With Vucic Allies Poised To Dominate Serbian Elections, The Battle For Belgrade Takes On Extra Significance – Analysis


By Jovana Krstic, Mila Manojlovic, and Andy Heil

(RFE/RL) — Ninety-three-year-old Dragisa Debeljan swears he’s never missed an election. And he’s not about to start now.

“It’s important that people who are capable of doing quality work come [into power],” Debeljan told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service ahead of this weekend’s snap parliamentary, provincial, and municipal elections in Serbia, including in Belgrade.

On December 17, Debeljan vowed that he’ll cast his ballot with many of the capital’s 1.6 million eligible voters at one of the nearly 1,200 polling stations in that city alone.

Polls have suggested that most of the races around the country will be won by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and their allies, who will likely benefit from state capture, media saturation, and what international election monitors have said are alarming levels of fearmongering and physical attacks against journalists and the opposition.

A key exception to the ruling party’s dominance, however, could be the capital, Belgrade, where the city’s more progressive, cosmopolitan voters and the wider availability of independent media compared to the rest of the country give the opposition a real chance of challenging the ruling party.

On November 1, Vucic dissolved the National Assembly, Belgrade’s unicameral parliament, and declared the date for the snap parliamentary elections. Vladimir Orlic, the National Assembly speaker, then announced extraordinary votes to fill provincial posts in Vojvodina and Belgrade, as well as 64 other city and municipal assemblies.

The political gamble by Vucic’s SNS and its allies to call snap elections followed months of pressure and street demonstrations in the aftermath of twin mass shootings in May that shocked the nation and sparked a Serbia Against Violence movement that crystalized into an opposition coalition.

In Belgrade, voters will elect representatives to both the 110-member City Assembly, which elects a mayor for a four-year term, and to the city’s smaller, constituent councils. Late polling showed the unified, pro-European opposition, the Serbia Against Violence coalition, in a tight race with the president’s eponymous Aleksandar Vucic-Belgrade Must Not Stop coalition and its former mayor.

The former mayor is Aleksandar Sapic, a water polo star and a vice president of the SNS. When he stepped down on September 29 to trigger the snap polls, he predicted confidently: “I’m not the outgoing mayor. I’m the incoming mayor.” 

In the mayoral race, he will face off against the Serbia Against Violence coalition’s candidate Vladimir Obradovic, an organizational-science lecturer, lawmaker, and former member of the national-conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). In 2018, Obradovic worked as an adviser to a staunchly pro-Russian minister in an SNS-led government. Serbia Against Violence is also led in Belgrade by Dobrica Veselinovic from the Green-Left Front and its predecessor, the grassroots Do Not Let Belgrade Drown movement, which started life organizing protests against a controversial riverside development in the capital.

The unified, pro-European opposition has campaigned fiercely in Belgrade with the message that taking the capital could be the first step toward ousting Vucic and his allies. The situation in Belgrade has drawn comparisons to one of the former Yugoslavia’s watershed elections, in 1996, when nonagenarian Debeljan was a spry retiree in his mid-60s. The defeat in Belgrade of authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic’s ruling party and its allies and the subsequent electoral fraud set in motion massive protests and a brutal police crackdown that ultimately led to his downfall four years later.

Dusan Spasojevic, a professor in the political science faculty at the University of Belgrade, warned against exaggerating the parallels with 1996, when defeat in the capital essentially stripped Milosevic of any pretense of majority support nationally. However, he said that the opposition’s victory in Belgrade would be a “remarkable signal” that the SNS is vulnerable.

Nearly 1.7 million of Serbia’s overall population of around 6.7 million people live in Belgrade, and it is the country’s unrivaled political, administrative, and cultural hub. The city’s current annual budget of 191 billion dinars ($1.78 billion) is around 9 percent of the national budget’s approved outlays (2.1 trillion dinars).

“The battle for Belgrade is also important because it is currently the only place where, according to polling, the opposition has a chance to win,” Spasojevic said. The capital, he said, was important politically and had “strong symbolic significance.” 

According to Spasojevic, last-minute polling suggested that neither side appeared poised for a majority in the Belgrade City Assembly without the help of right-wing parties. And winning Belgrade wouldn’t hand the opposition “a large quantum of power,” Spasojevic cautioned. But it would confront the ruling SNS and its national coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, with “a completely new reality,” Spasojevic said.

It could also, he said, provide opponents who have spent the past decade far from the levers of power with “an opportunity to demonstrate their policies in some key areas.” 

While Vucic’s SNS has been the backbone of the Serbian government since winning presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012, it took a further two years for the party to gain control of the Belgrade city administration.

It is the second time in less than two years that early elections have been called for the capital and the third parliamentary vote in a four-year period, in addition to the unprecedented and selective decision to move the vote calendar forward by six months in more than one-third of Serbia’s municipalities.

A delegation of election monitors from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has noted that “all but one of Serbia’s parliamentary elections since 2000 [have] been snap elections.” The delegation added that such a situation “negatively impacts the functioning of democratic institutions” and “strands the country in a semipermanent campaign period, and hampers the full implementation of laws and control of the executive.”

There could also be some dirty tricks.

Opposition Serbia Against Violence leader Miroslav Aleksic has accused governing officials of scheming with police to improperly register hundreds of outsiders in Belgrade to boost support there.

The Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA), an independent election monitor in Belgrade, said the authorities are exploiting “pronounced advantages” that include “the abuse of institutions and manipulations of the electoral calendar.” The election monitor also honed in on“reports of voter migrations, primarily in Belgrade” that appeared to further highlight the battle for control in the capital. 

Vucic’s party hinted at the urgency and importance it attaches to Belgrade when it entered into a local coalition there with the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which is led by convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj. The radical politician returned to politics after his release in 2014 from more than a decade of detention in The Hague for crimes against humanity committed against ethnic Croats in Vojvodina in 1992. 

The SNS had previously avoided publicly collaborating with the Radicals, with Vucic ruling out formal cooperation at the national level due to “differences in programs.” But with the flagging fortunes of the Socialist Party of Serbia — which had joined forces with the SNS in a previous Belgrade election to install a mayor — there is an incentive for Vucic’s party to team up with Seselj and his allies. 

Longtime Belgrade resident Milanka Spasic Platner said that she didn’t plan to vote on December 17.

“I think they’re all the same in some way, only some are wearing gloves and some aren’t,” she told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

Turnout was nearly 58 percent in Belgrade in the last municipal elections, in April 2022, a tick below the national average of nearly 59 percent but a full 10 percentage points less than in the region with the most voting. 

Bojan Klacar from the Belgrade-based Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that, while there’s no consensus on the impact of turnout on the race, a dramatic decline would likely benefit ruling parties. That’s because “the government has more disciplined voters and ways to motivate [them] that day,” he said.

The CRTA is deploying 3,000 observers to follow the vote in Belgrade and the national parliamentary balloting. It has already flagged unchecked intimidation and some instances of violence, in addition to what it says are indications of abuse of state institutions to corrupt the vote. 

The election monitor has sent letters to 1,600 local officials urging them “not to allow any party or private interest to take precedence over their respect for the laws of the state to which they serve.”

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting in Belgrade by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Jovana Krstic and Mila Manojlovic

  • Mila Manojlovic is a social-media producer for RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. 
  • Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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