10 min read — Analysis | Elections | Serbia

What Made Serbia’s 2023 Elections Different, and What to Expect in 2024

As another election comes to an end, so too does an unsuccessful attempt to change Serbia’s political status quo — or so it may seem. What clouds lurk on the Serbian political horizon, and are they as ominous as many believe?
Serbia's 2023 Elections Article Euro Prospects
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By Aleksander Dragic

January 14, 2024 | 16:40

Why Serbian Elections Matter

The outcome of Serbia’s elections do not only have internal effect, but major regional ramifications. Because of Serbia’s central position in the region and large Serb populations in neighbouring countries, Serbian elections are a big deal across the Western Balkans.

Take Bosnia and Herzegovina for instance, where half the country is governed by the Republic of Srpska — one of two territorial divisions in Bosnia intended to safeguard Bosnian Serb interests in the country. All of Bosnia’s decisions, be they internal or external, require the Serbian entity’s approval, the scope of such political weight depending on how much Serbia supports Bosnian Serbs.

Similarly, Montenegro, according to the latest census, is comprised of 30% citizens who identify as ethnically Serb — a percentage that is steadily growing.

What does this mean for Serbia? It means Bosnian and Montenegrin ethnic Serbs look onto Serbia for support and guidance. Such support was evident, for example, when Serbia — and especially the Serbian Orthodox Church — offered its backing in the elections that toppled Montenegro’s previous president, Milo Djukanovic, who ruled for 32 years.

And of course, elections in Serbia undoubtedly have major effects on the country’s relationship with its Kosovar breakaway region which Serbia continues to refute its independence. Though not large, Kosovo is still home to ethnically Serb populations concentrated in its north, with a few UN-protected enclaves existing further south. That population usually follows Serbia’s decisions and its rights and future are the main point of contention in ongoing Serb-Kosovar negotiations. More importantly, the level of Serbia’s pressure on Kosovo highly depends on the type of government that’s in power — with Serbian right-wing parties vowing to offer less flexibility in negotiations with Kosovo.

Not to mention, Serbian elections are highly consequential to the general direction the whole region takes in terms of relations with the EU and other big players around the world.

That said, the December 2023 elections in Serbia have proven to be a challenge both for the present government and for its opposition, but what about the country’s ordinary citizens?

The 2023 elections

As another election comes to an end, so too does an unsuccessful attempt to change Serbia’s political status quo. The SNS (Serbian Progressive Party – Srpska Napredna Stranka in Serbian), unofficially led by Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic, seized yet another easy victory in the last parliamentary elections held on the 17th of December. Together with its 12-year partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), Vucic’s SNS has secured the necessary majority needed to form a government. For Serbia, this has been the seemingly non-ending cycle of politics for the last 12 years, with the SNS retaining more or less the same amount of members of parliament (MPs) whilst hanging on to majorities in local-level governing bodies throughout Serbia.

For an unsuspecting external audience, it would seem as if the ruling SNS enjoys overwhelming support among the Serbian populace, and that nothing much has changed, but is that really so?

What changed with these elections?

Well first off, eyes were on the local elections in Belgrade, the capital city, where the results don’t look that great for the ruling party. Unlike in previous years, this election cycle, like the last one in 2022, was marked by a drop in the support for the SNS, and a rise in the support for the opposition in the Belgrade City Assembly. In 2022, the SNS coalition secured  48 seats in the city’s parliament, its partner SPS obtained 8, adding up to a total of 56, with the opposition parties receiving around 54. It is of course worth noting that a few members of the opposition (mostly from the right-wing parties) decided to join the ruling SNS and helped it secure a thin majority in Belgrade’s parliament (56 members are needed to form a local government in Belgrade). In the elections that were held last month, SNS received 49, SPS  5 – so 54 in total, and the main opposition parties hold around 50, with another, newly formed right-wing party “We – the Voice of the People” (MI – Glas iz naroda) holding 6 seats in the city’s assembly.

Led by a controversial Branimir Nestorovic, a retired Doctor,  who gained popularity during the Coronavirus pandemic as well as by being a guest on popular YouTube channels known for conspiracy theories, support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the “We – the Voice of the People” party is a rising star on the Serbian political landscape –  one which snatched away most votes which would have otherwise gone to smaller right-wing parties. Nevertheless, riding on the wave of popularity he received, mostly from YouTube, Nestorovic mentioned that he would not join anyone in a coalition, which consequently means that nobody has the majority needed to hold power in Belgrade. 

Unless some mysterious change of heart doesn’t strike members of the opposition, something that happened in 2022 when some opposition members left their parties and joined the SNS, we could be looking towards a repeat of the Belgrade elections. 

It is worth noting that the lack of a majority in the Belgrade City Assembly is not the only thing stopping the SNS from forming a government there. Numerous reports of election fraud and irregularities have marked these national elections and many of the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) as well as the OSCE raised concerns that the elections had many irregularities, including pressure on voters,  lack of proper separation between official functions and campaign activities, and media bias, to name a few. With a lot of pressure coming from the international community, it is possible that President Aleksandar Vucic  – who though no longer a leader of the SNS, still holds de facto power in the party – will be forced to call for new snap elections in 2024.

This is a big change by no stretch of the imagination. For the first time in seemingly forever, the ruling SNS doesn’t have a clear majority and with the opposition on the rise, it may mean that the SNS is opening a can of worms if they repeat the elections.

