Serbia votes tonight in an election brought on only halfway through the parliament’s term, despite the fact that prime minister Aleksandar Vucic enjoys a substantial majority. He claims to be seeking a mandate to take Serbia into the European Union, although most observers thought he was already given that two years ago.
I’m afraid I must pause here to explain that Vucic’s name should actually have accents over its “c”s – a caron over the first one and an acute over the final one (don’t worry about the difference; to an anglo ear they both sound like “ch”). But with Crikey’s migration last week to a new website, WordPress now refuses to render such characters.
This is very annoying, because it’s retroactive, so if you go back and read previous articles on Serbia – such as this one, which summarises the 2014 election result – you’ll find that those characters have been replaced by spaces, so that Vucic appears as “Vu i “, Miloševic as “Miloševi “, Ivica Dacic as “Da i “, and so on.
If anyone knows a way to fix this, please let me know.
Anyway, apologies for the digression. Negotiations for Serbia’s EU membership began last December, but the EU leadership has made it clear that any expansion is several years off. Vucic therefore has decided that he needs a new term to bring off this national achievement, and with his popularity still high this seemed a good time to go for it.
In my humble opinion, the EU is being very short-sighted here. With the refugee crisis playing havoc with Balkan politics, the objective should be to get the current candidate countries – Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro – into the Union sooner rather than later. But the crisis also must have inclined Vucic to think that things are likely to get worse rather than better if he waits out his full term.
The early election also brings the national parliament into alignment with local elections, which could improve the ruling party’s performance in the latter.
The main opposition to Vucic’s pro-EU policies comes from the ultra-nationalist and pro-Russian Serbian Radical Party, which Vucic himself started out in before splitting in 2008. The Radicals have been out of parliament for the last two terms – they only managed 2.0% in the last election – but polls now show them approaching 10%, well above the 5% threshold for representation.
Once upon a time, Serbian nationalism was something uniquely disruptive in Europe. Now, the Radicals seem all too familiar, counterparts to a dozen other far-right movements in Europe. Their leader, Vojislav Šešelj – who spent eleven years in custody in The Hague, although he was eventually acquitted of war crimes – sounds all the usual themes of hostility to the EU and NATO, demonisation of immigrants and fidelity to Vladimir Putin (Russia and Serbia are longstanding allies).
Nonetheless, Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) seems to be holding on to its support. Two years ago its electoral alliance won 48.4% of the vote, which was enough for an absolute majority of the seats – 158 out of 250. Although more parties will probably win representation this time, the SNS is expected to again have the numbers in its own right.
Second place last time went to the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), once the party of Slobodan Miloševic but now more like a mainstream centre-left party, who won 13.5% and 44 seats. Although he didn’t need them, Vucic maintained his coalition with the SPS, and reports suggest that he will again choose to keep them within the tent.
Voting is just straight proportional representation (D’Hondt) across the country at large; ethnic minority parties (of which three currently have seats – Hungarian, Bosniak and Albanian) are exempt from the threshold. The electoral commission site should have provisional results tomorrow; there’s also a live blog at Balkan Insight which will be worth checking out.
Whether yet another mandate for the European road will arouse any more enthusiasm from Brussels remains to be seen. But eventually the message should get through that the EU needs to pay some attention to its Balkan flank.