Serbia’s president, and others, say the country has tilted “dramatically” to the right following April elections. BIRN has taken a look at whether this is really the case, and who stands to benefit from such a perception.
By Sasa Dragojlo
Taking the stage on Sunday night, Aleksandar Vucic not claimed victory for himself and his Progressive Party in Serbia’s presidential and parliamentary elections. He also acknowledged the apparently strong showing of three other contenders in the parliamentary vote – the right-wing Dveri party and NADA alliance and the far-right Zavetnici, or Oathkeepers.
“The impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the elections results is huge,” he said. “Serbia has moved dramatically to the right.”
Vucic wasn’t the only one struck by what looks at first glance like an impressive performance by the pro-Russian, anti-EU right in Serbia.
A closer look, however, shows that in terms of votes and seats, the right is no better off than it was in 2016, when Serbia last held a parliamentary election that was not boycotted by a large part of the opposition.
Indeed, Dveri, NADA and the Zavetnici, as well as the Progressive Party’s junior partner in government, the Socialists, look simply to have picked up some of the 330,000 votes that the Progressives lost in this election compared to 2020.
“I don’t see a sharpening of the situation,” said Dario Hajric, a sociologist and political analyst who studies the far-right in Serbia.
The leaders of Dveri, NADA and the Zavetnici “are less radical” than many Progressive or Socialists lawmakers, he said.
“Leaders of these right-wing parties are adopting global alt-right trends and are more like opportunists using right-wing ideas to build their careers,” Hajric told BIRN. And perhaps it suits the Progressive Party, SNS, he speculated.
“This is a project of SNS to somehow solve the dissatisfaction of its electorate by pouring it out to the parties that are in its orbit.”
Lower threshold cleared path for right-wing to enter parliament
Between them, NADA, which means ‘Hope’, Dveri and the Zavetnici, were backed by 487,688 voters, which translates into 35 of parliament’s 250 seats, based on 99 per cent of votes counted.
NADA, which is centred on the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, won 5.4 per cent, while Dveri and the Zavetnici just made it over the three per cent threshold to enter parliament with 3.8 and 3.7 per cent respectively.
The last election in 2020 is not a suitable comparison given much of Serbia’s opposition boycotted.
In 2016, however, Dveri and DSS ran together, winning five per cent of votes, while the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, of convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, took eight per cent, behind only the Progressives and the Socialists. Between them, Dveri, DSS and the Radicals won 496,582 votes, which translated into, again, 35 seats.
While this year, the Zavetnici have entered parliament for the first time, the Radicals are now a spent force, hollowed out by Vucic’s decision in 2008 to break with his political mentor, Seselj, and embrace the cause of European Union accession with a new party – the Progressives.
Indeed, the Zavetnici and Dveri only made it into parliament this time because the Progressive-controlled parliament voted in February 2020 to lower the threshold from five per cent to three.
Had the threshold remained the same, only NADA would have crossed it. NADA is led by DSS presidential candidate and Sorbonne-educated lawyer Milos Jovanovic, and is much more conservative than far-right.
Toning down the rhetoric
All three, in fact, have toned down their rhetoric in an effort to broaden their appeal, experts say.
Dveri now brands itself as “moderate, European right-wing,” while its leader, Bosko Obradovic, has dismissed the ‘right-left’ political divide as a relic of the past.
The Zavetnici began as a fringe, pro-Russian extreme-right movement with alleged ties to the Progressives, but are now seen as less extreme than Seselj’s Radicals.
Ratislav Dinic, a political theorist and commentator on the Pescanik.net portal, said that both NADA and the Zavetnici were heavily promoted in pro-government media, unlike other more centrist opposition parties, collectively known in Serbia as ‘the liberal opposition.’
“Their act in public is not as radical and anti-systemic as before,” he said. “They went for decency, calmness and ‘statesman-like’ rhetoric as opposed to the liberal opposition’s heavy criticism of the government. And that’s why they were given a lot of space in pro-government media without the smear campaign that was reserved for the liberal opposition.”
He said Vucic had wanted to do something similar in 2020, but the boycott spoiled his plans. “The lowering of the census was part of this plan,” Dinic told BIRN. “But this year they succeeded.”
Experts say that the likes of Dveri, NADA and the Zavetnici have all benefitted from Russia’s war in Ukraine, which some right-wing Serbs support, popular frustration over COVID-19 restrictions, and the spread of right-wing conspiracy theories.
