Serbia: Opposition Challenged To Agree On Presidential Candidate – Analysis

By Maja Zivanovic

Vuk Jeremic, former Serbian Foreign Minister who recently ran for the post of UN Secretary General, on Sunday announced that he would run in the upcoming presidential election in Serbia.

“I am confident that together we can change this backward system and create a dignified, sovereign and developed country, a Serbia whose citizens will be free, safe and independent,” Jeremic said.

He stated that if he is elected, he will be the president of all citizens.

He also said he will push from a stronger economy, increased exports, abolition of cuts to pensions and to reverse the “brain drain” – as well as upholding Serbia’s military neutrality.

Most analysts say the candidate of the ruling Progressive Parry can only be beaten if the opposition unites behind one challenger.

However, the task may be easier if the Progressive candidate is Serbia’s current President, Tomislav Nikolic, rather than the Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic. Nikolic and Vucic are the two most likely candidates.

Nikolic, whose mandate expires this year, was elected as the Progressive Party’s candidate in 2012, when he won the second round of the election against Boris Tadic, candidate of the Democratic Party.

Choice between Vucic and Nikolic

Four years on, Nikolic is again counting on the support of the Progressives. However, Vucic has not yet decided who to back and has announced that the decision will be announced in mid-February.

Bojan Klacar, from the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, CeSID, told BIRN that the options are relatively simple for the Progressives.

If Vucic is their candidate, he would almost certainly win, perhaps even in the first round. Nikolic’s chances are less certain, although he retains an advantage.

“It would be a surprise if someone else was the candidate of the Progressives,” he added. “Nikolic is still the most realistic solution,” he added.

“However, recent events, such as his announcement that he would inform the public about his decision [to run or not] by Christmas, and then the sudden withdrawal of that announcement, plus the fact that the Progressives have not campaigned to raise Nikolic’s ratings, raises suspicions that some solutions are still to be discussed.”

Klacar said the Progressives were playing for time. The party would “strategically delay its decision until the last moment because such a position suits them because of the indecision and disunity among the opposition”.

Boban Stojanovic, a teaching assistant at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, said it was almost certain that Nikolic or Vucic would be the Progressives’ candidate.

“Nikolic himself has said that he would run but he will not run if the candidate is Vucic,” he said.

“The Progressives are analyzing public opinion and do not know what to do, because Nikolic could have big problems in the second round, [so] I believe there is a serious chance that the Prime Minister will be the candidate,” Stojanovic added.

The Progressive Party’s main coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia, also has yet to decide whether to field its own candidate, or support the candidate of the Progressives, Stojanovic noted.

Nikolic is unlikely to be the joint candidate of the Socialists and Progressives but the situation could be different if Vucic was the candidate, he suggested.

Dusan Spasojevic, also from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, said he would not be surprised if Nikolic was the Progressives’ candidate.

“It is the simplest option, because it does not mean a major change in the system and Vucic would not leave his post as Prime Minister,” he said. “However, I can’t exclude Vucic running for president,” he added.

He explained that, just as the opposition parties are under pressure to agree on a single candidate, the Socialists feel the same pressure to support whoever stands for the Progressives. Like Stojanovic, he said Vucic has a better chance of winning if he is the joint candidate.

Opposition’s only chance is unity candidate

While most parties in Serbia, including the ruling Progressives, have yet to name their candidates for the presidential elections, the opposition Democratic Party, DS, already decided on January 10 to support the Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic.

“Guided by the interests of citizens, we are sure he is the best candidate and that he will win,” Dragan Sutanovac, the DS leader said, adding that Jankovic has “the personal values for which the DS stands”.

Jankovic, who has crossed swords on many occasions with the Serbian authorities, made it clear he will run after a number of intellectuals, writers, artists and public figures urged him to stand in November.

His list of supporters was signed by the diplomat and writer Dragan Velikic, the director Goran Markovic, actors Nebojsa Glogovac and Branko Cvejic, Professor Vesna Rakic Vodinelic and other prominent individuals.

He soon received support from the opposition New Party, led by Zoran Živkovic, and, in January, from the Democratic Party. Together, these two parties won about 6 per cent of the votes in the early general election held in April 2016.

