For decades, presidential politics in parliamentary democracies were boring affairs — if popular elections were even held for the position, they typically featured technocrats or independents. Politicians, if they ran for what are mostly ceremonial presidencies, would be episodes that ended a successful political career.
That’s still generally the case in western Europe — presidents like former Labour firebrand Michael D. Higgins in Ireland, one-time foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Germany, and the charismatic communist Giorgio Napolitano in Italy all ended (or are ending) their political careers as figureheads.
But increasingly, in emerging democracies in eastern Europe, it’s becoming a power play for popular prime ministers to wage campaigns for a previously ceremonial presidency, using the ‘mandate’ of popular election as a bid to suffuse the presidency with far more than ceremonial power.
It is a gambit that’s worked in the Czech Republic and in Turkey, where presidents Miloš Zeman (since 2013) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (since 2014) have succeeded, to some degree, in shifting some power from the parliamentary branch of government to the presidential. The Czech Republic remains a parliamentary democracy, but Zeman, who is running for reelection in 2018, shrewdly took advantage of the country’s first direct presidential elections to carve a new role for the Czech presidency in domestic and foreign policymaking. Erdoğan not only won the Turkish presidency, but hopes to formalize constitutional changes to enshrine presidential power in a high-stakes April 16 referendum.
It failed in Slovakia, where sitting prime minister Robert Fico lost the 2014 presidential election to independent businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska. So it’s a power move that can sometimes backfire — Fico managed to remain Slovakian prime minister, but his center-left party dropped from 83 seats to 49 in the National Assembly in last March’s parliamentary elections after a swing of 16% away from Fico’s party.
There will be no such regrets for prime minister Aleksandar Vučić, who easily won a first-round victory with 55% of the vote among an 11-candidate field, cementing control of the Serbian government not only in the hands of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS), but, in particular, under the personal command of Vučić, who nudged incumbent Tomislav Nikolić to stand aside from a reelection bid in late February.
It will make Vučić even more powerful than Boris Tadić, a center-left and pro-EU leader who similarly dominated Serbian politics as president from 2004 to 2012. Though Nikolić narrowly defeated Tadić five years ago in a runoff, Vučić (and not Nikolić) held more sway over Serbian government over the last half-decade, increasing his grip on power over a series of three parliamentary elections between 2012 and 2016. Vučić’s presidential victory means that power is now likely to swing (once again) to the Novi Dvor, the Serbian presidential palace.
Over the next two months, as he prepares to take the presidential oath on May 31, Vučić, who remains prime minister for the time being, is likely to choose one of several cabinet members as his successor — leading names include two independents appointed by Vučić to his cabinet, finance minister Dušan Vujović or public administration minister Ana Brnabić (who would not only be Serbia’s first female prime minister, but its first openly lesbian one, too). Nikolić, over the weekend, hinted that he would retire from party politics altogether, which would seem to eliminate him as prime minister. Former justice minister Nikola Selaković, a rising star within the SNS, is also often mentioned. Continue reading Vučić easily wins presidential victory to consolidate power across Serbia’s government→
This weekend, Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić finalized a four-year consolidation of power in early parliamentary elections that delivered a landslide victory for his center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), giving him the mandate and the support to advance political and economic reforms that he hopes could one day result in Serbia’s accession as a member-state of the European Union.
In results late Sunday night, the SNS a wide lead over its nearest competitor, the center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије), which currently serves as the government’s junior coalition partner. The Socialist leader, Ivica Dačić, a former prime minister, currently serves as Vučić’s foreign minister. Several parties of the fragmented center-left and hard-right ultra-nationalist parties trail far behind in single digits. With just under 50% of the total vote on Sunday, the SNS can expect to have an absolute majority in Serbia’s unicameral, 250-seat National Assembly (Народна скупштина).
Vučic called the snap elections earlier this year, fully knowing how well his party was doing in the polls. Like it or not, Vučic and the former SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić, currently in his first term as president, will be directing Serbian policy through the end of the decade.
But Serbia is far from the only country in the Balkans that will vote this year, and Sunday’s vote kicks off what could become a season of electoral change across the region.
Unlike Serbia, where voters were happy to deliver Vučic the broad mandate he wanted, voters in the rest of the western Balkans are far less sanguine about their elected officials. Opposition politicians in Montenegro nearly ousted their long-serving prime minister earlier this year, though fresh elections are due before October. The twists and turns of a wiretapping scandal in Macedonia have reached fever pitch this week, with protesters marching against the government in Skopje, and a June 5 parliamentary election date is currently in doubt.
