greens of Serbia were taken over by him (or offered). They changed their name to add «New Democratic Party» and voila, a green party became the election vehicle for Tadić.  The Liberal-democrats of Čedomir Jovanović used to offer a more radical reform program than the Democratic Party. However, its unprincipled coalition with a conservative Bosniak party, close to the mufti of Sandžak Zukorlić, and its continuous flirting with the Progressives discredited this claim. In effect, the only two programmatically consistent electoral lists where those of the Democratic Party of Serbia, which failed to enter parliament ,and the list of the former Minister of the Economy, Saša Radulović, „Dosta je bilo“ (Enough of this), which radically criticised the influence of political parties and the economic policies of Serbian governments in the past decade. While the consistency of the DSS is likely to lead them further into political oblivion, the list of Radulović might become more significant in Serbia. Having led a shoe-string campaign, barely managing the register of the list two weeks before the elections and facing strong attacks in the media, the 2.08 % the list achieved is no small feat.

Antipolitics?

Another way of rejecting the ideological and ethical homogenisation of Serbian party politics was a repeat of the „invalid vote“ campaign of 2012. Several activists called on citizens to go and vote, and then to reject any candidate by invalidating the ballot (see here from some examples). Altogether, some 3.17% of citizens did exactly that. While not all may have invalidated their ballot for the same reason, the high number suggests that most, probably, deliberately invalidated their ballot in protest. These numbers are lower than in 2012, when they were 4.39%, but remain remarkable. Finally, the easiest and most common manner of rejecting the current political offerings has been to simply not vote. Turnout was only 53.12%, or four percent less than 2 years ago, and the lowest for Serbian elections since the introduction of the multiparty system in 1990.

Thus, the Progressives have been able to capture the largest share of the electorate of any party since 1992, but their success is not built on energizing the electorate or changing the perception of politics, but rather as a result of citizens either resigning to the inevitable, or the irrelevant. The broader dissatisfaction with party politics will not be remedied by SNS, and thus some broader opposition, reflected in social movements or new parties, remains a distinct possibility, even as the pluralist political space might be decreasing.

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One Response to What the elections mean for Serbian democracy

  1. costamagna says:

    Reblogged this on dr. costamagna.

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