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Vucic's Popularity Could Pack A Hidden Punch In Serbia

Despite facing 10 rivals, Aleksandar Vucic is said to be determined to win the presidency in the first round. 
Despite facing 10 rivals, Aleksandar Vucic is said to be determined to win the presidency in the first round. 

Less than two weeks ahead of the Serbian presidential election, polls show a solid lead for Aleksandar Vucic over the rest of the field.

Such numbers suggest that if there are no major surprises between now and election day, Vucic's transition from prime minister to president may well be a smooth one.

And Serbia's presidency may never be the same again.

"If the leader of the largest party, which has formed a government while enjoying a parliamentary majority, is elected president, the government will answer to him personally and not to parliament, even if that is not currently the case," Vladimir Gligorov, a professor at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, warned in a recent post to independent portal Pescanik.

Gligorov hinted that such a development could ultimately spell "the end of parliamentary democracy" in Serbia, although he dialed that back by adding that such a move would require "a change to the [2006] constitution, or a change of government."

By his reckoning, Serbs are set not only to choose a new president but also to decide on a switch to a presidential system of government.

Skeptics would be right to point out that such substantial changes are a long shot. Until now, the power of the Serbian presidency has been largely symbolic. But Vucic also has a uniquely strong personal hold on power.

Belgrade-based pollster Faktor Plus went so far as to suggest Vucic could win an outright majority on April 2 and thus avoid a second round of voting. The same poll -- conducted in early March among 1,200 respondents -- suggested that around half of eligible voters would turn out for the election.

Despite facing 10 rivals, Vucic is said to be determined to win the presidency in the first round.

"[Vucic] would consider having to face a second round of voting as an unprecedented public humiliation for a supreme leader of his ilk," Zarko Korac, an independent Serbian parliamentarian, told the Montenegrin newspaper Pobjeda.

"The greatest paradox of contemporary Serbian politics is that the only pro-European leader on the scene, while at the same time, to make the paradox even greater, he disseminates distinctly pro-Russian propaganda through his tabloids," Korac said in a reference to newspapers that some believe are kindly disposed toward the prime minister and his Serbian Progressive Party.

It is indeed an irony of Serbian politics that support for membership in the European Union has slipped to its current lows under a man whom many regard as among Serbia's most "pro-EU" leaders. Serbian support for EU accession peaked in 2003, at just over 70 percent, or twice the current figure of 35 percent.

The Faktor Plus poll, published on March 12, put support for opposition candidate and former National Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic at around 14.5 percent, placing him second in the presidential race. Jankovic's campaign has thus far avoided heated rhetoric or unequivocal stances, particularly on some of the hot-button issues of the Serbian political landscape.

"A presidential candidate who admits that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, or that Kosovo should be independent, cannot hope for more than 10 percent of the vote in Serbia," Korac said.

Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister who is running as an independent, was in third place with 11.1 percent.

The candidate in fourth position according to Faktor Plus was Vojislav Seselj, a man suspected of war crimes who spent 11 years in detention in the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Seselj was acquitted a year ago, although his acquittal is under appeal by MICT, a United Nations Security Council agency that has taken over some of the functions of the ICTY.

Despite the cloud hanging over him, Seselj returned to lead the Serbian Radical Party in 2016 to win 23 seats in parliament. Seselj's campaign appears to be banking on Russia once again asserting its influence in the Balkans and no one standing in its way. He offers a closer alliance with the Russian Federation as an alternative to EU membership.

Vucic is the undisputed front-runner, and an expected meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the election could improve his chances. He might receive a further boost -- in a country with bitter memories of NATO bombardment in 1999 -- with the delivery of Russian MiG-29 warplanes, as now appears likely. The warplanes are routinely referred to as a "gift" in Serbian media, although the refurbishment of the fighter jets could cost upward of 185 million euros.

"Elections are not fun and games," Vucic said recently in reference to the presidential candidature of a 25-year-old communications student named Luka Maksimovic, who campaigns under the comical name Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli, evoking the contradictory notions of a party chameleon and the purity of white. (Ljubisa's movement can be translated as "You Haven't Tried The Stuffed Cabbage," a reference to a stereotypical dish.)

"For [fun and games], you can play chess or go dancing at a club," Vucic added. "You don't have to vote for me; [go ahead and] vote for others. But [keep in mind] that elections are not a game."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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