Once again, Europe’s economic malaise fails to translate into a swing against an incumbent government. In elections held yesterday, Serbia has re-elected its moderate nationalist government, giving it what looks like the first clear parliamentary majority since the fall of Slobodan Milošević.
Serbian politics is rather confusing, not helped by the fact that four of the main opposition parties are called the Democratic Party, the New Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Serbia and the Liberal Democratic Party. Historically – that is, going back to the immediate post-Milošević period – the main divide was between nationalist forces, represented principally by the Serbian Radical Party, and the more liberal or pro-western groups, centred on the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party and its allies governed from 2003 to 2012, when they were defeated by a coalition formed between the Serbian Progressive Party – moderate nationalists who had split from the Radical Party – and the Socialist Party of Serbia, heirs to the old League of Communists but now more nationalist than socialist (together with a variety of smaller allies of each). Socialist leader Ivica Dačić became prime minister, but the Progressives had more seats and their leader, deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, was seen as the real power in the government.
In a classic case of “Nixon going to China”, it turned out to be this basically nationalist government that cemented Serbia’s western orientation, opening formal accession talks with the European Union and reaching a compromise agreement of sorts with Kosovo. Earlier this year, the government decided to seek a fresh mandate, evidently with a view to the Progressives being able to govern alone.
And that’s just what appears to have happened. Preliminary results give the Progressives 48.4% of the votes, for 157 seats in the 250-seat parliament – about double their current strength on both counts. (Voting is simple D’Hondt proportional across the whole country, with a 5% threshold, from which ethnic minority parties are exempt.) The Socialists are a distant second with 14.0% (down 1.2%), followed by the Democratic Party on 5.9% (down 17.2%) and the New Democratic Party (including the Greens) on 5.7%.
Back below the threshold are a range of smaller parties, the largest being the Democratic Party of Serbia (led by former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica) with 4.1%. The once-powerful Radicals are languishing in tenth place with just 2.0%.
Serbia may well be on the way to developing a conventional two-party system, with the Progressives as a mainstream centre-right party and the Socialists as their main rivals on the centre-left. Alternatively, there may continue to be room for both the Democratic Party as left-liberals and the Socialists as the more nationalist force.
Either way, Vučić will now become prime minister with a sweeping mandate, including the hope of taking his country into the EU. It’s an interesting journey for a man who started his career as Milošević’s information minister and once defended Serbian imperialism in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Most importantly, he seems to have been able to bring his country on the journey with him.