Dveri, for example, appears to have enjoyed a jump in support after prominent pulmonologist and anti-vaxxer Branimir Nestorovic joined the party in the last week of the election campaign.
“The pandemic and anti-vaxxer sentiment was important,” said Dinic. “Nestorovic entering the campaign saved Dveri and pushed the [anti-globalisation, anti-vaxxer] ‘Sovereigntists’ below three per cent.”
Progressives pacify the far-right
Right-wing parties are nothing new in Serbia, where for the past 22 years since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic political currents have often been decided by argument and debate over the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia and the war crimes that were committed.
A shift has occurred, however, since the ascent to power of Vucic’s Progressives in 2012 as a more centre-right, populist political option. The Progressives, say experts, have managed to pacify the far-right, bringing many followers of the far-right, including violent football ‘ultras’, into its ranks, officially as well as unofficially.
The clearest signal of this has been the absence of any significant far-right attack on the annual gay pride march in Belgrade, which prior to the Progressives coming to power could be held only under extreme security measures against far-right thugs.
The trend can be seen in the election results, too.
In 2008, when Vucic was still part of the Radicals and the Progressives did not exist, the Radicals won 29.5 per cent, or 1.2 million votes.
Four years later, in 2012, when the Progressives ran on a centrist, pro-EU ticket and subsequently took power, some 16 per cent – or 623,680 votes – went to parties considered right-wing, i.e. the Radicals, DSS and Dveri. Effectively, the hardline right-wing was halved.
At the next election, in 2014, right-wing parties saw their support slip once more, to 10.5 per cent, or 380,463 votes.
Two years later, parties considered nationalist right-wing took 14.6 per cent, or 551,163 votes – an increase, but still more than 70,000 votes fewer than in 2012.
In 2020, the partial opposition boycott hit turnout; right-wing parties won 406,251 votes, or some 12.6 per cent. Former water polo star Aleksandar Sapic and his new party, which tended towards the nationalist right, won an additional 123,393 votes, or 3.8 per cent, but it was less clear whether people were voting for the man or for the nationalism. Sapic quickly allied with the Progressives and his support seeped away.
Vucic’s right-wing bogeymen
In the April 3 election, when turnout was similar to 2016 and there was no boycott, a cluster of small right-wing parties took around 17.6 per cent, or 664,559 votes. Not all of these parties crossed the three per cent threshold to enter parliament.
While the total number of right-wing votes is some 113,000 more than in 2016, many of them were among the 330,000 votes the Progressives lost compared to the last election in 2020. The Progressives might be more centrist, but they remain authoritarian in style and, while pursuing accession to the EU, still ostensibly pro-Russian.
There can be several reasons for the loss of votes:
One might be Serbia’s stance on the war in Ukraine, which some on the right believe is not unequivocal enough in supporting Russia. Serbia voted in favour of a United Nations resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour, but did not impose sanctions. NADA, Dveri, and the Zavetnici have all been emphatic in their support of Russia.
Then there’s COVID-19. Some right-wing voters oppose the strict measures Vucic imposed at the start of the pandemic, which triggered protests in 2020, and are sceptical of the government’s pro-vaccination stance. A slew of crime and corruption scandals with ties to the ruling party may have also dented its support.
Experts, however, stress that NADA, Dveri and the Zavetnici have all flirted with Progressives at some point or other. For years, the Zavetnici were seen as an extremist puppet of the Progressives, popping up only at election time or during the annual Belgrade festival Miredita, Dobar Dan!, to protest the showcasing of Kosovo Albanian culture.
Before April’s election, a party called the Movement for the Renewal of the Kingdom of Serbia, POKS, and which was known to have ties to the Progressives, split in two.
One part joined NADA and another Dveri. The decision of pulmonologist Nestorovic, a favourite of pro-government media, to join Dveri was widely seen as a Progressive strategy to get the party over the parliamentary threshold.
It was no coincidence, therefore, that Vucic warned on election night of the rise of the right, said Hajric, the sociologist. He will gladly use such parties to present himself as a voice of reason, the guarantor of the ‘peace and stability’ that was his campaign slogan.
“He decided to strengthen these parties because he needs a bogeyman from which SNS will defend Serbia and Europe as well,” he said. “Because if Vucic goes down, these alleged ‘sharp-fanged’ people will come instead.”