Amidst a deteriorating economic environment, the Serbian electorate goes to the polls on May 6th with issues such as jobs and prosperity trumping those of Kosovo and the EU.
By Ian Bancroft
Serbia faces simultaneous presidential, parliamentary, provincial and local elections on 6th May; elections that will reflect the evolution in political attitudes and orientations since 2008. With a consensus on EU membership having emerged amongst the country’s political elites, the main sparring points concern not the issue of Kosovo, but rather economic and social reforms; particularly the respective parties’ ability to create jobs and attract foreign investment. Though campaigning has been largely negative, with a lack of substantive policy debate and lingering concerns about media control, the elections represent another important step for the normalization of Serbian politics and democracy.
Like elsewhere in Europe, the incumbent coalition government – led by Democratic Party (DS) of Serbian president, Boris Tadić – faces an electoral challenge fuelled by deep dissatisfaction with rising unemployment. Its main opposition comes from the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) – headed by the former deputy-leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolić – which has been leading the DS in the polls throughout by a margin of three-to-four percentage points. Tadić’s decision to voluntarily resign as president and stand for re-election was prompted by his considerable personal popularity amongst the Serbian electorate, plus the higher turnout that presidential elections tend to attract, which it was felt would boost the DS’s electoral chances. It is also likely that Tadić wanted to avoid a further ratcheting-up of EU conditionality, particularly with respect to Kosovo, had he seen out the remainder of his term.
The core of the campaign has focused upon the contender’s respective credibility on delivering jobs and improvements in living standards. Whilst the DS platform is firmly grounded in securing further progress towards EU membership (Serbia was awarded candidate status in early-March, but awaits a date to start negotiations) as the basis for future prosperity, the SNS has aimed to feed off the discontent created by four years of abject economic performance. The former has been further challenged by Europe’s own economic crisis and growing scepticism as to whether it really does provide a source of future prosperity, whilst the latter has struggled to persuade that it offers a viable alternative.
The elections will be followed almost immediately by long and arduous rounds of coalition negotiations involving much hard bargaining and trading, including of public offices and institutions. As in 2008, the Socialist Part of Serbia (SPS), headed by Ivica Dačić – the current interior minister and a former spokesperson during the Slobodan Milošević regime – will again play the role of kingmaker. The price extracted for his support, however, is bound to rise, including a possible bid for the post of prime minister. Dačić’s negotiating scope will also depend upon the relative performance of the other remaining parties, such as the Preokret or ‘U-turn’ coalition (led by the Liberal Democratic Party), the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) – which advocates a policy of neutrality towards both NATO and the EU – and even the largely depleted Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Even a grand SNS-DS coalition – a so-called government of national unity – cannot be entirely excluded, though neither has entertained the prospect to date.
Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008, has been an inescapable part of the now long-drawn out campaign; not as a key electoral issue – both the main parties lack clear policies for resolving the challenges ahead – but as a dilemma about whether Serbian elections should take place there or not. Whilst a compromise has been reached whereby the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will provide logistical support to allow Serbs in Kosovo to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections, escalating tensions have prompted NATO to deploy an additional 700 peacekeepers. Serbs in the disputed north of Kosovo, who held a referendum earlier this year rejecting Pristina’s institutions, have vowed to conduct elections – including for local municipalities – regardless of Belgrade or the international community.
Whilst elections in the Balkans are always a source of great conjecture, the latest Serbian elections will prove less decisive than those of previous years. The demise of the Serbian Radical Party and the rise of the SNS is the most manifest example of the reconstitution of Serbian politics. The new consensus is both Europe and Kosovo; the question remains as to how much of the latter will be sacrificed in order to pursue the former. With the former itself wading in uncertainty, this inter-relationship will continue to complicate Serbian politics for many years to come. In the meantime, corruption, the economy and living standards will remain the prime day-to-day concerns of most voters; concerns that the country’s politicians will struggle to deliver on.
Ian Bancroft is the co-founder and executive director of TransConflict