It was like choosing the lesser of two evils for many Serbians.
On April 3, the incumbent Serbian President Alexander Vucic succeeded in winning almost 60 percent of the votes in the presidential election. Remaining in power for another five years means he must deal with the region’s burning issues.
Once a member of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party, in 2008, Vucic founded the Serbian Progressive Party, a conservative and pro-European party. Then, Vucic, step by step, climbed the ladders of power. He took office as minister of defence, deputy premier, prime minister and president.
He cemented his victory in the early April vote count by winning two million votes from 6.5 million registered Serbian voters.
A leader or faute de mieux?
After the election victory declaration, Vucic thanked his voters for making him “the Serb (after Nikola Pasic) who has been in power in Serbia for the longest time.” But what lies behind his success?
Speaking to TRT World’s “Across the Balkans,” Vuk Vuksanovic, a Senior Researcher at Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, explained Vucic’s success by emphasising two main factors: First, he is a formidable person, and his party has a tremendous and well-mobilised influence on the media, state institutions, and national security setup. Second, the frailty of the opposition did not offer a better alternative.
According to Vuksanovic, many Serbians are upset by the post-Milosevic economic and political transition. Some consider the opposition as part of that disappointment. The result is a tactical vote, which means people did not vote for Vucic because they liked him but because, from their perspective, he represents the lesser evil.
Moscow vs Brussels
The Russian assault on Ukraine influenced the election campaign considerably. Vucic used this fact to his benefit. His main slogan was crafted accordingly.
With “Peace and Stability,” he promised economic growth and infrastructure development. He echoed his desire not to get the country entangled in the conflict. On the other hand, his opponent Zdravko Ponos, blamed him for building unity with “fear of war… abusing events in Ukraine.”
As Vuksanovic emphasises, Vucic benefited from the conflict. The image of an experienced politician who could lead the troubled country in these dark times overshadowed the opposition.
In the same tone as his slogan, on the election night, Vucic emphasised the importance of having good relationships in the region and pursuing the European, alongside preserving “ties with its traditional friends.” Serbia supported two United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s military assault. Moreover, Belgrade still refuses to be part of the sanctions imposed on Moscow.
In an earlier speech, he said that Belgard continues on its European path, but “Serbia will not rush into enmity because someone else asks to.” Speaking to TRT World, Srdjan Majstorovic, Chairman of the Board of European Policy Centre (CEP) and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BIEPAG), explained that these elections will have an important impact on Serbia’s relations with the EU. The country started accession negotiations in 2014; however, issues like democracy and problematic relations with its neighbours brought the process to a standstill. With Belgrade’s indecisive approach to Ukraine, its EU process is questioned again.
Right after the elections, Vucic emphasised that Serbia would continue on the same path; keep the policy of military neutrality and stay away from any military alliance.
For the first time since 1999, Kosovo Serbs weren’t allowed to have open polling stations. The Kosovo government decided not to allow its citizens to vote in its neighbours’ elections. With no polling stations opened, thousands of Kosovo Serbs crossed the border with their cars and buses to vote in Serbia. Majstorovic says this situation will have long-term consequences. The nationalist narratives on both sides will rise, and these elections will shadow future talks’ tone and atmosphere.
Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won the Parliamentary election conducted on the same day. SNS’s 43.5 percent was followed by United for Victory of Serbia with 12.9. The Socialist Party of Serbia, which is the SNS’s partner party, won 11.6 per cent. The green-left Moramo got 4.4 per cent, and the right-wing NADA, Oathkeepers and Dveri also passed the threshold.
The current picture portrays a sliding to the right, which could create a serious issue for Vucic’s EU policy. The president’s party did not have the majority needed to form a government and will need partners: probably the SPS or right-wing parties. On the other hand, Moramo entered the Parliament for the first time. Their green agenda helped people mobilise and protest against the exploitation of natural minerals last year.
Majstorovic suggests that the formation of the new government would take until late summer. In this way, Vucic will be able to buy time, measure the public’s opinion, oversee internal and external factors, and avoid having a net stance on the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Vuksanovic points out that Vucic’s role depends on the trade-offs at a regional level. If he is perceived as a balancer for the region, he probably will accept this role. However, if there is a chance of getting a domestic rating, he will use the nationalist’s card.
As the only Balkan country president that does not impose sanctions on Russia, Vucic will have to balance appeasing Mother Russia and pleasing Brussels. This approach will affect Vucic’s domestic policy and the region’s delicate balance of power.