Parliamentary elections were held in Serbia on 24 April. They were the third in four years and were called less than two years after the previous ones in conditions where the Serbian Progressive Party had an absolute majority in parliament. Europe Insight has figured out the reasons making the prime minister and ruling coalition leader, Aleksandar Vučić, take it to elections.
The opposition was resoundingly defeated in the 2014 elections. The Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) and its allies won 158 out of 250 seats in parliament. Nevertheless, within a year Bojan Pajtić’s Democratic Party and Sulejman Ugljanin’s Party of Democratic Action of Sandžak began demanding Aleksandar Vučić’s resign and hold early elections. Their main argument was that the head of the government had, supposedly, brought the country into a dreadful state of affairs and degrading circumstances both economically and on the world stage.
At that moment, both opposition parties had 22 seats in parliament (Narodna skupština). Despite the unconcealed weakness of these voices, their calls appeared to have struck a chord of some sort in the ruling coalition. In the summer and autumn of 2015, various statements made by SPP politicians regarding the possibility of early elections as soon as spring were regularly discussed in the media.
In the end, the elections were announced in January. 60 movements and parties participated, only eight of them running independently, with the rest combining into 12 voting blocs.
The main hopes of the current government’s critics were placed in the traditional and new opposition – Democratic Party and its electoral bloc, the new liberal party Enough is Enough, the patriotic and eurosceptic bloc Dveri – Democratic Party of Serbia, and the ultraliberal alliance For a Better Serbia. Separately, there was also the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, led by Vojislav Šešelj acquitted in the the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on the eve of the elections. They all were supposed to draw electorate from the SPP and its allies.
However, the absolutely eclectic coalition Serbia is Winning, led by Aleksandar Vučić and the SPP, was the favourite from the very beginning. It included nine different political parties, so, unsurprisingly, it encompassed social activist slogans with an admixture of nationalism, and liberal reforms, and statism. The main idea was remaining on the European path.
From a political point of view, the Serbian Progressive Party possessed an absolutely unshakeable superiority in parliament not only over its individual rivals but also over all of them combined. From an economic perspective, in December 2015, the IMF mission had given a positive assessment of the country’s economic outlook and the authorities’ efforts.
This is why it was not initially obvious why the SPP would go for early elections. Up until and during the election campaign, timid attempts were made in the camp of the ruling coalition to explain the decision. It was heard that this was being done in order to strengthen citizens’ and the European Union’s confidence in the country’s European choice, as well as the government’s economic policy – to force the opposition to respect the choice of the people.
However, these words did not find the wide-scale understanding that they anticipated. On the contrary, in the EU there were very many who were extremely sceptical and even critical of holding early elections in Serbia. There was a whole contingent of media outlets and experts – using the exact same words like carbon copies – who saw this as an attempt by Aleksandar Vučić to shore up his personal power. This specific conclusion can be found in the London School of Economics blog and at openDemocracy and Radio Liberty, while Politico wrote about the “fear of authoritarianism”.
Meanwhile, the editor of the LSE blog , Tena Prelec, recognised that the Serbian Progressive Party’s current position is “something most western ruling formations can only dream of”. So then why hold early elections if you already have everything, if you can pass virtually any law, and bring practically any project into realisation?
When you have a dream
Aleksandar Vučić reiterates in every interview that EU accession is Serbia’s most important foreign policy priority. But this is more than a question of foreign affairs. Joining the EU is also the main domestic political test. All of the reforms that have been implemented in the country over the past few years have been towards this purpose.
The main issues, the so-called chapters of the acquis, through which the European Union evaluates the country’s candidacy and identifies areas where reforms are necessary (35 in total), are currently open or await opening. The Serbian authorities have repeatedly emphasised their great wish to fulfil all of the requirements. The problem, however, lies in the fact that to realise them in practice the country must amend the Constitution heavily while staying within the legal framework.
In an interview with the Balkan online TV channel N1, law professor Vesna Rakić Vodinelić explained that several major changes will have to be simultaneously introduced to the Basic Law. First of all, changing the definition of the country (article I) so that no single nationality has special status. Secondly, changing the principles of the organisation of the judicial system. Thirdly, reforming parliament. (A reduction in the number of deputies is expected.) And fourthly, resolving the contested statuses of Vojvodina, Kosovo and Metohija.
The problem is that it would take an immense effort to amend the Serbian Constitution. Perhaps, as the publication Politico wrote, over 85% of the votes indeed went to the parties publically advocating the European path, but each of them has its own vision about how it should happen.
For this reason, it is no simple task for the SPP to come to an agreement with the other parties. The degree of support for the EU in society just does not materialise in the merging of political parties’ forces, and without this, it will be very difficult to carry out constitutional reforms. According to article 203 of the constitution, changes to the constitution require the approval of no less than two-thirds of the parliamentary deputies; and in cases of amending the preamble and a number of other sections, the changes must also be confirmed by referendum.
In early April, the prime minister promised that, regardless of the election results, a broad coalition will be formed for the purpose of accelerating the reforms’ implementation. However, it is difficult to argue that the presence of two-thirds from one coalition would significantly ease negotiations with other parties or political reforms.
On the other hand, along with the calculations on the balance of forces, the time factor can also be subtly discerned in the desire to conduct early elections. In one of the interviews, Vučić suggested the constitution could be changed in two or three years’ time. It is expected that Serbia can accede to the EU by 2020. So the 2016 elections appear to have given him the unique opportunity not only to realise all of the slated tasks on his own, without successors, but also to be at the head of the government at precisely the moment the country is to be brought into the EU.