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In the Spotlight: Serbia’s Elections Bring Domestic Certainty and International Uncertainty

No surprises were expected in Serbia’s 2020 parliamentary elections and in the end none came. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka, SNS-EPP) won over 60% of the vote in the election on June 21st, giving it a supermajority in Parliament. A larger majority than even past dictator Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia (Socijalistička partija Srbije, SPS~S&D) had at its peak. An opposition boycott and ongoing pandemic have given the SNS a majority unlike any other in Europe. What will it mean for the country’s future?

Even before the 2020 election, the SNS had a huge majority in Parliament that allowed the party and its allies to rule essentially unchecked. With the Presidency held by SNS leader Aleksandar Vučić, the SNS had total control over the Serbian government. Now that the total control appears to have become even more total, it has left many observers wondering what exactly opposition parties were thinking when they declared the boycott in the first place.

Seat distribution in Serbian parliamentary election 2020, per the Cesid-Ipsos exit poll on election night

Considering the election to be unfair and undemocratic to begin with, some opposition leaders decided that by their participation in the election they would be legitimising what they believed to be an unfair process. By extension they would legitimise the already dominant rule of President Vučić and his SNS. Not long after the polls closed, one of the leaders of the main opposition Alliance for Serbia (SZS-S&D)—Dragan Đilas—declared that the boycott had achieved its goals. Which is to say it had undermined the legitimacy of Vučić and his SNS.

Whether or not he is correct is an open question, but many observers and commentators have already been speculating that the boycott—far from being successful—has removed the only political check on power that remained in Serbia. The opposition has voluntarily removed itself from the political process, leaving the allied SNS and SPS with Europe’s largest electoral majority.

In what looked to many like an attempt to legitimise the election by pushing in another opposition party, 234 polling stations serving over 200,000 registered voters voted again on the 1st of July. But amidst a deteriorating epidemiological situation the turnout was low and no other party seems to have passed the threshold. The government-friendly right-wing monarchist party POKS (*) initially announced it had entered the Parliament, only to retract the announcement the next day.

Only one opposition party got barely past the required 3% threshold, the right-wing Serbian Patriotic Alliance (Srpski patriotski savez, SPAS-*), led by former water polo player and New Belgrade mayor Aleksandar Šapić. If SPAS is to have any role in the coming Parliament, it will only be as a coalition partner to the SNS, which Šapić did not rule out after the election. With SPAS winning less than 4% of the vote, just enough to get past the threshold, they will not be a significant force in the new Parliament.

With a mandate to rule unchecked for up to 4 years from now, legitimacy may matter more abroad than at home for Vučić. For the SNS and its leader, the signature foreign policy goal has been and still is accession to the European Union. For Serbia to join it will need the approval of every country in the EU, but will every country in the EU feel comfortable allowing in a country which looks like a one-party state?

Immediately following the SNS’ crushing victory, the head of centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), Polish Donald Tusk (PO-EPP), congratulated Vučić while specifically wishing him success for Serbia’s European path. Warm congratulations came from Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP-EPP) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Fidesz-EPP) as well. The centre-left S&D group had a different reaction: on their website they posted a press release—quoting various members from the group—calling on the EU not to open any further accession chapters with Serbia until ‘sufficient democracy has been restored’.

Whether this translates into a wider political will in the EU not to continue accession talks with Serbia remains to be seen, but it is representative of the way large parts of Europe saw the election. Unfair, undemocratic, and not fitting of a member of the European Union. On the other hand, the continued support of the European People’s Party is significant and may be enough to counteract any concerns of other political groupings in the European Parliament.

By far the most powerful pan-European grouping, it is home to the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council, and the Chancellor of Europe’s most populous state in Angela Merkel (CDU-EPP). Additionally the EPP has a plurality of seats both in the European Parliament and on the European Council. With them standing firmly behind Vučić he has the legitimacy abroad that he so desperately needs for his other signature foreign policy goal—Kosovo.

Normalization of relations with Kosovo—a precondition for Serbia’s accession to the EU—appears to many closer than ever. The day after the election, EU envoy to Serbia, Slovakian Miroslav Lajčák (SMER-S&D), said he expects a breakthrough in Kosovo-Serbia relations after a two-year deadlock.

This is the reality of the SNS’ dominance. Even if the election does not meet democratic standards, and even if Vučić rules Serbia without Parliamentary opposition, he has convinced enough people at home and abroad that he is the one to bring an end to one of Europe’s longest running territorial conflicts and Serbia into the European fold after decades of near pariah status.

Vučić’s success or failure on these two issues will determine Serbia’s future, which after the 2020 election lies in his hands alone.