February 26, 2014 1 Comment
The upcoming early Serbian parliamentary elections are going to be contested by at least 10 parties and coalitions and likely a few more and the differences have rarely been so hard to detect. The last elections in 2012 where the first elections in which the largest parties did not differ fundamentally about the direction of the country. The consensus on EU integration and a pragmatic approach on Kosovo made the victory of the progressive party possible and removed the main cleavage of politics in Serbia during the 1990s and 2000s (Vreme offers a good timeline of all previous elections with slogans and results). As lines of division became blurred, the political scene in Serbia lacks clear defining markers and only few parties, such as Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) do not share this overall consensus.
If there are increasingly fewer distinguishing characteristics between parties in Serbia, strange bedfellows emerge. When Liberal Democrats (LDP) formed a pre-election coalition with the Bosniak Democratic Community of Sandžak (BDZS), it raised some eyebrows. The BDZS is the outfit of the ambitious Mufi of Sandzak, Muamer ef. Zukorlić (Not to be confused with the BDZ, another wing of the same original party that plans to run jointly with other minority parties). Besides his apparent preference for white BMWs with personalized license plates (‘Mufty‘) he has been a polarizing figure in Sandžak, defending a conservative agenda and being hostile to liberal NGOs, hardly compatible with the platform of the LDP.
In addition, nearly every coalition in the elections has a party claiming to be social democratic or socialist on its list (the fitting slogan of the SPS in 1993: ‘Kad bolje razmislimo, svi smo mi pomalo socijalisti’–we think about it, we are all a bit socialist): LDP included the small Socialdemocatic Union (SDU), the Progressive Party, itself ostensibly a centre-right group, included the Socialdemocratic Party of Rasim Ljajić–the ultimate survivor of Serbian politics and in government uninterrupted since 2000–and the Socialist Movement, a one man show of Aleksandar Vulin, who was an activist in Mira Markovićs JUL and now combines defending Kosovo with Che Guevara. Then there is the Socialist Party of Serbia, and the New Democratic Party of Boris Tadić, running with the League of Socialdemocrats of Vojvodina (LSV). Finally, the Democratic Party (DS) is a member of the Socialist International.
A final way of looking at the jungle of parties running for elections is Democratic Party itself. Since its founding in 1990, it has never been able to change leadership without a split: as a result, four parties running stem from the original DS, including Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) that split in 1992, the LDP founded in 2005 and the New Democratic Party that former president Tadić established just a few weeks ago (technically it is not a new party, Tadić took over the small green party to avoid the time consuming and costly process of registering a new party). The New Party (NS) lead by former PM and DS official Zoran Živković ended up in a pre-election coalition with DS rather than taking the risk of running independently.
Another survivor is Vuk Drašković who began his political career with Vojislav Šešelj and later the Serbian Renewal Movement that was a leading opposition group in the 1990s. He managed to hang on through pre-election coalitions with New Serbia in 2003, with the DS in 2008, with the LDP in 2012 and today with the Progressive Party.
The fragmentation (luckily) also extended to the right of the party spectrum. Despite efforts to form a pre-election coalition between the DSS, the Radical Party and Dveri a more recent extreme right wing outfit, the talks failed and they all run separately, as does another right-wing group called the Third Serbia (TS) and also the movement 1389 announced it would independently. As a result in opinion polls, only DSS is likely to enter parliament among these groupings.
The confusing party landscape is largely facilitated by the election law. With a five percent threshold and no higher threshold for coalitions, larger parties see an interest in linking up with smaller groupings to increase their vote and small parties can enter parliament although their support would certainly be well under five percent. As voters cannot select candidates and the entire country is one electoral unit, there is also a strong bias towards candidates from Belgrade with the rest of the country underrepresented. Furthermore, it leads to oddities, such as Boris Tadić being the main visible poster boy of the New Democratic Party, but not being on the list of candidates.
Amidst all this confusion, there is likely to be one clear winner, the Progressive Party of Aleksandar Vučić. While opinion polls are often biased, several polls (see here, here and here) suggest that the party and its partners will gain around 45 percent of the vote. The fragmentation of the Democratic Party between the current party led by Dragan Djilas and the New Democratic Party of Tadić help contribute to the strength of the party, but in essence the elections were triggered by the SNS to translate its popularity into seats and to marginalise PM Dačić, who has become a prime target in the pre-election campaign.
At this point, it is not yet clear whether SNS will be able to govern on their own (if they would this would be a first in recent Serbian politics). If opinion polls are correct, Vučić’s party will only need a few more votes to form a government and it currently has a number of options with whom to form a government. Unlike in 2012 when it relied on the socialists, it will be able to choose among multiple partners and thus drive the price down these can extract. Currently, the Liberaldemocrats of Ćeda Jovanović seem like the most attractive partner. The party, if it enters parliament, will be fairly small to extract much influence and help the SNS with a reformist image. It is thus no surprise that candidates from the SNS have been careful not to critizise Jovanović although he used to be the main target of criticism on the right. The other wild card is Boris Tadić. His return to active politics after his electoral defeat in 2012 and losing power in the DS afterwards has polarized. Either way, the elections will seal the dominance of SNS and leave behind a fragmented and weak opposition that is currently shaped by infighting. It thus seems that the SNS will a number of years ahead in which it can govern with a safe majority. The main weakness of the party will come from within, as it continues to lack qualified people to meet Serbia’s challenges.