Serbia’s election: A test for democracy amidst tragedy

Serbia’s united opposition may not win the country’s upcoming parliamentary election but its emergence bodes well for the future—if it can stay together in defeat. 

As Serbia heads to the polls for a snap parliamentary election on December 17, the nation finds itself at a critical juncture, with the political landscape having been dramatically reshaped by both internal and external pressures.

The formation of the Serbia Against Violence coalition has become a focal point in this electoral cycle, galvanised by a series of tragic events that struck at the heart of Serbian society. 

In May, Serbia was rocked by two mass shootings that saw 17 people killed (including 10 at a school in Belgrade) and sent shockwaves through communities across the nation. The unprecedented violence in an educational institution, traditionally safe spaces for Serbia’s youth, ignited a public outcry—including some of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history—and demand for change.

The shootings not only highlighted concerns about public safety but also exposed systemic issues within the Serbian political and social fabric, including the handling of mental health, security, and gun ownership laws. 

The emergence of Serbia Against Violence 

In the wake of these tragedies, Serbia Against Violence emerged as a coalition of opposition parties, civil society organisations, and activists. This alliance, born out of a shared sense of urgency to address the underlying causes of violence in Serbian society, has transcended traditional political boundaries.  

It represents a diverse array of voices, from progressive liberals to deeply conservative groups, all united under the common goal of fostering a safer, more inclusive, and democratic Serbia. It is currently polling at around 40 per cent, but still trails President Aleksandar Vučić’s coalition, centered on his Serbian Progressive party (SNS).  

Serbia Against Violence has crafted a platform that addresses a broad spectrum of issues, with public safety and the prevention of violence taking centre stage. The coalition has called for comprehensive reforms in law enforcement, education, and mental health services.

It has also advocated for greater transparency and accountability in governance, aiming to dismantle what it perceives as an entrenched system of corruption and patronage that has stifled dissent and reform. Nevertheless, Vučić has claimed that far from wanting reform, all the opposition wants is to remove him and his SNS from power.  

“We will see who will be laughing after the elections,” he says. 

The dominance of Serbian politics since 2012 of Vučić—who was comfortably reelected as president last year—and the SNS has been marked by a tight control over the media landscape. Independent journalism and opposition voices often struggle to break through the pro-government narrative. 

According to Freedom House, a human rights watchdog, “a system of media capture remains in place, mostly exercised through institutions and government funding”. 

However, the formation of Serbia Against Violence has brought new dynamics into play, challenging the status quo and leveraging social media to engage with and mobilise its electorate.  

The economy

This is not a single issue election, however. Serbia’s economic growth slowed in the first half of 2023 as decelerating private and public investment as well as elevated inflation hurt consumption and weighed on economic activity.

According to the World Bank, full-year economic growth is expected at just two per cent, with risks to the outlook tilted to the downside. Over the medium term, the Serbian economy is projected to grow steadily at around three-four per cent annually, supported by increases in consumption and investment.

Foreign direct investment—including from both the EU and China—is expected to continue to play a key financing role, while inflation is expected to decline gradually as energy and food prices normalise.

Poverty in 2023 is estimated at eight per cent, down from 8.5 per cent in 2022. The pace of poverty reduction has slowed in the context of weakening growth and the erosion of purchasing power of the poor, for whom food and energy costs account for a high proportion of consumption.

International eyes on Serbia 

The international community, particularly the European Union, has a vested interest in the stability and democratic progression of Serbia, a candidate for EU membership.  

While Vučić ostensibly remains in favour of Serbia’s potential EU membership, he has refused to align with the bloc’s stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine, failing to join its sanctions against Moscow. Vučić has also courted China, and in October concluded a free trade deal with Beijing. Vučić hailed the agreement as “a big step forward for us”, adding that, “before Serbia becomes an EU member, we have to live, and we have to think about our country, our children and our future”. 

The EU has emphasised the importance of fair and free elections as a benchmark for Serbia’s integration into European structures. At the weekend German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock accused Vučić of “walking a fine line” between aligning with the EU and Russia at the same time, while also stoking tensions with Kosovo, with whom it has yet to conclude a normalisation agreement. 

She also said that Vučić must guarantee equal media access for all political candidates and ban the misuse of government resources in the election campaign, else “the opposition will be at a disadvantage”. 

The conduct of these elections is, therefore, under intense international scrutiny, with the EU and other international observers closely monitoring the proceedings for any irregularities or suppression of democratic principles. 

Genuine opposition

Belgrade’s significance in these elections cannot be overstated. As Serbia’s political and economic hub, the capital city is a barometer for national sentiment. As well as voting for a new parliament, the city is also electing a new council and mayor. Serbia Against Violence leads in polls in the capital, and its candidate for mayor, Vladimir Obradović, of the conservative Democratic party, has every chance of taking what is one of the country’s most powerful posts.  

The opposition’s performance in Belgrade will be a strong indicator of the public’s appetite for change and could potentially shift the balance of power, at least at the municipal level, setting the stage for future national contests. 

However, countrywide, while these elections present a watershed moment for Serbia, they are unlikely to lead to much change. The SNS is almost certain to be the largest party and an integral part of the country’s next national government. 

Important will be the electorate’s response to Serbia Against Violence and what its call for reform will reveal much about the nation’s readiness to confront its challenges head-on.  

The coalition’s emergence from a period of national grief and its transformation into an albeit loose political force is a testament to the resilience of the Serbian spirit and the enduring desire for a peaceful and democratic society. If it can stay together in defeat, it could be a real thorn in the side of the government and serve as a genuinely constructive opposition movement—something Serbia has lacked for more than a decade. 

As such, Sunday’s elections are not merely a test of political might but a referendum on the country’s direction. The formation of Serbia Against Violence in response to a national tragedy has added a poignant and urgent dimension to the electoral narrative.  

The outcome of these elections will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for the future of Serbia, its democratic institutions, and its place on the international stage. 

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