An unsatisfactory Serbian election

Another election that was basically a non-event, but this time Covid-19 wasn’t the main culprit. Serbia went to the polls last night in a parliamentary election that was boycotted by the main opposition parties. No surprise at all that it produced a large majority for the government of president Alexander Vučić.

According to preliminary results (93.4% counted) tweeted by the electoral commission and collated on Wikipedia, Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its allies have 189 of the 250 seats from 62.6% of the vote, up 14.3% and 58 seats from their 2016 result.

Only two other tickets are clearing the 3% threshold: the left-wing coalition headed by the post-Communist Socialist Party of Serbia, with 10.9% and 32 seats, and the right-wing Serbian Patriotic Alliance, with 4.2% and 12 seats. Four ethnic minority parties, which are exempt from the threshold, are picking up the remaining 17 seats. Turnout is reported as 47.7%, quite respectable in the circumstances and down only 8.4 points from 2016.

So Vučić, whose growing authoritarian tendencies have attracted much criticism, particularly since he transferred to the presidency from the prime ministership in 2017, will now have even more of a free hand, with the disappearance of any mainstream parliamentary opposition.

But not all of the blame for this situation should attach to Vučić. The opposition, much of it loosely organised as the Alliance for Serbia, seems to have decided precipitately on a boycott – always a risky strategy – and also stayed away from some of the talks held by the European Parliament to try to broker a compromise.

Given Serbia’s recent history, Vučić’s job is not an easy one. While power certainly seems to have gone to his head, the country could probably do a lot worse. Professor Eric Gordy, as quoted by the BBC, describes the opposition’s predicament:

For [the boycott] to succeed, they would have to have an audience which is interested in legitimacy – either the domestic public or the internationals. But none of them seem to be terribly bothered by legitimacy – and they don’t have a lot of faith in the opposition to create greater legitimacy than the party that’s ruling now.

But an important share of the blame, it seems to me, should go to the European Union, which for years has been dragging its feet on the admission of Serbia and other countries in the western Balkans. Vučić won the 2016 election with a mandate to take Serbia into the EU, but although accession talks are continuing, it looks just as far away now as it did then.

Some might say, of course, that the election shenanigans demonstrate that countries like Serbia are unsuitable for membership, but I would draw the opposite moral. Serbia’s political development made its biggest strides when the carrot of membership was being held out; when the incentive loses force, things risk slipping back.

Worse still, by its actions elsewhere, especially in regard to Poland and Hungary, the EU has sent the message that it’s not that fussed about democratic standards for its members. So Vučić is able to conclude that membership doesn’t depend on anything much that he does, and the opposition sees that it’s not going to get any help from the EU either and has to fall back on its own resources.

It’s almost like the old “broadening vs deepening” argument in a new guise, and once again the correct answer is “both”. This is no time to be giving ground to authoritarianism: the EU needs to make a firm stand for democracy within its own ranks, and at the same time hold out the clear promise to the candidate countries that if they meet that test, membership will follow.

4 thoughts on “An unsatisfactory Serbian election

  1. The question for the EU is this: at which point does it switch from sending disapproving messages about undemocratic developments in a member to actually doing something about it?

    It’s easy to understand that making that switch is an unpalatable prospect; the question is whether there’s a point at which _not_ making the switch becomes an even more unpalatable prospect.


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