What’s more, the SNS’s partner SPS (Serbian Socialist Party) is in dire straits. The party has been slowly losing support in Belgrade for a few years now and though that’s no surprise, what is surprising is their waning national support, from 11.79% in 2022 to 6.55% in 2023 in the general elections, considering it was once strong party which continuously levitated around 11% for the last 12 or more years. The party, which traces its roots to the once mighty communist party of Yugoslavia, has been struggling with attracting new voters and replenishing its support pool. Its long-time leader Ivica Dacic hinted at his possible resignation when he announced a need for a new leader on the night of the first election results, but nothing has happened since.

All things considered, the SPS is viewed as an old party and it may be that nature is simply running its course, with the Yugoslav communist party’s last remnants and supporters just dying out. 

Another debacle happened on the right, where many long-standing parties suffered a loss of support due to the rise in popularity of the aforementioned “We – The Voice of the People”. Many right-wing parties such as Dveri and NS (People’s Party – Narodna Stranka in Serbian) have hence announced a change in their leadership after their leaders stepped down alongside some of their long-time members even announcing their retirement from politics altogether. This has not come as a surprise however, as both Dveri and the NS have been often criticized for not changing their party leaders and always having the same people represent their parties.

Moreover, many of these right-wing parties such as Dveri and Zavetnici, as well as the SPS (which although being a socialist party shares a lot with the right-wing groups, particularly regarding support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) have been – until now – riding on the wave of pro-Russian sentiment which got them very good results in the 2022 elections. This time however, the  Russia-Ukraine war has been pushed aside and wasn’t a topic in 2023 – something which certainly did not alleviate their diminishing support.

What to expect from 2024?

Political instability may become the new norm in Serbia’s political life. 

The current government has likely been caught in the election fraud, which has put a big question of whether the elections should be repeated. With many people from the OSCE, MEPs, the NGO sector, and the opposition parties putting forward different proofs that the elections were not free and most likely rigged, the government is facing pressure with its legitimacy being questioned. This is something new for President Vucic and his ruling SNS party as their control over Serbia and its elections have relatively been a breeze for the last decade or so. 

For now, Serbia’s streets have become rampant with opposition protests, student protests, and different activities of the newly formed movement called “Proglas” and its initiative which was signed by over 200,000 people just before the elections. This coupled with the government’s slow recognition of Kosovo’s independence and the high inflation rate sitting at around 8% could weaken Vucic and SNS’s influence in Serbia, possibly leading to a loss in some upcoming elections. 

Of course, if elections are repeated in Belgrade it would damage Vucic’s self-made reputation of a strong leader who never backs down under pressure. The image he has fomented in the past 12 years, which shows him as a strong leader with connections to both the East and the West who never succumbs to pressure and will never give up on Kosovo, has been slowly crumbling in the past few years.  This has led him to make more mistakes which in turn has only increased the pressure he receives in and out of Serbia. Just in 2023 he sent an army toward Kosovo borders and declared that Serbia shall never recognize Kosovo’s license plates, which shortly after the elections… he did. Shortly after the license plate fiasco, his close acquaintance Milan Radojicic organized a terrorist attack near Banjska in Kosovo and failed, with Vucic trying to prove that he knew nothing about it. 

 These kinds of mistakes and the pressure that allowed them to happen have probably led his SNS to make many other faults with malversations during the election process. With many acts of fraud being recorded by international election observers, members of the opposition, as well as ordinary voters,  these blunders may continue in 2024 as Vucic becomes ever more weak under pressure – something which could prove to be a double-edged sword for Serbia. 

Indeed, the possible long-term outcomes we are headed to are twofold. On the one hand, Vucic and his SNS’s diminishing support may lead to a yielding to more freedom and possible reinstitution of the rule of law in a country torn by corruption and nepotism. But on the other hand, it may also mean that Vucic might become more dangerous and unpredictable making him more authoritarian, something closer to Belarus’ Lukashenko or Russia’s Putin’s way to rule. This, although being a desperate attempt to cling on to power, would spell disastrous for Serbia and its citizens.  For now, Vucic has authoritarian tendencies but the country is still far from a dictatorship: free media houses exist, the internet remains uncensored, and freedom of opinion is generally respected. But when someone who has been holding power for so long becomes threatened there is no telling how they may react, as power can corrupt even the best of us. 

Conclusion – Opinion

To sum up – with a somewhat optimistic outlook – many things might happen this year in Serbia’s political arena: not only the aforementioned trend of mistakes that Vucic will most probably continue, but the possible change in opposition as many party leaders resign, hopefully giving way to a shift of generations. If so, it could bring a breath of fresh air to Serbian politics, something Serbia may really need. Many of the leaders who have been polluting the opposition with their never-ending need to be at the center of decision-making and their desire for self-aggrandisement have backed down. Some with arguably little backbone such as the DS (Democratic Party) Zoran Lutovac and PSG (Free Citizen’s Movement) Pavle Grbovic will have to stop hiding behind large coalitions and either give their parties to more skilled people or just merge into larger ones. If not, with the way things are headed, such parties will not be able to achieve 1% in the next elections; which would be a shame as both represent bastions of democracy in an otherwise authoritarian-plagued political landscape where most parties opt for a “Strongman” leadership which inevitably leaves little room for self-criticism and reflection.

In all, these possible changes could lead to the birth of new leaders who in turn could take the fight directly to Vucic, offering Serbia a brighter future than it currently has.

Disclaimer: While Euro Prospects encourages open and free discourse, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of Euro Prospects or its editorial board.

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