A region that still dreams of EU accession
The western Balkans are the last major region of Europe that has not yet been integrated into the European Union. With the possible exception of Turkey, it’s the final frontier of EU accession. Among the six (or seven, if you count Kosovo) countries that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia, only two of them have won EU member-state status, Slovenia and Croatia. They join only Albania in representing the western Balkans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The remaining Balkan states are in varying stages of their quests for accession:
Macedonia was granted candidate status back in 2005, but democratic and economic backsliding have stalled its membership push, not to mention its long-running spat with Greece over the name, ‘Macedonia,’ which Greeks consider to be an inaccurate appropriation of Greek culture and history.
Montenegro gained candidate status in December 2010, and negotiations are ongoing, though Montenegro has fully implemented just two of 33 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law required for all member-states.
The European Union granted Serbia candidate status in March 2012, negotiations kicked off in 2014 and Vučic is eager to conclude accession by the year 2020, though that remains incredibly optimistic.
Albania won candidate status in June 2014, and though its negotiations have yet to begin, prime minister Edi Rama, a former artist who charged to power in 2013, is an energetic center-left figure who’s worked closely with former British prime minister Tony Blair to develop a package of EU-friendly economic and political reforms.
Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership status in February 2016, but the European Union hasn’t yet granted it candidate status.
Given the existential threats that the European Union faces, hardly anyone outside the Balkans seems to have the stomach for what promises to be a difficult round of accession. The June 23 referendum in the United Kingdom on whether to leave the European Union remains too close to call, but its passage would be a major blow to the notion of ‘ever closer union.’ Much of southern Europe, most especially Greece, have still not recovered from the eurozone crisis that stretched the limits of EU financial, economic and monetary policy and that brought into question the future of the single currency. Meanwhile, the most acute refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has weakened the Schengen agreement by undermining the free movement of people within the European Union and the eradication of internal EU borders.
For current EU members, then, it may look like there’s precious little benefit in EU accession. But for the Balkan states, there remains enthusiasm that EU membership will force the kind of reforms that could reduce the crippling corruption that is, on general, worse in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe:
Balkans populations also hope that EU membership will also clear the path not only for reforms, but for the kind of funding that could allow them to catch up to the higher EU standard of living, which, not surprisingly lags far behind: With eventual EU membership — and the promise it brings of greater incomes and opportunities — dangling as a carrot, it’s no surprise that Vučic has amassed so much political power in Serbia and an impressive amount of respect among European leaders. But it’s that same dynamic that could lead to massive changes throughout the rest of the region, most notably in Montenegro and Macedonia.
Wiretaps and pardons
Eleven days ago, Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, all of whom were implicated in a wide-ranging wiretapping scandal that forced the country’s powerful prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, to resign in January. Beginning in the early 2010s, Gruevski and his government were found to have wiretapped illegally up to 20,000 Macedonians, opposition figures, journalists and even diplomats.
Ivanov, who announced a decree that would end all investigations into the wiretapping scandal, set off a constitutional crisis from what had already been a crisis of governance and the rule of law, and his announcements met with sharp disapproval from EU officials and Macedonia’s political opposition.
Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE (Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организација – Демократска партија за македонско национално единство; Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) has been in power since 2006. It easily won a fourth consecutive term in April 2014, though the election was hardly a fair fight.
Gruevski has spent much of the past decade stoking nationalist sentiment, which has antagonized Greece; for example, he erected an 11-foot high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. While the spat with Greece helped Gruevski, in part, to rally domestic support, it has only hardened Greek determination to block Macedonian membership not only in the European Union, but NATO as well. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s government has done little to introduce reforms to stem corruption or promote liberalization.
Macedonians now seem fed up with Gruevski’s empty promises and hollow rhetoric, to say nothing of the wiretapping shenanigans and his attempts to persuade Ivanov to pull the plug on the ongoing investigations.
Elections were set for June 5, but the government, fearing a rout, may try to postpone them. A meeting scheduled earlier today in Vienna among EU leaders and Macedonia’s political leaders was cancelled, even as the intensity of Macedonia’s protesters increases.
Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s opposition leader and the head of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM, Социјалдемократски сојуз на Македонија), was instrumental in revealing the extent of the wiretapping scandal, though only after Gruevski tried to have Zaev jailed for allegedly attempting to illegally toppling the government.
For years, Zaev has opposed Gruevski’s nationalist showmanship and denounced the government’s flashy development projects as wasteful vanity spending. Now, with Ivanov’s announcement to suspend the wiretapping scandal that Zaev himself helped to reveal, the opposition leader has joined the front lines of the protesters. There’s a sense that he could soon be leading the country, though he pledged earlier this month to boycott elections without additional reforms to guarantee political freedom and a free and fair electoral process. An original plan to hold elections in April has already been postponed once to June and could well be delayed again.
