It doesn’t matter where Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is appearing – those present celebrate him with national flags and thunderous applause. It’s hard to say how much is real and how much is staged. In organizational terms, nothing is left to chance. Thousands of followers come to his performances in buses. Independent Serbian media claim that attendance is compulsory for employees in municipal administrations.
“We want to win more clearly than ever and show that Serbia is choosing a future, freedom, peace and stability,” Vucic said recently at one of these campaign events.
Serbia before the super elections next Saturday (April 3, 2022): In the Western Balkan country, the presidential elections, an early parliamentary election and the local elections in Belgrade will take place on this day. The victory of the incumbent Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) already seems certain to many. A large Belgrade betting shop only offers two euros in profit for a hundred euros bet for Vucic to win. Polls also suggest that Serbia’s strongman could win the presidential election in the first round. The absolute majority also seems to be in favor of the SNS. The fragmented opposition is only given chances in the capital, Belgrade.
Like a camp commander
Vucic repeats the two words “peace” and “stability” daily in television interviews. An unmistakable message that has also flanked his campaign since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine. EU candidate country Serbia has condemned the breach of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but has not endorsed Western sanctions against Moscow. Not only because most Serbs see Russia as a cultural and historical brother state. From the point of view of its state leadership, Serbia currently has good reasons to rely on Moscow: In terms of energy policy, it is completely dependent on Russia. In the Kosovo question, it relies on the support of the great power. Neither Belgrade nor Moscow recognize the independence of the former Serbian southern province.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade on January 17, 2019
The fact that the Ukraine war is dominating the headlines suits Vucic well. Like a camp commander, he calculates how many tons of wheat, corn or canned sardines the country has in reserve. He promises that there will only be peace with him on the Balkan powder keg.
“The propaganda is meant to scare people,” says philosopher Vladimir Milutinovic, who wrote a book on Vucic’s rhetorical techniques. “The tabloids write that an economic collapse is imminent elsewhere, that there is even a threat of famine in Germany. Such statements are intended to stylize Serbia as an oasis of stability.”
No jobs without party membership
Aleksandar Vucic has held all the reins in Serbia for ten years. His Progressive Party controls the major TV networks and tabloids, state-owned companies and local governments. Political opponents are regularly demonized as thieves and traitors on talk shows. Vucic himself describes his party as a “catch-all” movement – a gathering place for everyone, largely free of any ideology. The SNS has around 700,000 members – that’s a tenth of the country’s population. For a good reason: Without a party membership, a job in state administration, public service or state-owned companies is almost impossible. And the party program? It’s called Vucic.
Election poster in Serbia with the inscription: “Actions speak. Aleksandar Vucic – together we can do everything!”
“The Progressive Party determines public opinion,” says Dejan Bursac from the Belgrade Institute for Political Studies. “This allows Vucic to send out conflicting messages and appeal to voters on all sides. He concludes agreements with Kosovo but spreads harsh nationalist rhetoric. Or he boasts that Serbia was almost the first country to have enough corona vaccine to quickly take all measures against to end the pandemic.”
Cat and mouse game
The opposition, on the other hand, has little chance of winning over voters. Their main themes – corruption, environmental destruction and the alleged ties between the government and the mafia – are currently receiving even less attention than they already have because of the Ukraine war.
Just a few months ago, opponents of Vucic hoped that their issues would get through. At the time, environmental activists had blocked highways across the country to protest against a planned large-scale lithium mine in western Serbia. The British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto will destroy nature and withhold profits from the country, critics of the project said.
It was the first time that Vucic had to switch to crisis management. With a keen sense of an issue that could jeopardize the campaign, he withdrew the Rio Tinto licensing laws. Public interest in the excitement topic abruptly decreased.
“The regime has everything under control”
The independent weekly Vreme writes that such political dominance would not have been possible without the co-ordination of most of the media and the almost limitless financial resources of the governing party. Investigative journalists recently revealed that between 2015 and 2021 the Progressive Party spent around 23 million euros on election campaigns alone – three times more than all opposition parties combined. “The regime has everything under control and can play cat and mouse with its political opponents,” commented Vreme.
Overpowering media presence: Serbia’s head of state Aleksandar Vucic during a corona vaccination on April 6th, 2021
After the opposition largely boycotted the previous parliamentary election in 2020 due to unfair conditions, some alliances will still make it into parliament. The United for Victory of Serbia (US) coalition, made up of a broad spectrum of left- and right-centre democratic parties, could take between 15 and 20 percent of the vote. Their presidential candidate, Zdravko Ponos, the former Chief of the Army General Staff, might do even better. The new left-green alliance Moramo (We must) could also make it over the three percent hurdle into parliament. Unthinkable in Serbia until recently, the fight against the lithium mine gave environmental parties a boost.
Nationalism as an addition
The right-wing and nationalist scene, which is running with five presidential candidates and five lists, is having a much harder time. It is true that many voters are receptive to patriotic and nationalist slogans. Over 80 percent of the country’s citizens reject NATO membership, and around two-thirds see Russia as the most important partner. Still, right-wingers and nationalists don’t really have a good chance of moving into parliament.
Election poster of Serbian ultra-nationalist and convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS)
The political scientist Bursac has an explanation for this. In the meantime, people were less interested in topics such as the Kosovo question than they were in social and economic issues. Today, nationalism is not a basis for populism, but merely an addition.
“Vucic’s main voters have been the losers of the economic crisis since 2012 – pensioners, housewives and workers with low and middle incomes. During the election campaign, the president promises new factories, highways and hospitals. The message is clear: there is hope for Serbia and for everyone,” says DW’s Bursac.
Some observers warn that the government can only respond to the current crisis by taking on massive amounts of new debt. After the elections, food and energy prices threatened to rise even more sharply. Analysts are also convinced that the pressure from Brussels will be immense to finally participate in the sanctions against Russia.
Collaboration: Radmilo Markovic