The 2016 Serbian elections: the triumph of ‘Europe’ or a Eurosceptic backlash

When earlier this year Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić called a snap parliamentary election to solidify his essentially unlimited power, no major surprises were expected. A landslide victory for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party – receiving 48.25% of the total votes – was convincing, but the real drama which unfolded concerned which parties would get into parliament, since four electoral lists were only slightly above a 5% electoral threshold.

After several turbulent nights at the Electoral Commission, accusations of electoral fraud, a vote recount, and the second round of elections, seven lists entered the parliament, including two Eurosceptic ones: the radical right Serbian Radical Party, which received 8.1% of the total vote, and the national conservative coalition between the Democratic Party of Serbia and Dveri, securing 5.04%. Many observers saw the overall results as a major victory for pro-EU parties, as these will remain the most dominant forces in parliament for the foreseeable future. However, given that not a single MP opposed EU membership in the previous parliament, that the election process was less fair compared to previous ones (it was widely seen as free but without equal opportunities for all participants), and given growing concerns over the pro-EU, and particularly democratic, credentials of the dominant Serbian Progressive Party, the triumph of ‘Europe’ is to be taken with a certain reserve.

Almost all previous elections were marked by a deep polarization between two blocs of parties divided over the issue of Serbian EU membership and the reaction to the proclamation – sponsored by leading EU member states – of Kosovo’s independence. Serbia was, therefore, one of the few countries where European issues dominated domestic politics and elections were often seen as a referendum on EU membership. This is, however, no longer the case: the April 2016 election seems to have confirmed a trend, following from that of the 2014 poll, that EU membership and the related issue of Kosovo have ceased to be the most important matter of party contestation. Instead, domestic social and economic issues dominated the electoral campaign, with most parties for the first time advancing relatively elaborate proposals for concrete public policies – although often based on unrealistic promises, such as: re-instating public sector salaries and pensions to the level prior to the 2014 cuts, increasing the minimum wage, returning subsidies for farmers or adopting a new labour law.

The low profile of European issues, including the migrant crisis (although 700,000 migrants have transited through the country over the past two years), may be attributed to the fact that the heightened public emotions regarding Kosovo subsided over time and many Eurosceptic parties became opportunistic advocates of Serbian EU membership. Consequently, the deep line of division between anti- and pro-EU parties effectively ceased to exist in such a form. Crucially, the country finally began negotiating the conditions of EU membership. As a result, it entered a more ‘peaceful’ phase of its European integration that is largely devoid of significant statehood issues and emotionally-charged rhetoric: the more ‘technical’ nature of its interaction with the EU has greatly depoliticized this issue. Not even the recent Croatian blockade of the opening of talks on Chapter 23 seems to have reversed this trend.

Most parties, therefore, did not compete on an EU ticket, assessing that it would not bring them significant electoral gains. Traditionally pro-EU opposition parties lost their trump card – that is, presenting themselves as the only legitimate pro-EU forces – which they had played for many years. There was, for instance, a conspicuous absence of EU issues in the manifestos and campaigns of the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party. Their platforms were instead focused on the negative effects of the government’s austerity policies and particularly its authoritarian style of governance that continues to threaten the fabric of the weak Serbian democracy. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party emphasized EU membership to a greater extent by taking credit for the opening of (only) two negotiating chapters. However, the focal points of its campaign were economic issues and the positive results of the EU-supported reforms.

On the other side, Eurosceptic parties advocated an immediate end to membership negotiations, calling for a referendum on the continuation of EU accession as well as on stronger links with Russia. In particular, they claimed that the EU set unacceptable conditions for Serbian membership, such as the legal recognition of Kosovo, imposing sanctions on Russia and joining NATO. However, the emphasis of the campaign of the Democratic Party of Serbia and Dveri was mostly on safeguarding ‘endangered’ traditional and family values as well as ‘economic patriotism’ based on giving preference to domestic producers as opposed to the government policy of subsidizing foreign (mostly EU) investors. The Serbian Radical Party attempted to profit more from the EU issue, although corruption and economic difficulties also featured prominently in its campaign. As the only relevant party in favor of Serbian entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the radicals portrayed themselves as the only alternative to European integration. Public burning of EU and NATO flags, traditionally fierce anti-Western rhetoric and the first instance of acquittal for war crimes of its leader Vojislav Šešelj contributed to this party’s political comeback.