Negotiations over the conduct and timing of the Macedonian elections are just the beginning of what could become an even more tumultuous year. If Zaev and an opposition coalition forces VMRO-DPMNE from power, no one knows exactly how willingly Gruevski and his allies will concede. Moreover, from day one, a Zaev-led government would be locked in a high-stakes battle with Ivanov to reinstate the wiretapping investigation.
Đukanović’s last stand?
Though it officially won its independence from Serbia only in June 2006, Milo Đukanović has controlled Montenegro like a personal fiefdom since 1991, when he was first elected prime minister. Đukanović has held power, on and off, ever since.
Polls show that Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS, Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore) hold a wide lead in elections that have to be called within the next six months. But that belies the frustration that’s built for a quarter-century with Đukanović and his family, whose opponents argue that they run Montenegro as their own personal duchy of corruption.
As in Serbia, Montenegro’s opposition is even more split today than it was in the last election. The conservative opposition Democratic Front (Demokratski front) did poorly in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and its leader Miodrag Lekić narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election. Last year, however, Lekić left the party to form Democratic Alliance (DEMOS, Demokratski savez), a competing center-right party.
In December, however, Đukanović only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in Montenegro’s unicameral, 81-member parliament (Skupština Crne Gore), following widespread protests that began in October over longstanding suspicions of Đukanović’s corruption. Protesters demanded his resignation and a transitional government; Đukanović himself spent half of the 2000s fending off a criminal inquiry into corruption from an Italian prosecutor. Đukanović’s long-time allies, the Social Democratic Party (Socijaldemokratska Partija Crne Gore), left government for the first time since 1998.
Đukanović has hoped that Montenegro’s relatively strong economy and a general trend toward liberalization will distract from his critics’ worst allegations. Moreover, Montenegrins will go to the polls as he pursues the country’s accession to NATO after formally opening talks in February. It’s a step that has appalled Moscow, which still holds plenty of economic and cultural power in the western Balkans, despite the region’s aspirations to integrate further with the rest of Europe.
Đukanović, who is only 54 years old, seems unlikely to take the opportunity of 2016 elections to step down. But it’s not inconceivable that, despite Montenegro’s more successful strides toward NATO and, eventually, EU accession, he too will face the kind of popular wrath that is now greeting Gruevski across Macedonia.
On Sunday, Serbians will go to the polls nearly two years before the current government’s term ends.
The results are hardly in doubt.
Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić is basically guaranteed to return to power by a wide margin, according to nearly every poll taken since the last election. His party, the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), already leads a coalition that enjoys a firm majority in Serbia’s unicameral National Assembly (Народна скупштина).
Originally due by March 2018, Vučić called snap elections in March in a bid to build an even more powerful majority. Vučić argues that a fresh mandate will give his government the space to push Serbia ever closer toward European integration; critics argue that’s a fig leaf to disguise a Vučić power grab, an attempt to squeeze the Serbian political opposition into powerlessness.
Despite problems with self-censorship in the press, Reporters without Borders ranks Serbia 59th in its 2016 press freedom rankings — that’s better than EU members Croatia, Hungary and Italy. Neighboring countries fare far worse — Kosovo ranks 90th, Montenegro ranks 106 and Macedonia ranks 118, just higher than Afghanistan.
With increasingly illiberal figures like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán thumbing their nose at European Union leaders, Vučić’s rise isn’t without its anxieties.
That’s especially true for the United States and Europe, both of whom have an interest in a country of 7 million that remains, economically and culturally, the anchor of the Balkans region, though Serbia itself shares an alphabet, similar language and a religion with Russia. Serbia is dependent upon Russia for natural gas, as well as a market for exports. In recent years, Vučić has shown that he’s willing to turn to Moscow and other surprising allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, for help when European leaders proved too slow.
That means that the European Union, despite its existential troubles, can’t afford to keep Serbians waiting indefinitely for membership.
Regardless, if polls are correct, Vučić will complete a four-year, three-election cycle that brings the SNS the most powerful domestic government in Serbia’s history following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Regionally, the Serbian vote takes place in the context of a year of explosive potential as Macedonia and Montenegro are also set to go to the polls amid tense political climates.
A pathway to Serbian political dominance
In July 2012, the SNS narrowly defeated the center-left, liberal Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) by a margin of 24.1% to 22.1%, following eight years of Democratic Party dominance in Serbia that smoothed the country’s transition from war-torn pariah to EU aspirant.
At the same time, Serbia’s two-term president Boris Tadić also lost his office to SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić. Once more sympathetic to Russia than to the rest of Europe, Nikolić and his acolyte, Vučić, quickly embraced the cause of EU accession. They made a deal with the nationalist, center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS) to take power, even though that meant making the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, once a protégé of strongman Slobodan Milošević (who founded the SPS), Serbia’s new prime minister.
