Serbia: Vucic bids for presidency but…

There is probably a little doubt that Mr. Aleksandar Vucic is going to win the presidential election in Serbia, either in today’s first round or in the second. But in you opinion what does it mean for the country, Vucic is pretty hegemonic figure but doesn’t he overplay his hand a bit? Read few comments.

Serbia`s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Credit: http://ec.europa.eu

Tena Prelec, Editor of LSE EUROPP, Doctoral Researcher, University of Sussex

Assuming Vucic wins, what will it mean for the country: It will mean an even more polarised country. The incredibly popularity of ‘Beli’, who is effectively running as a distorted caricature of Vucic, stands as testament to the degree to which Serbian citizens are disenchanted by the current political class. The vast rallies in support to Saša Jankovic also show that a political awakening of the opposition has started (though how thorough and how long-lasting we don’t know yet). It will furthermore mean that the informal and top-down style of government which characterises the current administration will continue – though this time not so unchallenged. The almost electric upheaval which is being experienced in these pre-election days is unlikely to be soon forgotten by the increasingly active civil society in the capital and (to a lesser degree) throughout the country. I expect protests to take place especially in the case of a Vucic victory in the first round, since the accusations of vote-rigging are already many.

I think you have a point in saying that he is starting to test the waters with too much hubris.  Yes, ‘Europe’ – intended as influential European leaders – still seem to be siding with Vucic, putting faith in him as ‘their man’ in Serbia in order to maintain stability in that region. But will they do so indefinitely? I am not so sure. During her recent visit to Belgrade, Mogherini met with representatives of the opposition as well as with the government. My hunch is that if the ballot box produces a significantly different outcome of what is expected, allegiances may start to shift.

Hana Semanić, Research Fellow, Center for European Neighborhood Studies, Central European University

There is indeed very little doubt that any candidate can beat Aleksandar Vucic in the upcoming presidential elections in Serbia. Vucic’s victory would probably mean that Serbia’s foreign policy will stay divided between the European path which is Serbia’s strategic goal on the one hand, and maintaining good relations with the Christian Orthodox Russia on the other. I am not sure that what Vucic’s portrays as economic cooperation with Russia (and China) can only remain on the economic level without them interfering with the internal politics which can be extremely dangerous.

Giorgio Fruscione, Executive Director of Most  – Magazine of International Politics

Aleksandar Vucic decided to candidate himself for presidential election for two reasons: firstly, to take control over all state structures, as he will put some of his men in the position of prime minister; and then, for not leaving this position to any of opposition’s leaders. It is a position whose main importance is in foreign policy, and Vucic would not simply allow foreign policy to be led by Seselj, who is an extremist, neither by Nikolic, who is not charismatic and whose election in 2012 was just functional to avoid Tadic to be elected again and therefore to put out Democrats forever.

Vucic is in fact aware that he is the only politician able to gain the majority at the first round. The possible victory of any other candidate would in fact mean the beginning of the end of SNS (Vucic’s party) hegemony.

Of course his overplay is functional to his final goals. I believe the worst thing is his control on media. The last day before electoral silence he bought all newspapers first pages that were covered with his logo and motto.

Christian CostamagnaEditorial Writer for East Journal and the Geopolitical Review

I would start saying that in the last weeks a certain number of experts had their say about the present and, sometimes, the future of Serbia. I may add that the victory of Vucic was largely expected by all means. But what does it means for Serbia? Is the new President overplaying with his hegemonic figure? Well, we should step back from Serbian politics, and consider three pretty important dimensions.

The first one is the international background. A weak EU, especially after Brexit and the rising anti-EU sentiment elsewhere, would send negative signals towards Serbia and its so called EU’s path. At the same time, while Russia is very assertive in the region, still is not totally clear what we should expect from the Trump’s administration.
The second one is a general trend in the Western Balkans and, more at large, in Eastern Europe, where the political regimes look semi-democratic, with some partly-authoritarian features. The case of Macedonia is quite paradigmatic, as an eternal crisis is inflaming the country, apparently without a solution. Serbia is not an exception.
The third one is the culture of power in Serbia, as described by a superlative book of Dr. Erik Gordy. Nevertheless, we should not think that the local political elites are totally different from the local culture and habitudes. On the contrary, as in Italy, they simply mirror them. To say, if corruption is tolerated and widespread among society, it should not came as a surprise that the top levels of the same society are corrupted as well.

