This is a guest post by Aleksandar Ivković, a political scientist and journalist from Serbia. He has earlier worked, among others, for European Western Balkans portal covering Serbia.
If you take a look at recent polls from Serbia, you might struggle to find the opposition. You would see a complete dominance of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka, SNS-EPP) at around 60%, followed by the junior coalition partner Socialist Party of Serbia (Socijalistička partija Srbije, SPS-S&D) at around nine per cent. Every other party commanding less than five per cent of the vote. To a casual observer, it might seem that political pluralism has left Serbia for good.
Despite this impression, political dynamics in Serbia are still more similar to those in Hungary or Turkey. Genuine multi-party elections (still) exist, but the playing field is tilted in favour of the ruling parties. However, in both Hungary and Turkey, polls clearly show that opposition to the ruling parties is not insignificant; polls in Serbia fail to convey this message, which is the result of multiple factors, some of them fairly unique. Nevertheless, let us first take a look at the underlying reality.
Three Groups of Voters
There is little dispute that President of Serbia and leader of SNS, Aleksandar Vučić, is very skillful with popular political narratives, which would make him a successful politician even in a much more democratic setting. However, there is also little dispute about the assessment that the elections in Serbia are neither free nor fair. By bringing all national television channels and almost all daily newspapers under its control and inheriting (and, arguably, improving upon) the system in which many public sector workers feel the pressure of having to vote for the ruling party, SNS has boosted its support to a stable 50–55%. This has remained the case even in 2020 elections, which were boycotted by a part of the opposition. The decreased turnout meant that SNS won 60.6% of the vote; under 2016 turnout, it would have won 51.7%.
Who, then, makes up the other half of the electorate? Recent election campaigns have shown that there are roughly two main groups of non-SNS voters: the committed opposition, and those that do not fall into the pro and anti-SNS dichotomy.
The first group is somewhat diverse ideologically but has one thing in common—these voters regard SNS as the main political problem in Serbia. Removing it from power is their top priority. The other group does not share these sentiments and votes for a variety of reasons—traditional party loyalty (which now applies only to the Socialist Party of Serbia and minority parties), single-issue voting, protest voting or simply for the sake of participation. The parties representing this group could lean both ways, depending on their interests—currently, most of them support SNS.
How large are these two groups, then? Based on the previous election results, they are roughly similar in size, but the committed opposition is a bit larger of the two, encompassing 25–30%. The second and more ambiguous ‘others’ covers 20–25% of the electorate. Together with 50–55% committed Vučić supporters, this is a dominant alignment of Serbian electorate since 2016 at the latest.
So, if there is at least 25–30% of the voters supportive of the opposition, how come none of the parties, according to the recent polls, has been able to amass more than two to three per cent of support?
To fully understand this situation, one absolutely must take into account that there has been no stable leadership at the helm of the opposition for almost a decade, as well as the scale of the opposition fragmentation. These two factors play a major role, but they are often overlooked, which is why they will be in focus for the rest of the piece. But let us first quickly go through the two arguments that are heard most often.
One of these arguments is that the opposition leaders, especially those who were prominent members of the Democratic Party (Demokratska stranka, DS-S&D), in power from 2007 to 2012, are unpopular. Another explanation points at the relentless smearing campaigns of the pro-SNS television channels and newspapers against opposition politicians. For example, the portrayal of former Belgrade mayor and leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (Stranka slobode i pravde, SSP~S&D) Dragan Đilas as a tycoon who has stolen millions of Euros while in office has been so overwhelming that it might as well have lost some of its effect. And while he was campaigning for president in 2017, leader of centre-right People’s Party and former President of the UN General Assembly Vuk Jeremić and his wife were accused by pro-SNS media of heading an international drug cartel. No credible proof has ever been provided of either allegation.
These two factors do explain some of the effects on low opposition support, but they are not enough. Is there really a country in the world in which none of the opposition parties can muster even five per cent of support, and the sufficient explanation is ‘the leaders are unpopular’? There are, after all, many parties of various ideological leanings not led by former DS members. And pro-SNS media, vicious as they may be, do not have that much of an influence on the 25–30% opposition voters. There are other factors that are often overlooked.
