Category Archives: Serbia

Serbia – Aleksandar Vučić: the old and new strongman of Serbian politics

In this post, I examine the first and because of the results also final round of presidential elections in Serbia. The election was held on April 2 and Prime Minister Vučić won in this first round with predicted 54.9 % of the votes (with Sasa Jankovic coming as second with 16.2%) (see for the results Rudic 2017). This election comes roughly one year after the early parliamentary dissolution and the ensuing snap elections also won by Vučić. In the following, I will first briefly describe the process between the parliamentary and presidential elections, the campaign and motivations that might have driven Vučić’ candidacy. This is then followed by an assessment of the consequences of the results for the political process and the democratic development in Serbia.

In March 2016, the Serbian President – then Tomislav Nikolić – dissolved the National Assembly (Narodna skupština) and called for early elections (the third in four years). The reasons for the dissolution that I described in an earlier blog post discussing the parliamentary elections apply surprisingly well again and show the motivation why Vučić ran as candidate for the presidency.

Similar to the snap parliamentary elections last spring, the run for president by Vučić is widely viewed as move to cement the ruling of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). One main motive for the 2016 snap election was pointedly formulated by the following quote: “Vučić may simply […] cash in on his popularity, while it lasts” (Stojanović and Casal Bértoa 2016). But considering the results of the early parliamentary elections, the political move of Vučić did not work as expected. The SNS lost 27 seats in parliament and was far off by the projected +50% result (Pavlović 2017, 55). Even more important was a newly emerging opposition that was virtually non-existent or heavily discredited prior to the 2016 election. As Prelec (2016) has pointedly argued: “Vučić is no longer the only bastion of ‘Europeanness’ in Serbia”. This opposition consists now of an even more diverse group ranging from far-right to progressive movements. But still 48.2 percent of the votes guaranteed Vučić and the SNS a strong position, albeit within a coalition government he formed with some delay in August 2016. Many observers, including me, assumed that the new and old Prime Minister could continue his “domestic and foreign policy course [..] enacting the political and economic changes required for membership in the European Union, while simultaneously seeking closer relations with Russia.” (Brunwasser 2017)

But then something unexpected happened. Several viable candidates outside of the SNS influence emerged and made the presidency suddenly a possible veto point for Vučić’s plans of political leadership. Among possible contestants the most promising where Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli (an alias used by a satirical campaign) and the former ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic.  Vučić’s solution to the problem was running for president by himself. Next to the obvious threat of a loss of power Boban Stojanović, Fernando Casal Bértoa (2017) named 2 further reasons why he decided to do so, “the temptation of ‘illiberal democracy’” and “little significant change in terms of his [Vučić] capacity to influence policy or exert power”. In particular, the second argument needs some clarification. Contrary to what a variety of outlets reported, we should be careful when we characterize the presidency in Serbia as “largely symbolic” (Brunwasser 2017). Depending on the party majorities and the actors occupying the main posts within the executive, the assessment of intra-executive relations varies dramatically. One example would be the comparative case of the presidency of Boris Tadić. During his first term – also a period of cohabitation – he was often described as inactive. This however changed dramatically when his Democratic Party (DS) won the 2007 and 2008 parliamentary election. In his double role as chair of the party and president of the country he wielded enormous political influence and clearly dominated intra-executive relations. Mirko Cvetković as Prime Minister was however highly respected and his term and cabinet broke for a short time the unfortunate tradition of frequent cabinet reshuffles and snap elections.

After Sunday’s election and the landslide victory of Vučić, we can expect a similar development for Vučić’s presidency, when it comes to the part about the president’s dominance over the prime minister. He will influence the political landscape more than his predecessor Tomislav Nikolić. Vučić will also aim for stability but this stability will actually mean something entirely different: stabilizing in this case will result in an even firmer and more authoritarian grasp on power in his bid for even more. Shortly after the election results were published, demonstrations against Vučić started all across Serbia and the organizers in several cities announced that they plan to continue their protest against election fraud, partisanship of media outlets and Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies.