Finally, let me add a few thoughts based also on the recent history. What the West today wants from the Balkans is primarily stability. The USA because of Russia’s containment, and Germany for the protection its economic role in the area. Slobodan Milosevic was welcomed at Dayton in 1995, because at that time, as Serbia’s leader, he was considered by the Americans to be able to deliver security and stability in the region (Croatia, Bosnia etc.), after his role as generator of crisis and conflict. We may say that Tito’s Yugoslavia was tolerated and helped by the West, because Belgrade could deliver stability and peace (against the Soviet Union). Tito’s authoritarian regime was tolerated and accepted. If Vucic will do the same, he will maintain West’s support in the future.

Considering the antagonism between Moscow and Washington, a less democratic environment in Serbia, would be tolerated in exchange of stability in the region. Nobody apparently really wants eagerly a new war there. A substantial democracy seems to be expandable, in that sense.

Furthermore, as far as Vucic is delivering stability and economic welfare to a part of his voters, creating a strong connection between the state and his party, he will hardly lose consent. That already happened before, during the late socialist phase in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and during the ’90s, when Milosevic was in power.

Apparently Vucic can count on internal and external support. His hegemonic figure is somehow answering to the need of a strong man, able to solve high stake problems. And this is tolerated, apparently, by a silent majority in the country.

Last but not least, Vucic’ rhetorics talks to the guts of many Serbs. That strategy, quite old and not very innovative, shows that Vucic – as the same Milosevic – is also (or mainly?) the product of the culture of power in that country. Vucic’s political style is the answer to the fears and anxieties of his voters. But his methods are perceived as a punch in the stomach of freedom and democracy by some. I wouldn’t speculate too much about the next future.

Beáta Huszka, Assistant Professor, Eötvös Loránd University

Whether you can call this overplay is a matter of perspective, certainly Vucic running now for the post of president just shows how uncontested his power is in Serbia and in his Serbian Progressive Party. Effectively removing Nicolic from the presidency (which has happened practically by not supporting him for a second term) reveals that Vucic is in charge whether he is president or prime minister. In my opinion this move does not represent a qualitatively new turn of events but it just continuing ‘business as usual’, i.e. Vucic’s ongoing efforts of concentrating power in his own hands and moving the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction. It is ironic that he is managing to weaken democratic checks and balances on government power while making significant progress in EU integration. This is what Florian Bieber called the ‘new authoritarianism’ in the region characterised by governments presenting a pro-EU, reformist discourse at the surface while in reality keeping political control over the state administration and the judiciary, curtailing independent institutions, clamping down on media critical of the government and using the private, nominally independent media as mouthpieces. Unfortunately, the EU has been tolerating this deteriorating record of democracy and human rights as long as Serbia cooperated on the Kosovo issue.

Since the SNS won absolute majority in the general election in 2014, the governments that were formed since with Vucic as prime minister have demonstrated increasing intolerance towards any kind of criticism from the media, civil society, or independent institutions. Political pressure over judges, prosecutors, journalists is widespread in Serbia. The situation of media freedom has gradually worsened over the last few years. The government’s dominance in the media was well demonstrated by almost all major newspapers covering their front pages with advertisements for PM Vucic for their final editions before pre-election silence. Moreover, PM Vucic has now a record of using elections as a tool to translate his good results in opinion polls into parliamentary mandates in time. In April 2016, the third general elections were held in four years since 2012, the year of the last regular elections. The last two were snap elections in 2014 and 2016, called by the government in order to translate in a timely manner its good results in the opinion polls into parliamentary mandates. This time he is translating his government’s or rather his own popularity into winning the presidency.

The only question is why is it worth for him to exchange the more powerful position of the prime minister to the more ceremonial post of the president. Although he might hope to control also the government through a puppet like prime minister, in my opinion it might prove to be a risky move to give up control over the government.

 

 

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