Spasojevic said decision of the Democrats to support Jankovic had boosted his chances “because Jankovic has no organisational structure [in terms of a political party behind him], which is important in a campaign.

“No matter that the [former ruling] Democrats do not have the same capacity as before, their support is still of great importance because that [lack of party backing] is Jankovic’s great weakness,” he explained.

The Enough is Enough party, which also won around 6 per cent of votes in April, has not decided whether to run its own candidate or support Jankovic, however.

“There is no need to make things easier for Vucic by running ahead of time,” Dusan Pavlovic, from Enough is Enough, said on January 10.

“The opposition shouldn’t do that. We should wait for Vucic to say [who he backs] and then we’ll say [our own position],” he added.

But Spasojevic said that now the Democrats had declared their support for Jankovic, Enough is Enough will have to take a decision.

He said Enough is Enough would probably rally to Jankovic eventually “because … it is not realistic to expect the movement to run its own candidate, although that is not excluded”.

The party of former President Boris Tadic, the Social Democratic Party, SDS, told BIRN that it is also willing to agree on a single opposition candidate.

“It is in the interest of citizens is to come up with a joint candidate … because then their chances of beating Vucic, or his candidate, will be higher,” Konstantin Samofalov, from the SDS, told BIRN.

He said the SDS would make an effort to get the parties to sit down and agree on one candidate without prejudging the outcome.

“It is less important whether it is Sasa Jankovic or Vuk Jeremic. One candidate is essential,” Samofalov added.

Asked whether the DS’s decision to back Jankovic was pushing the SDS in the same direction, Samofalov declined to answer, saying there was still time for the DS to change its mind. “It is a question for the DS,” he said.

The hesitancy on the part of the Social Democrats is no surprise as Jeremic is Social Democrat leader Tadic’s close ally.

Analysts say the opposition would have a fair chance of winning with Jeremic as the joint candidate, but that if both Jankovic and Jeremic run, it will damage the chances of either of them.

Boban Stojanovic said the Democrats may have made a mistake in committing themselves to Jankovic when Jeremic is more recognized in public.

However, he added: “Jankovic has done his job properly and can be connected with the basic principles of the Democrats.

“There is no controversy in the Democrats about him whereas I’m not sure that would be the case with Jeremic.”

[Jeremic quit the Democratic Party after it lost power following the 2012 general elections].

He continued that Jankovic could also count on the votes of many citizens who are not party-affiliated.

Cedomir Jovanovic, head of Liberal Democratic Party, which run in coalition with the SDS in April, in December warned that his party would not support either Jankovic or Jeremic.

The party said it supports the idea of the pro-European opposition uniting behind one candidate, however. It is expected to announce its final decision in late January.

Bojan Klacar told BIRN that the opposition’s chances of a good result would increase if Vucic does not run, and if the DS, Enough is enough and the SDS have a common candidate.

“In the case of one opposition candidate, and if Nikolic is the candidate of Progressives, that candidate has a serious chance of entering the second round and having a good election result – though not necessarily winning, because Nikolic is still the favourite because of the party’s strength, infrastructure, experience, strong political profile and visibility.

“Problems arise if the civil opposition comes out with several candidates, which, as things stand, is likely,” explained Klacar.

Right-wing parties running alone

Bojan Klacar, the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, CeSID. Photo: Media Centre Belgrade

The right-wing parties will not, of course, support a joint candidate of the centrist, pro-EU opposition, either.

Most of them have already named their candidates. The Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, November named Aleksandar Popovic.

Its coalition partner, Dveri, has meanwhile backed Dveri leader Bosko Obradovic. Together the two parties won about 5 per cent of the votes in April.

As expected, the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party is fielding its notorious leader, Vojislav Seselj, who was acquitted of war crimes by The Hague tribunal, ICTY.

The Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party of Serbia, Rasim Ljajic, has also announced his candidacy.

Klacar said both the West and Russia would follow the presidential election closely to see if a pro-EU or pro-Russian candidate emerged triumphant.

He said that attention would be pronounced in this election in the light of Moscow’s growing political and media “presence” in the Balkans.

“Among them [the various rivals] will be strongly pro-Western and pro-Russian candidates, so it is certain that foreign policy will be an important topic of the campaign,” he concluded.

Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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