Literature

Brunwasser, Matthew (2017): Serbia’s Prime Minister Projected to Win Presidency, Consolidating Control, in: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/02/world/europe/serbia-aleksandar-vucic-president-elections.html

Pavlović, Dušan (2017): Serbian Presidential Elections, in: Contemporary Southeastern Europe, in: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/cse/sites/default/files/papers/pavlovic_serbian_elections_2016.pdf

Prelec, Tena: Serbian parliamentary election 2016: A gamble that almost backfired, in: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2016/04/26/serbian-parliamentary-election-2016-a-gamble-that-almost-backfired

Rudic, Filip (2017): Vucic Wins Serbian Presidential Elections, in: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/vucic-wins-serbian-presidential-elections-04-02-2017-1
Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2017): Serbia’s prime minister just became president. What’s wrong with this picture? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/04/serbias-prime-minister-just-became-president-whats-wrong-with-this-picture/?utm_term=.8cdfe26a5d7e

Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando (2016): There are 4 reasons countries dissolve their parliaments. Here’s why Serbia did, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/22/there-are-4-reasons-countries-dissolve-their-parliaments-heres-why-serbia-did/ (April 22).

Serbia – Snap elections and the political gamble of Aleksandar Vučić

Dissolution
After the Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić dissolved the National Assembly (Narodna skupština) in March and called for early elections, this election was characterized as necessary for EU accession, but also as a political gamble by Prime Minister Vučić. Serbia’s president has an important role in the dissolution of parliament and the election of a new prime minister after a vote of no confidence. Art. 130 of the constitution reads as follows: “The proposal for the vote of no confidence in the Government or the member of the Government shall be accepted by the National Assembly, if more than a half of the total number of deputies votes for it. If the National Assembly passes a vote of no confidence in the Government, the President of the Republic shall be obliged to initiate proceedings for election of the new Government. If the National Assembly fails to elect the new Government within 30 days from the passing of a vote of no confidence, the President of the Republic shall be obliged to dissolve the National Assembly and schedule elections” (Constitution of the Republic of Serbia 2006). The early elections come as sort of a Serbian tradition, as only 2 parliamentary elections in the last decade actually took place at the end of the legislative term of 4 years.

Campaign
The decision of the president was not unexpected and is widely viewed as move to cement the ruling of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its chair Aleksandar Vučić. President Nikolić is also no stranger in the SNS, as he is one of the founding members of the party. Both politicians have declared a pro-EU stance, but are also controversial figures when it comes to the strengthening of Serbia’s democracy. The main motive for the snap election is widely assumed and pointedly formulated by the following quote: “Vučić may simply […] cash in on his popularity, while it lasts” (Stojanović and Casal Bértoa 2016).

However, one further possible explanation why the SNS pushed for early elections should be added: Constitutional amendments in Serbia require a 2/3 majority, and an amendment is absolutely necessary for the accession to the European Union. In particular, “several provisions in the constitution also state that international agreements cannot be in contradiction with the constitution […] (and) does not provide the possibility for the transfer of competences” (Banović 2016). Thus, the goal of Vučić to gain the necessary legitimization for this process could also be one explanation.

Furthermore, the EU accession was also the essence of the election campaign. This campaign – after the president’s decision – provided a new experience for Serbian voters, namely the clear concentration on domestic policies and the necessary reforms (public service and the economy) to join the European Union. And apart from two rightwing parties, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), all campaigning parties were in favor of the EU accession of Serbia. Though, the unexpected acquittal of the leader of the SRS Vojislav Seselj by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, also revived themes of earlier election campaigns (e.g. the situation of Kosovo) but only shortly. In sum, clear electoral programs were not observable, rather most statements had the character of day-to-day politics and reactions to short-term political situation (Beckmann-Dierkes et al. 2016, 2).

Election and election results
The election was held on April 24 in a nationwide constituency with proportional representation. Similar to other countries a 5 % electoral threshold is necessary, however this threshold does not apply for groups representing ethnic minorities. Part of the electoral process in Serbia is the formation of electoral lists. The list “Serbia is Winning”, chaired by Aleksandar Vučić, won a 49% majority. Based on the preliminary election results, the political move of Vučić did not work as expected. As more parties than two years ago seem to have crossed the threshold, the SNS will most probably receive less parliamentary seats (according to the most recent counting 27 fewer seats than in the last term, see MacDowall 2016). After the DSS failed to get the necessary number of votes, protests and accusations of electoral fraud started to gain momentum. A diverse group is now demanding a re-run, among them certainly representatives from the nationalists and right-wing parties but also the moderate social democrat (and former president) Boris Tadić. Because of these protests the electoral commission decided on a re-run in 15 polling stations. The majority of Vučić might increase depending on the results of the partial recount. This recount will most probably show that the DSS/Dveri list failed to reach the 5 % threshold; their – now 13 seats in parliament – will be distributed among the other parties (RFE/RL 2016). Now, with another – probably less stable majority – it remains to be seen whether the new and old prime minister will keep his promises and reform the public sector and try to prepare Serbia for the accession to the EU.