What is past is always present in politics. But that’s especially acute in the case of Serbia, because Nikolić, Vučić and Dačić all began their political lives on the ultranationalist right. Today, however, the three Serbian leaders have (so far, at least) transcended the bitter wars of the 1990s, using the reward of EU accession as a rationale not only to implement IMF-style economic reforms but to make genuine efforts to extradite suspected war criminals from the 1990s and to pacify relations with neighbors, most especially Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.
The government performed adequately, however. Neither Nikolić nor Vučić made a harsh turn away from the strong EU relations that the Democratic Party nurtured, nor did Dačić suddenly revert to 1990s era ultranationalism. Dačić led the push to open formal negotiations with the European Union for Serbian accession. However begrudgingly, the Dačić government engaged Kosovo over talks about the breakaway region’s international status.
In early 2014, Vučić, then minister of defense, saw an opportunity for the SNS to take power in its own right, and he essentially forced Dačić to call early elections.
It wasn’t a difficult decision, politically, because it instantly made Vučić the most powerful figure in Serbia.
The SNS won easily with 48.4% of the vote and 158 of the 250 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The second-placed SPS, which would continue in coalition as a junior member, with Dačić serving as Vučić’s new minister of foreign affairs, won 13.5%. The Democratic Party, suffering from a divide between its new leader, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas and Tadić, the future president, who ultimately left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDS, Социјалдемократска странка). The divide was fatal to Serbia’s democratic center-left, however, because the Democratic Party won just 6.0% and the Tadić-led SDS won just 5.7%.
Bracing for an even larger mandate?
Again, for the next two years, the government performed adequately. Low GDP growth was still strong enough for the unemployment rate to continue declining (though it’s still precariously close to 20%), and Vučić nuzzled ever closer to EU advisors with the hope of advancing negotiations one step closer to EU membership. For now, Vučić hasn’t particularly weakened Serbian democracy on his own, with the kind of anti-liberal steps that Hungary or Poland have taken, though the internal troubles of the opposition may make it seem otherwise. Indeed, Serbia has welcomed refugees in the face of a deluge of Syrians and others on European shores, the largest wave of migrants to Europe since World War II.
Russian president Vladimir Putin travel to Belgrade on Thursday with a warm welcome from Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić (pictured above, left, with Putin) with parades and fanfare.
Even as a shaky ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian eastern separatists limps forward, US and European policymakers continue to keep a wary eye on the Baltic states and Ukraine. Just over a month ago in Tallinn, US president Barack Obama disabused Putin that NATO would flinch in its response to any Russian attack against any of the Baltic states.
Russian aggression may have nudged Latvian voters into reelecting a center-right government otherwise unpopular after a half-decade of economic malaise and budget austerity, and Russian relations are certain to play a vital role in Ukraine’s snap parliamentary elections in less than two weeks.
Nevertheless, Western strategists may be overlooking Putin’s ability to undermine both EU and NATO resolve through the Achilles’ heel of southeastern Europe by leveraging economic, political and cultural influence in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. While it’s hard to believe that Russia would assume the economic burdens of annexing large swaths of eastern Ukraine and even harder to believe that it would risk World War III by invading Russian-majority territory in Estonia, Russia could easily, quietly and gradually maximize its influence within southern Europe, a region that continues to suffer inordinately from the fallout of the global financial and eurozone debt crises.
Earlier this month, Bulgarian voters went to the polls for the second time in just 17 months. They elected a fragmented National Assembly, though the former pro-European, center-right prime minister Boyko Borissov is likely to return to power with a minority government. One of the first decisions he will have to make is whether to proceed with the South Stream natural gas pipeline, which would carry Russian energy through Bulgaria and to Austria, Hungary and elsewhere in southern Europe. The pipeline is one of the reasons, in fact, that the previous center-left coalition government fell earlier this summer. Continue reading Beware Putin’s southern European, soft-power front→
While most of the world fixes on Crimea’s sham referendum and the growing standoff between Russia and the United States, an arguably far more important vote took place in another country on Sunday with strong ties to both the European Union and Russia — Serbia.
It’s difficult to imagine that the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка) could have done much better. Following Sunday’s vote, the Progressives will control 158 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly (Народна скупштина).
It also means that Aleksandar Vučić who served as minister of defense and first deputy prime minister in the previous government, will almost certainly become Serbia’s next prime minister.
What’s more, he will also become Serbia’s most powerful leader since the fall of Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milošević in 2000 — and potentially, the most powerful leader in the Balkans since Milošević.