To the endless frustration of their voters, opposition parties in Serbia have been in a constant instability ever since SNS came to power in 2012. During that time, there have been at least four parties and coalitions that seemed to be at the helm of the opposition before losing momentum due to various reasons—Democratic Party before its split in two in 2014, centrist-reformist Enough is Enough (Dosta je bilo, DJB-ECR) following the 2016 elections, former ombudsman Saša Janković in the wake of the 2017 presidential elections and, finally, the boycotting coalition Alliance for Serbia, which disbanded as soon as it delivered on its pledge not to participate in the 2020 elections.
Another problem for the opposition is the sheer number of players. There are presently more than 30 active organisations styling themselves as ‘opposition’. These two factors—constant shifts in the momentum and the large number of parties—are a powerful combination that disorients opposition voters.
Why is the number of parties that large, then? Firstly, there is a general tendency for opposition parties to split whenever the first serious disagreement hits, and later an unwillingness to merge or simply disband despite extremely poor election results. This can be seen as a part of the underdeveloped political culture that does not value loyalty to a party in victory or defeat. There is, however, another, more sinister factor at play.
It would be naïve to expect that SNS, with its vast resources, would not want to contribute to the divisions in the opposition. The party has co-opted some of the existing parties into Russia-style ‘opposition in name only’, keeping them propped up as separate organisations (many of the above-mentioned 30). It has even (allegedly) helped found several such organisations. The support of these parties on their own is negligible but taken together they usually chip away five to ten per cent of the vote.
So, let us say one is an opposition voter in Serbia. One is probably vaguely aware of the current opposition parties. But why would one commit to a single one? One has probably done so in the recent past, just to see that party split, crash in the elections, become irrelevant or a ‘tamed’ opposition to SNS. On top of that, one knows that none of the parties is going to participate in the elections on their own—they are too weak. One will decide when one sees the final coalitions and candidates. Additionally, following their boycott of the 2020 elections, one will have to wait and see who will participate at all.
These are major and overlooked reasons as to why the citizens do not know what to say to the pollsters. It is also a sort of an ongoing political experiment—how long will the potential opposition voters tolerate this situation until they just give up?
Changing the Polling Methodology
All this leads to a conclusion that, in order to capture the true feelings of the electorate in Serbia, one would have to do a different kind of polling, not strictly based on individual party preference. Pollster NSPM has been using this strategy since 2019, adding a category ‘I support the opposition, but I don’t know who exactly’. It regularly gets at least 15%. Given that the Alliance for Serbia polled at additional 15% before the boycott, these results neatly fit the theory of around 30% opposition voters.
Why are these or similar methods, then, not used more widely? The answer, at least partially, is the political interest of the ruling party, which has a large influence on what kind of polling will appear in the media. When only party-preference polls are available to the public, they currently show 60% for SNS and three to four per cent for the nearest opposition party,. It is a one-of-a-kind political weapon that allows SNS to indirectly send a message along the lines of ‘See? Nobody comes close. If you’re an opposition activist, you should better give up. You are alone.’
Knowing this, the opposition recently made an attempt to reframe the situation. Freedom and Justice Party published a poll which simply asked the citizens ‘Will you vote for or against Aleksandar Vučić in the next year’s presidential election?’. 35.7% said for, 32.9% against and 31.4% said they wouldn’t vote. While every partisan poll should be taken with a grain of salt, these results are roughly similar to the 2017 presidential election result where Vučić won 55% of the votes cast. The problem for the opposition, of course, is that those 32.9% will probably split between multiple candidates.
The Elusive Opposition Unity
One does not need to be a political genius to see that it is in the interest of the opposition in Serbia to unite as much as possible. A potential Hungarian-style joint list and a single presidential candidate would probably attract at least 30% of the vote, perhaps even win over some voters from the ‘others’ group. It wouldn’t be enough to defeat SNS in the parliamentary and presidential elections announced for 2022, but it would at least show what many are simply missing today—that political opposition in Serbia, in fact, exists. It would certainly be an improvement compared to all election results since 2012. Nevertheless, the scenario of total unity still seems far-fetched, both due to the intra-opposition rivalries and the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy of the governing SNS.