Literature
Banović, Damir (2016): Serbia, in: Fruhstorfer/Hein: Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe. From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems. VS Springer.
Beckmann-Dierkes, Norbert; Gogic, Ognjen; Kawohl, Steffen (2016): Vorgezogene Wahlen in Serbien Akteure und Themen. KAS-Länderbericht, in: www.kas.de/wf/doc/kas_44931-544-1-30.pdf?160420120833.
Constitution of the Republic of Serbia (2006), in: https://www.constituteproject.org/.
MacDowall, Andrew (2016): 5 takeaways from the Serbian election, in: http://www.politico.eu/article/5-takeaways-analysis-from-serbian-election-aleksandar-vucic/ (April 25).
RFE/RL (2016): Outcome Of Serbia’s Elections Unclear Until May 4 Partial Repeat Vote, in: http://www.rferl.org/content/serbia-partial-repeat-vote/27706066.html (May 2).
Stojanović, Boban and Casal Bértoa, Fernando: There are 4 reasons countries dissolve their parliaments. Here’s why Serbia did, in: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/22/there-are-4-reasons-countries-dissolve-their-parliaments-heres-why-serbia-did/ (April 22).

Serbia – Will the outcome of the snap election affect intra-executive politics?

A snap general election was held in Serbia on March 16th. President Nikolic’s Serbian Progressive Party obtained a strong parliament majority and its current leader, Aleksandar Vucic, is sure to secure the prime minister position. The snap election could also affect the intra-executive relation between the president and the new prime minister, due to the latter’s extensive authority over the government and ruling party.

According to the results reported by the National Electoral Commission based on nearly all votes counted, four electoral lists passed the 5% threshold necessary to get into parliament:

  • SNS (Serbian Progressive Party) – led coalition: 48.34% of the vote and 158 seats
  • SPS (Socialist Party of Serbia) – led coalition: 13.15% of the vote and 44 seats
  • DS (Democratic Party) – 6.04% of the vote and 19 seats
  • New Democratic Party – 5.71% of the vote and 18 seats

Three parties of ethnic minorities will also be represented in the parliament:

  • Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM) – 2.11% of the vote and 6 seats
  • Party of Democratic Action (SDA) of Sandzak – 0.95% of the vote and 3 seats
  • Party for Democratic Action-Riza Halimi – 0.68 % of the vote and 2 seats

The snap election was called by the Progressive Party, less than two years after the last general election held in July 2012. The SNS-led coalition topped the polls in 2012 and obtained 73 seats in the 250-seat parliament. However, the prime minister position went to Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Socialist Party. With 44 seats in the parliament, SPS emerged as the kingmaker of the election, as plans for a Grand Coalition between the Progressives and Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party holding 67 seats in the parliament fell through. What followed was a year of political speculation about the timing of the next snap election that would allow the SNS to improve its parliamentary support and to secure the prime minister position.

In the meantime, Aleksandar Vucic, the SNS deputy PM and Ivica Dacic’s main challenger for the prime ministership, strengthened his position within the cabinet and his party. Due to a very active anti-corruption campaign, which drew wide public support and weakened his political opponents, Vucic emerged as the most powerful and popular minister in the Serbian cabinet. The Progressives were also able to capitalize on the government’s popularity, which increased as a result of the successful conclusion of the Serbia-Kosovo agreement, the organisation of local elections in Northern Kosovo in November 2013, and the official start of EU accession talks in January 2014.

There are concerns that Aleksandar Vucic, who does not necessarily have to share power in a coalition government, might use his party’s outright parliamentary majority to strengthen his personal hold over the society. Moreover, his tight grip over the Progressive Party could also reduce the president’s influence over the political system.

Although the presidency enjoys few constitutional powers, Serbian presidents have maintained a relatively high profile in national politics. One reason for their influence over the political system is related to the authority they have preserved over their former parties. 

For example, under the leadership of Boris Tadic, the Democratic Party succeeded to win both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and returned to power following the 2007 and 2008 general elections. In 2012, Tadic resigned as head of state ten months before the end of his term so that concurrent presidential and parliamentary elections would allow the Democrats to capitalize on his coattails. His defeat in the presidential run-off by Tomislav Nikolić, the SNS candidate, played an important role in the Socialist Party’s decision to drop their coalition with the Democrats in favour of a coalition with Nikolic’s Progressives.