Not only does Vučić (pictured above) have the luxury of an absolute majority in the National Assembly, it will be the first time since 2000 that the Serbian right simultaneously controls both the government and the presidency. Vučić comes to power with an ambitious agenda and if he succeeds, he could restore the high-growth economy of the early 2000s and nudge Serbia on a firm path into the European Union. Continue reading Who is Aleksandar Vučić? Serbia’s next prime minister.→
Although everyone expected the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка) to win Serbia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, no one quite expected the Progressives to win such a stunning mandate — the first time in the post-Milošević era that a single party won an outright majority in the Serbian parliament.
Although the Progressives went into Sunday’s election with the largest bloc of seats in the 250-member National Assembly (Народна скупштина), the fluke of the previous elections in May 2012 left the Progressives stuck in coalition with the center-left, nationalist Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), and the Socialist leader Ivica Dačić as prime minister instead of a Progressive prime minister.
Back in 2012, the Progressives were unwilling to enter into coalition with the center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS), and Progressive leader Tomislav Nikolić had just defeated Serbian president Boris Tadić, ending eight years of Tadić-led, Democratic government. That gave Dačić, whose Socialists finished a surprisingly high third-place in the 2012 elections, the power to decide whether he would enter government with Progressives or with the Democrats.
After weeks of negotiations, Dačić chose the Progressives. The price for the Progressives was to allow Dačić to become prime minister.
Dačić’s record isn’t incredibly poor — he presided over the official opening of accession talks for Serbia’s ultimate entry into the European Union, his corresponding efforts to integrate Serbia into mainstream Europe have brought Serbia and Kosovo closer to a long-term settlement over Kosovo’s status (and Kosovo’s own future European integration), and the Serbian economy is doing better than it was two years ago, despite a broader push of austerity measures over the 21-month government.
But with polls showing the Progressives with such a wide lead, and with the Serbian left divided between supporters of Tadić and supporters of former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas, the tail-wags-the-dog world of a Socialist-led government made increasingly little sense to top SNS leaders, most especially Aleksandar Vučić, the first deputy prime minister who is now set to become Serbia’s prime minister for the next four years. Even before the Progressives essentially demanded snap elections in January, Vučić and his young, Yale-educated finance minister Lazar Krstic were setting more government policy than Dačić.
Sunday’s election was a landslide for Vučić and the SNS, which outpolled its nearest competitor, Dačić’s SPS, by more than a 3-to-1 margin. Đilas’s Democrats won just 6% of the vote, and Tadić, leading the alternative center-left bloc, the New Democratic Party/Greens (NDS, Нова демократска странка — Зелени), won just 5.7% and 18 seats.
Vučić now seems free to push through an ambitious agenda of economic liberalization, including a new bankruptcy law, a looser labor law, an anti-corruption push and accelerated privatization of state industries — with the goal of unleashing a stronger Serbian economy as well as bringing Serbia’s laws and economic policy closer in line with mainstream EU policy. Although the Progressives will control an absolute majority in the Serbian parliament, Vučić may yet try to bring one or more of the decimated opposition parties into a wider, reform-minded coalition. Continue reading Serbian Progressives win huge victory, majority in National Council→
The global media’s attention this weekend will be fixed on Crimea, where a status referendum is almost certainly likely to result in its annexation into the Russian Federation.
But the world’s attention should be on Serbia, which is holding snap elections on March 16 — the same day as the Crimean referendum. Serbia’s parliamentary elections come just two months after formally opening negotiations to join the European Union, a landmark step in what’s been a decade-long push for greater Serbian-EU integration.
When political commentators tell you that Ukraine is the frontier of the European Union, they’re right that European policymakers have both an economic and security interest in Ukraine’s stability.
But the true frontier of the European Union is the Balkans, and no country is more vital to the future political and economic stability of the region than Serbia, home to over 7 million residents, the most populous of the Balkan states.
Polls show that the outcome of Sunday’s election is almost certain — a wider majority for the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), which as a member of the current coalition government, is working to tackle corruption, liberalize and privatize sectors of the Serbian economy and bring Serbian budget closer to balance — all while the country faces unsteady economic growth and an unemployment rate of 20%.
Notwithstanding the real economic pain today in Serbia, none of that matters as much as the fact of Serbian continuity with respect to European integration. Though Serbia’s formal accession may take up to a decade, Serbia seems certain to become either the 29th member (or the 30th member, following Montenegro) of the European Union. What’s more, the most significant fact of Serbian political life in the past two years has been the durability of the national commitment, across all major political parties and ideologies, to Serbia’s eventual EU membership.
Think back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Or to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that marked the civil war among Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs between 1992 and 1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Or to the Serbian aggression over Kosovo that led to NATO military action against Belgrade in 1998-99 and the emergence of the semi-independent Kosovo today. Or to the dictatorship of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević from 1987 until 2000, with full-throated support from Moscow.
