Why Nikolic won and what it means

The victory of Tomislav Nikolić in the second round of Serbia’s presidential elections last Sunday surprised most observers, including myself, and demonstrated once more how unreliable most opinion polls in Serbia are. Already in March (in fact in January he first wrote it), Dušan Pavlović, a good friend and a level-headed observer of politics, made a key observation: Tadić scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections to take place at the same time to have his popularity “rub off” on the Democratic Party which has been considerably less popular then him personally. The idea was that by combining the two elections, DS would be more likely to win a new majority in parliament. But Dušan Pavlović wondered, rightly as it turns out,  whether the dynamic could not also work the other way around: What is the unpopular party tainted Tadić as candidate?

This is perfectly captured by the cartoon below by Marko Somborac, whose cartoons in Blic are some of the best analysis of Serbian politics. So, just like Slobodan Milošević in 2000, Tadić announces early presidential elections asking the question, “What is the worst that could happen?”

The worst happened, at least for Tadić. The quick deal with SPS after the first round of elections sent the wrong signal, there will not be change: Before Sunday night, it looked like the government will be very much the same, as will  be the president. This was clearly too much of the same for too many voters. What tainted Tadić in the eyes of many liberals has been his dominance of the government and holding onto the presidency of the party while being president, controlling the PM and giving too much space to Ivica Dačić and SPS–a coalition that seemed to have developed into a relationship. It is thus that not only Vesna Pešić, but also others who belong to the liberal end of Serbian politics decided to vote for Nikolić (or at least threaten they would).

For many ordinary citizens, DS and Tadić were also no longer the clear “European” option, as Eric Gordy notes: ” All the harm people had been warned to expect from Tomislav Nikolić had already been inflicted by Boris Tadić.” In addition, the difficult economic situation does not help any incumbent. Finally, the DS committed a strategic mistake in its  electoral campaign: The campaign was largely negative, warning of the dangers a victory of Nikolić and SNS. Once more to quote a cartoon by Marko Somborac, where he depicts a DS election poster stating “We know, unemployment, corruption, bad living standards, but ‘buh! Toma!”.

A campaign based on fear of a Nikolić victory was credible in 2004 and 2008 when he stood for the SRS, but todays SNS is hard to distinguish from the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to the two big themes EU and Kosovo. Thus, the transformation of the political system since the break up of the Radicals has been ignored by Tadić’s campaign, while citizens did note that there has been this important shift.  Thus, observers like Andreas Ernst of the NZZ are right that the outcome is more a punishment of Tadić than a victory for Nikolić (who did not seem to expect to win), yet without Nikolić’s transformation, this outcome would not have been possible. In short, many who either did not vote at all or voted for Nikolić last Sunday are not only punishing Tadić because of Tadić’s policies, but also because it became possible to punish him by voting for Nikolić.

So what does this mean? A long, excellent, interview Michael Martens from the FAZ conducted with Nikolić shortly before the elections demonstrates why there is good reason for any Serbian citizen to be embarrassed that this man became Serbia’s president. Not the fact that his academic credentials are dubious, but the fact that is unwilling to own up to his past and his cynical and hateful statements until a few years ago.  It seems clear that he has made a political turn-around after 2008 and all the first signals after his election victory suggest that he will continue along these lines, but his often twisted and confused responses about past statements suggest that the break was pragmatic, not substantial.

It is easy to be a good European in opposition when the price is low–but whether he is able and willing to make difficult compromises is far from obvious. He thus runs the risk of becoming another fair-weather European politician in the region, who likes the EU because voters do, but not when it comes to giving some pet issues. Of course, he might also be able to turn out to deliver on key issues, such as Kosovo, as he does not need to worry about a strong contender to his right calling him a traitor. Whether he will be come part-time pro-European politician or will be willing to make painful compromises remains far from obvious. Finally, if he is unable to forge a SNS led coalition, he might remain a lame duck president, reduced to the constitutional powers of the president. That in its own right might not be such a bad thing for Serbia’s democracy.

The non-historical elections in Serbia

For once, elections in Serbia will not be a historical crossroads during next Sundays elections. News reports over the past decade have termed all parliamentary and presidential elections as historical: they were in 2003 over the success of DOS in the aftermath of the overthrow of Milosevic, in 2007 and 2008 the Kosovo issue raised the spectre of a take-over by the radicals. The elections this year are historical for Serbia only for not being historical. For the first time since the introduction of multiparty elections in 1990, it will matter not that much which of the two largest parties wins the elections.

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Serbian superheros

There is no doubt that Tomislav Nikolic and many from the “Progressive” Party (SNS) have an unsavory past with the Radicals and their statements and policies during their previous life are hard to accept, but they stated goals differs only marginally from the Democratic Party. Of course, one can doubt their committment the EU integration and liberal policies or, more importantly, their competence, but there is little doubt that the battleground in Serbia has shifted towards the centre. Already in 2003 and 2007 the Radicals became the largest party less for their extreme nationalist positions, but rather for their social populism.Today, the is little appeite among either the electorate or the SNS to challenge the consensus that has emerged in Serbian politics over EU integration, reform and a rhetorical committment to Kosovo.

Latest opinion polls seem to suggest that the SNS might be narrowly defeated by the Democrats. Even if this is not the case, they will have a hard time to form a government, having a much more limited choice of potential coalition partners: both the Radicals and Kostunica would take the SNS away from its desired international rehabilitation and make any progress in terms of EU integration impossible, leaving the SNS only the coalition around the Socialist Party of Ivica Dacic as a significant partner. The DS can count on the popularity of Boris Tadic and three partners tipped to enter parliament, the liberal reformist LDP, the eternal governing party (since 2000) G17 now called United Regions of Serbia (in cooperation with some local strongmen) and the Socialist Party.

Thus, the elections seem to point towards a continuation of the current government with some reconfiguration among the coalition partners–and even if this were not the case, Serbia has moved towards a political system that is far from perfect, but fear that every election is a juncture between EU and abyss is no longer justified.

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