Tomislav Nikolic contested the 2012 presidential contest as a de facto leader of the Progressive Party, which broke away from the Serbian Radical Party in 2008 under his leadership. However, he is unlikely to preserve his authority over the party in the face of Aleksandar Vucic, who succeeded him as party president. Vucic ran unopposed for the leadership position in September 2012. To strengthen his legitimacy as a de facto party leader, he was unanimously reconfirmed as party president at a special conference convened in January 2014, where the decision to bring forward the general election was also taken.

Although President Nikolic expressed his support for early elections and endorsed Vucic as future prime minister, they are known as long-lasting political rivals. To prevent the emergence of party divisions and limit presidential influence on intra-party politics, Vucic also used the 2014 party convention to remove the president’s supporters from the party leadership.

Overall, we can expect the results of the 2014 snap election to have an impact on intra-executive politics and reduce the president’s role to its strict constitutional responsibilities. However, the actual relation between the president and the prime minister will depend on the type of cabinet that Aleksandar Vucic will form and on whether the political rivalry between the two political actors will translate into an increased level of presidential activism and/or intra-executive conflict.

Serbia – The 2014 general election and the president-prime minister relation

President Tomislav Nikolic called snap elections on 29 January, less than two years after the last general election was held in July 2012.  Aleksandar Vucic, the deputy prime minister and President Nikolic’s successor as leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), is tipped to emerge as Serbia’s new prime minister after the election scheduled for 16 March. If this happens, then the prime minister office may be strengthened at the expense of the presidency, as it will be for the first time since Boris Tadic took office as head of state in 2004 that the same person holds the prime minister position and the leadership of the main party in government.

Boris Tadic took over the leadership of the Democratic Party (DS) in 2004 and won the presidential election held later that year. Under Tadic’s leadership, the DP returned to power following the 2007 and 2008 general elections. The appointment of an independent prime minister in 2008, as the only solution acceptable by all parties in the pro-European coalition led by DP, enabled President Tadic to keep the main party in government under control.

In April 2012, President Tadic resigned ten months before the end of his term so that concurrent presidential and parliamentary elections could be held the following month. As the government was losing ground in pre-election polls due to the economic crisis and rising unemployment, President Tadic was hoping that the Democratic Party would be able to capitalize on his coattails. His main challenger in the 2012 presidential race was Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) that broke away from the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party in 2008. Tadic had already defeated Nikolic twice in the 2004 and 2008 races and pre-election polls indicated that he would be able to win the 2012 contest as well.

Although Tadic won the first round of the presidential election on May 6th, he was eventually defeated by Nikolic in the run-off. SNS and its coalition parties also emerged first from the general election held on May 6th, winning 73 out of the 250 seats in the parliament. DP and its allies emerged second with 67 seats. The kingmaker of the election was the Socialist Party (SPS), with 44 seats. While it immediately became clear that Ivica Dacic, the Socialist leader, would secure the prime minister position, it was only after the presidential run-off that SPS decided to drop their alliance with the DP in favour of a coalition with Nikolic’s SNS.

Given the unbalanced composition of forces in the DS-SNS government the imminence of a snap election was never in doubt. Aleksandar Vucic, the SNS deputy prime minister, emerged as the most powerful and popular member in the Serbian government. He succeeded Nikolic as SNS leader and was able to capitalize rapidly on a very active anti-corruption campaign. The government’s popularity also increased as a result of the successful conclusion of the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, the organisation of local elections in Northern Kosovo in November 2013, and the official start of EU accession talks in January 2014.

The decision to bring forward the general election was taken by the Serbian Progressive Party in a special party conference, where Aleksandar Vucic was also re-elected unanimously as party leader. Subsequently, the government asked the president to dissolve the assembly and early elections were scheduled for March 16th.

Opinion polls indicate that 43% of voters support the Progressives, 13% the Socialists, and only 7% the Democratic Party. President Nikolic expressed his support for early elections publicly and endorsed Vucic as future prime minister. Thus, there seems to be little doubt about the president’s party success in the March general election or about its ability to secure the prime minister position this time. However, as opposed to previous occasions when the president supported his own party and candidate for the prime minister position, this time the head of government will be in a better position to control cabinet affairs than the president, as he has full control over the main party in government. Nikolic’s situation is therefore different than that of Boris Tadic in 2008 and it remains to be seen to which extent the different party roles played by the president and the prime minister this time will affect their intra-executive relation.