Though it’s something that we take for granted in the year 2014, it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Serbia today would be so united in its push to turn economically and socially toward Europe.
It wasn’t even so clear in 2012.
Nikolić and Dačić: an unlikely pair of EU champions
In the last parliamentary elections in May 2012, the SNS won the greatest number of seats (73) in Serbia’s 250-member National Assembly (Народна скупштина), and the SNS’s Tomislav Nikolić, running for the fifth time, narrowly won the Serbian presidency over incumbent Boris Tadić, whose center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) had governed Serbia since 2004. Tadić, throughout the 2000s, laid the groundwork for greater cooperation with the European Union.
When Tadić lost power in July 2012, no one knew whether Nikolić and the Serbian Progressives would pursue EU cooperation with the same zeal as the Democrats had. Nikolić (pictured above, right, with EU foreign affairs high representative Catherine Ashton, middle, and prime minister Ivica Dačić, left) long favored Russia over the European Union, and his first trip abroad as president was to Moscow, where he declared in September 2012, ‘The only thing I love more than Russia is Serbia.’ Continue reading The most important EU success story you’ve never heard? Serbia.→
As Serbia takes another step closer to joining the European Union, its government is headed to snap elections on March 16, with the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка) of president Tomislav Nikolić hoping to replace prime minister Ivica Dačić with its own leader, Aleksandar Vučić, after just 18 months since Dačić took office.
Dačić and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије) emerged in the May 2012 parliamentary elections as the surprisingly strong third-place winners. That gave Dačić and the SPS the power to determine whether the new government would comprise an alliance with Nikolić’s center-right Progressives or the center-left Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) of former president Boris Tadić. Nikolić, on his fifth attempt to win the presidency, edged out Tadić in the May 2012 presidential runoff, bringing Tadić’s eight-year tenure to an end.
As the kingmaker for Serbia’s next government, Dačić (pictured above, right, with Nikolić, left) decided to crown himself king — and Dačić became prime minister, though his Socialists, with 44 seats in Serbia’s 250-member National Assembly (Народна скупштина), were technically the junior partner in coalition with the Progressives, which hold 73 seats. (The Democrats currently hold 67, and three more minor parties each hold between 16 and 21 seats).
The Dačić-led government oversaw an economic recovery — a 1.7% contraction in 2012 transformed into an estimated 2.4% expansion in 2013. In any event, there’s no doubt that the Serbian economy has marked a definite improvement. Though unemployment remains high at around 20%, it’s fallen from a high of around 25.5% in early 2012.
Moreover, Serbia achieved significant progress on EU membership, with negotiations opening earlier this month and ongoing EU-brokered negotiations on the fragile relationship over the future status of Kosovo, despite concerns in 2012 that Nikolić and the Progressives have historically been closer to Russia than to western Europe and wary of EU accession. The EU talks will rank among the top issues in the election campaign, including the reform program that Brussels requires as a prelude to membership, which could significantly boost the Serbian economy.
But a year and a half into government, Nikolić and the Progressives believe the time has come for Vučić to assume the premiership — and polls show that Serbians agree. With a fresh mandate, Vučić will push forward with the EU negotiations, and there’s a chance that a new Progressive-led administration work with the IMF for a package of guarantees to reduce lending costs.
A Faktor poll last week showed that 42.1% of Serbia’s electorate support the Progressives, while just 13.9% support the Democrats and 10.5% support Dačić’s Socialists. Two other parties achieve significant support: the eurosceptic, conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS, Демократска странка Србије), led by Vojislav Koštunica, Serbia’s president from 2000 to 2003 and prime minister from 2004 and 2008, would win 6.8%; and the free-market liberal, centrist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, Либерално-демократска партија), led by Čedomir Jovanović and several former Democratic Party members, would win 5%.
Vučić, who became the leader of the Progressive Party in May 2012, serves as the first deputy prime minister, and from July 2012 to August 2013, he also served as Serbia’s defense minister. As the head of the largest party in government, however, he holds more de facto power that Dačić. As the Progressive Party leader, he’s taken a strong stance against corruption, and he has played a central role in negotiations with respect to Serbia’s accession to the European Union. As a member of the once-dominant Serbian Radical Party, Vučić served as minister of information in the late 1990s, when at the young age of age 28, he was responsible for assessing fines against journalists who criticised the government and Serbian president Slobodan Milošević — a stance he has recanted today. Continue reading Serbian government pushes forward with early elections→
Serbia’s new government is set to take office next Monday.
It will be led by Ivica Dačić, the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), the nationalist, center-left party that finished a surprisingly strong third place in May’s parliamentary elections.