The previous parliament failed to represent Eurosceptic views, although a stable minority of approximately 30% of citizens opposes EU membership. The relative success of the Eurosceptics is a potentially significant outcome of this election, even though they will not be able to alter policies of the Euroenthusiastic parliamentary majority. If these parties offer a valid criticism of the pro-EU agenda of the ruling elites, an informed debate on EU membership would indeed be beneficial for both Serbian parliamentarianism and improved preparation for membership of the Union. However, the first debates in the new parliament have been very fierce, and both pro-EU and Eurosceptic parties have thus far largely failed to elaborate concrete and reasoned views on this issue. Their rhetoric has been mostly general, lacking policy proposals on, for instance, which national interests Serbia should protect in this process, what the viable alternatives to EU membership might be and what they essentially entail.

The election also exposed the real nature of the pro-EU commitment of the Serbian Progressive Party. Specifically, this party gathered a broad pre-election coalition of very diverse Euroenthusiastic and Eurosceptic parties. A joint slate included, among others, the national conservative, strongly Eurosceptic and pro-Russian Serbian People’s Party, whose platform was epitomized by the slogan ‘Only with Russia can Serbia win’. Unlike other parties, it also employed anti-immigration rhetoric calling for the building of a fence on Serbia’s Southern borders, which is in direct opposition to policies pursued by the Serbian Progressive Party-led government. As a typical catch-all party lacking any identifiable ideology, the Serbian Progressive Party was driven to reach out to significant Eurosceptic and pro-Russian segments of the electorate in order to maximize its electoral gains. The party thus clearly prioritized its electoral gains over consistent dedication for a Serbian EU membership bid, demonstrating the low extent to which EU membership constitutes its fundamental commitment.

Moreover, Serbian President and former party leader Tomislav Nikolić adopted increasingly Eurosceptic rhetoric in the run-up to the election. Traditionally more sceptical towards the West and considering Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘his best friend’, Nikolić repeatedly argued that if the accession means that ‘someone will force us to recognize the independence of Kosovo and give up our cooperation with Russia, then we’d rather not join the EU’, although he ultimately concluded that the EU is essentially ‘a necessary evil’. Significantly, this view appears to be shared by many within the party ranks although it has been thus far successfully suppressed by an authoritative party leader. The Serbian Progressive Party, nevertheless, remains a broad church that includes members expressing a range of opposing opinions but united in their quest for political power. Although disguised, this Euroscepticism may re-surface in a new parliament. Forced to compete with other potentially stronger candidates in the 2017 presidential race, Nikolić is likely to strengthen his Eurosceptic position – particularly if he does not receive support from the Serbian Progressive Party – which will inevitably pit him against an opportunistically pro-EU party leader.

Finally, this time the EU did not interfere in the election process. It remained silent even on allegations of serious electoral fraud raised by independent observers and the opposition – such as: that the incumbents abused the administrative advantages of office, that there was a media blockade of the opposition and that 200,000 votes were ‘stolen’ from the opposition. This is a clear consequence of the fact that prime minister Vučić made significant political capital out of his cooperative position on Kosovo and handling the migrant crisis. The increasingly authoritarian style of his government – including dis-regarding freedom of expression, the independence of regulatory bodies and the judiciary, and electoral frauds allegations – was largely ignored given that Vučić proved to be a willing partner in regard to these issues.

In marked contrast to EU officials, the Party of European Socialists (PES) was ‘extremely concerned’ about growing threats against opposition parties and the democratic media. Motivated to protect its Serbian member, the PES condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms the attempted intimidation against politicians of the leading opposition Democratic Party’ and concluded that the Serbian elections fell short of necessary standards, calling on the Serbian Progressive Party to undertake democratic reforms and thus place the country on the path towards EU accession. The European Peoples’ Party (EPP), on the other hand, congratulated Serbian citizens on the elections and the Serbian Progressive Party (which has been seeking membership of the latter since 2008) on a clear victory, expressing support for a clear progress toward the EU. The EPP has thus prioritized its relations with (potential) Balkan members over the genuine democratic transformation that it rhetorically champions. This has further undermined its credibility and limited its leverage in this region – most visibly in the case of the Croatian Democratic Union and the Macedonian VMRO-DPMNE.

Marko Stojić (stojic.marko@gmail.com) is a lecturer at Masaryk University and University of New York in Prague. His is also an associate research fellow at EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague. His research interests focus on the study of European integration, political parties and party systems in the Western Balkans.

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