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Serbian Elections: In Extraordinary Circumstances, Ruling Party Looks to Solidify its Grip on Power

With some pandemic-induced delay, Serbs will go to the polls to elect a new national parliament on the 21st of June, postponed from the original date in late April. It will be the first national election held in Europe since the continent was gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic in February, but it is unlikely to produce any surprises. The result looks to be a foregone conclusion. President Aleksandar Vučić’s coalition around his Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka, SNS-EPP) has dominated pre-election polling to a startling degree, thanks in part to a boycott by Serbia’s main opposition parties of an election they deem to be irregular and undemocratic.

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party was formed in 2008 when 21 MPs from convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj’s far-right Serbian Radical Party (Srpska radikalna stranka, SRS~NI) split off to form a more moderate, pro-European conservative party. Amongst the 21 SRS MPs was the current President, Aleksandar Vučić, who became the new party’s leader in 2012.

Vučić’s political career began in the 1990s when he was first elected as an MP for the SRS in 1993. Just 5 years later he was appointed Minister of Information under Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević and remained in that post until 2000. Vučić saw little political success come his way in the proceeding decade and even considered giving up on politics before he was asked to become deputy head of the newly formed SNS in 2008.

The SNS scored an impressive result in its first parliamentary elections in 2012, coming first with nearly 25% of the vote. That same year Vučić took over the party’s leadership and in the subsequent elections in 2014 nearly doubled the SNS’ vote share, leading it to an astounding 48% vote share, an unprecedented success in democratic Serbian politics up until that point. Since then the SNS with Vučić at its helm has only tightened its grip on power with another landslide legislative victory in 2016, followed by Vučić’s election as President the following year.

With the SNS’ dominance has come a great deal of criticism directed at Vučić, the SNS, and the country’s political system in general. Dissatisfaction with Vučić’s perceived authoritarian tendencies led to the country’s largest protest movement in decades from late 2018 to early 2020, but those protests failed to materialise into a political challenge to the SNS.

Instead many of the country’s main opposition parties—which collectively form the Alliance for Serbia (Savez za Srbiju, SZS-*)—have decided to boycott the elections entirely, as they do not consider the elections to be free and democratic. Before the boycott, the alliance consistently polled at around 10%. The SZS is a true opposition alliance, with parties ranging from moderate liberal and social democratic to solidly right-wing and left-wing parties, all opposed to the rule of the SNS.

Besides the SZS many more parties will be contesting the election, but few are likely to make a mark on the country’s future. The party polling in second place is the Vučić-allied Socialist Party of Serbia (Socijalistička partija Srbije, SPS-S&D) which governs with the SNS, and is the party originally founded by Slobodan Milošević. With a lowered electoral threshold of 3%, many opposition parties will still enter Parliament, but they are unlikely to be a force strong enough to check the rule of Vučić’s SNS.

With Vučić’s SNS polling at 60% in the week before the election, and his governing partner the SPS adding another 10% onto that, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the SNS does not win this election in an absolute landslide. The SNS is lucky to have had the election postponed since its management of the Coronavirus pandemic has boosted Vučić’s popularity thanks to the relatively few deaths from the virus in Serbia. On top of that, Vučić and his party enjoy the support and approval of the powerful centre-right European People’s Party—the largest grouping in the European Parliament.

No other Serbian political party enjoys such support from any grouping in the European Parliament, giving the SNS a huge electoral advantage when it comes to the extremely important issue of accession to the European Union. EU accession has been one of the biggest political issues in Serbia and has been a goal for successive governments for over a decade. Having support from important EU politicians makes the SNS look like the only bigger party with any broad international or European backing. The extra-parliamentary Movement of Free Citizens (Pokret slobodnih građana, PSG-RE) is supported by the liberal RE group while Enough is Enough (Dosta je bilo, DJB-ECR) is an official member of the conservative ECR group, but both are polling at around 3%.

Besides the parties already mentioned, Vučić’s former party, the SRS (~NI), is likely to enter parliament once again, though with far less support than it once enjoyed. Along with the SRS two more right-wing to far-right parties—the Serbian Patriotic Alliance (Srpski patriotski savez, SPAS-*) and the Serbian Party Oathkeepers (Zavetnici-*)—could pass the electoral threshold and enter parliament for the first time. The centre-left United Democratic Serbia (Ujedinjena demokratska Srbija, UDS-G/EFA), monarchist Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia (Pokret obnove Kraljevine Srbije, POKS-*), and the centre-right Broom 2020 alliance (Metla 2020, M20-*) are all polling just below the 3% threshold needed to enter parliament.

Barring any unprecedented errors in polling, Serbia’s 2020 parliamentary election will be a runaway victory for the ruling SNS. How many opposition parties will enter parliament and with what share of the vote remains to be seen, but it is a near certainty that they will not stop the formation of another SNS-led government. 

Yet another—and this time even larger—SNS victory could only further entrench Vučić and his party, which may worsen the already faltering state of Serbian democracy. But this is unlikely to hurt Serbia’s accession chances, quite the opposite. With broad support from powerful European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU-EPP) and EPP head Donald Tusk (PO), and an overwhelming domestic political mandate, there will be few political barriers ahead for Serbia’s accession to the European Union led by Vučić and the SNS.