The SPS is perhaps most notorious for being the party that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević himself founded in the 1990s. But Dačić, who has been a fixture in Serbian politics since the post-Milošević era, and has previously served as interior minister, has worked to pull his party back into the Serbian mainstream and has vowed that his government will not mark a return to the 1990s.
His government comes after a Hamlet-esque back-and-forth in choosing a coalition partner. Dačić’s ultimate choice was to form a rather unexpected coalition with the nationalist center-right Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS). In the May elections, the SNS emerged as a narrow winner — it won a plurality of seats in Serbia’s parliament and its presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolić defeated incumbent Boris Tadić. Tadić had served as president since 2004 and leads the pro-western, center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) that has essentially governed Serbia since the fall of Milošević. Continue reading What can we expect from Serbia’s new Dačić-led government?→
UPDATE, May 24: It seems that a rumored SPS-SNS coalition is unlikely, from the words of SPS leader Ivica Dačić himself:
“The story in public that the DS and SNS are being blackmailed is made up and it only serves as an alibi for the fact that there still are no negotiations about the forming of the government,” [Ivica Dačić] added.
President-elect Tomislav Nikolić’s Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS) may well now have a chance at being part of Serbia’s government as well, leaving former president Boris Tadić firmly in retirement, not the frontrunner for prime minister.
In no uncertain terms, the most important man in Serbia today is Ivica Dačić.
With recently defeated Serbian president Boris Tadić likely to become prime minister, and with his center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) almost certain to control the government, as it has since 2000, Serbia’s domestic policy is unlikely to change much (somewhat curiously, as I discussed earlier), despite a very different president in Tomislav Nikolić.
But on foreign policy, Nikolić will have a more amorphous — and powerful — hand, as Serbia begins to mark the first transfer of real power from pro-Western, liberal progressive forces that have controlled its government in the 12 years since Serbia was the chief pariah state of Europe. The one-time ultranationalist Nikolić will have won the presidency just two months after Serbia became an official candidate for membership in the European Union and just two years after Kosovo — populated mainly with ethnic Albanians, but also a significant population of Serbs in the north — declared its independence (yet to be recognized by the United Nations) in 2010.
Nikolić — who was running for the fifth time — won Sunday’s runoff with 51.12% to just 48.88% for Tadić, who had served as president since 2004. In the prior May 6 vote, Tadić had won 25.31% to just 25.05 for Nikolić.
Despite the fact that Nikolić’s party, the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS), narrowly won the most seats in the simultaneous May 6 parliamentary elections, Tadić ‘s left-wing Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) has been in coalition talks with the third-place Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), which will continue notwithstanding Nikolić’s victory.
The result, however curious, would be to block the new president’s party from government, notwithstanding the fact that the SNS won the greatest number of votes on May 6 and Nikolić won a direct runoff against Tadić — who now seems likely to become prime minister.
In the event that Tadić had won the presidential runoff, it seemed likely that the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, might become prime minister.
The DS, in coalition with various partners, has essentially controlled Serbia’s government since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000. The prime minister has much more power than the president in setting domestic policy. Although he is seen as more nationalist than Tadić, Nikolić pledged during the campaign that his presidency would mark continuity with Serbia’s integration into the European Union.
Just days after protesting election fraud in the first round of Serbia’s presidential and parliamentary elections two weeks ago, Tomislav Nikolić of the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS) has won the Serbian presidential runoff today, ousting incumbent Boris Tadić of the center-left / progressive Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS), who has been Serbia’s president since 2004 and who was seeking a third term on Sunday.
Preliminary results gave Nikolić around 49.7% of today’s vote, to just 47.1 for Tadić — if the result holds up and Nikolić becomes president, it will be the first transfer of the Serbian presidency from one party to another party in Serbia since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000 — in many ways, the 2012 election was Serbia’s first ‘normal’ post-Milošević election, in which the campaign revolved not around foreign policy and the ghosts of Serbia’s past, but rather focused on Serbia’s sagging economy, the falling value of the dinar, Serbia’s currency, and unemployment rates nearing a continent-high of 25%.
In the first round on May 6, Tadić finished with 25.31%, followed closely by Nikolić with 25.03%. In each of the past two presidential elections, Nikolić had lost to Tadić, and Tadić seemed likely to triumph again today. Nikolić had also contested earlier presidential elections in 2000 and in 2003.
Nikolić’s SNS had won the greatest number of seats in Serbia’s parliament on May 6, but look to remain in the opposition after Tadić’s DS has made a preliminary agreement to form a coalition with the third-place leftist/nationalist Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS.
So what can Serbia expect with longtime opposition figure Nikolić as its new president?
Given that the DS will now still largely control domestic policymaking in Serbia, and given the endorsement of Tadić by several other Serbian party leaders, including the SPS’s Ivica Dačić, it had seemed that the momentum was with Tadić, if just narrowly.
On Europe, Nikolić has spent much of his campaign convincing voters that is really, truly pro-Europe, despite a career in which Serbia’s new president has often seemed more comfortable looking to the east rather than to the west. Although the DS has steered Serbia toward a very pro-European course — Serbia became an official candidate for European Union membership just in March 2012 — both the SNS and the even more nationalist SPS (the SPS was once Milošević’s party) have pledged not to pull Serbia off its course for EU membership.
In the parliamentary election, the more nationalist center-right Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS) finished first in parliamentary elections, followed closely by the longtime governing center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS). The largest surprise, however, was the strength of the third-place winner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), the one-time party of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, but now a nationalist, but firmly pro-EU center-left party in Serbia.
In the presidential race, President Boris Tadić (the DS candidate, pictured above) finished first with 25.31%, followed closely by the SNS candidate, Tomislav Nikolić at 25.03%. Nikolić is running for the third time against Tadić, who has been Serbia’s president since 2004. The SPS candidate, Ivica Dačić, won 14.23%.
In the meanwhile, the official results of the parliamentary elections saw the SNS win 73 seats on 24.04% of the vote, the DS win 67 seats on 22.11% of the vote and the SPS win 44 seats on 14.53% of the vote, as predicted by early returns.
Three other parties will have significant representation in the National Assembly as well:
Former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia will hold 21 seats on 7.00% of the vote.
The “Turnover” / “U-Turn” coalition of various parties, competing for the first time in 2012, will hold 19 seats on 6.52% of the vote. The coalition features the Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader Čedomir Jovanović served as deputy prime minister briefly in 2003-04.
The United Regions of Serbia coalition, centered around the pro-decentralization, center-right G17 Plus party (whose leader Mlađan Dinkić has served as minister of finance and deputy prime minister in past coalition governments from 2004 to 2011), won 16 seats on 5.49% of the vote.
Dačić last week announced he would support a coalition government headed by the DS (and not the SNS), which makes it likely that Dačić could become prime minister. Although the two parties hold 117 seats in the National Assembly, they will have to include other small parties, most likely the pro-business United Regions of Serbia group, in order to achieve a majority.
As voters in France and Greece upended the pro-austerity front of the European Union Sunday, elections in Serbia confirmed the normalization of a country that just two decades ago was one of the most dangerous belligerents in the world.
Serbia went to the polls Sunday for both presidential and parliamentary elections in what is being billed as the first normalized election since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000. Although the new government is not yet clear, it will be certain to be a pro-European government dedicated to furthering Serbia’s candidacy — formally granted in March — as a member of the European Union.
In the presidential election, incumbent Boris Tadić finished first with around 26.7% of the vote, with Tomislav Nikolić just behind with around 25.5%. The two will face off in a runoff vote to be held on May 20. Tadić, a member of the center-left / progressive Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) that has governed Serbia since the fall of Milošević, was first elected president in 2004 and is seeking a third term. Tadić has twice defeated Nikolić in prior presidential elections, with just over 53% in 2004 and just over 50% in 2008. Nikolić is a member of the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS).
Although the SPS is more pro-Russia than the DS, it has worked to convince Serbian voters that it backs the country’s EU membership. Indeed, Nick Thorpe writes for the BBC that the “old split between pro-European and pro-Russian parties, is over,” with most major parties supporting EU membership.
Instead of East-West foreign policy orientation, the election has turned on dissatisfaction with the DS amid Serbia’s poor economic performance. Unemployment has jumped to over 24%, while economic growth has stalled to near-recession levels in 2012. Serbia’s public debt has ballooned and its currency, the dinar, has lost 30% in value.
In the parliamentary elections, Nikolić’s SNS emerged with the largest vote, with 24% to just 22% for Tadić’s DS — although the SNS had been projected to win the election, its margin was expected to be wider. The election’s big surprise was the success of the Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), which won a strong third-place finish with 14.5%. The SPS, a vaguely leftist and vaguely nationalist party that Milošević himself founded, will now become the kingmaker in Serbian parliamentary politics. SNS is projected to win 73 seats in the 250-seat national assembly, with 67 seats for the DS and 44 seats for the SPS.
The SPS leader, Ivica Dačić, a one-time ally of Milošević , has worked to pull the SPS back into the mainstream of Serbian politics in the post-Milošević era. Dačić is now widely seen as the likeliest candidate for prime minister, in either a coalition with the DS or with the SPS. Dačić has said that he wants to hold talks first with the DS. Dačić finished third in the presidential election, with around 17%, and his endorsement may well be decisive in that rade as well.
Final results are expected to be announced on Thursday.