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Is Serbia Headed For 'Orbanization?'

Will Aleksandar Vucic use his dominance in parliament to push through reforms -- or just cement his own party's power in Serbia's institutions?
Will Aleksandar Vucic use his dominance in parliament to push through reforms -- or just cement his own party's power in Serbia's institutions?
The Serbian Progressive Party's (SNS) victory in the country's parliamentary elections had been forecast well before the March 16 poll. But the outright majority that the SNS secured, winning 157 out of 250 seats, was probably a surprise to the party itself.

The SNS, which is in the current government, campaigned on an anticorruption platform. The party also emphasized its drive to normalize relations with Kosovo, which was rewarded by Brussels with the opening of EU membership talks.

By contrast, the Democratic Party of Dragan Djilas and the splinter New Democratic Party of former Serbian President Boris Tadic -- which were instrumental in overthrowing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 -- barely managed to pass the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.

Popular revulsion at the perceived corruption among the former democratic forces has created a paradox.

SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic, who embraced an ultranationalist agenda in the 1990s, now finds himself representing the pro-reform, pro-European camp. Vucic has pledged to overhaul Serbia's economy and state institutions and for this reason, he pushed for the early elections halfway through the government's term in order to get a stronger mandate.

'Stronger Than Milosevic'

But, the big question now is whether he will use his new parliamentary majority to implement badly needed reforms or just to strengthen his hold over society.

"The key point is how Vucic will use his power. We've been witnessing his strong grip over the media, controlling them 100 percent," says Gordana Susa, a Belgrade-based analyst. "Simultaneous processes are under way: media spin aimed at strengthening Vucic's power accompanied by the traditional story that Serbia needs strong leaders, etc."

The SNS's victory, with around 49 percent of the vote, is unrivaled since the introduction of a multiparty system in Serbia in 1990. Even Milosevic at the peak of his power only garnered 46 percent of the vote in his first election.

"Even Milosevic did not possess the power Vucic now has, except after his first election. Of course, Milosevic dominated in different ways," explains Florian Bieber, a professor at Austria's Graz University. "However, Milosevic was forced [after 1992] to share power in coalition governments. We'll see if Vucic intends to rule alone, but calling [an] early election is itself a bad omen, because he misused a democratic institution in a populist way just for the sake of his own party. Another problem is his unwillingness to get rid of the patronage system in state institutions, which are used for hiring the party's rank and file instead of professionals."

Analysts warn that Serbia could now face what they call a risk of "Orbanization," in reference to neighboring Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has used his party's two-thirds majority in parliament to rule with increasing authoritarianism. Will Vucic resist the temptation to use what amounts to almost absolute power?

"If one party exerts such power, then there is a risk of its abuse. Whenever one party secures an outright majority it mostly leads to authoritarianism," Bieber says. "The rule of Victor Orban in Hungary is the most striking example. There are not enough strong institutions to control absolute power by setting necessary check and balances. The problem is even more vivid if such [a] party is dominated by one person, as Vucic in this case. This never bodes well, though intentions may be good."
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    Dragan Stavljanin

    Dragan Stavljanin is the foreign affairs editor of RFE/RL's Balkan Service. He has published numerous articles and written two books, The Cold Peace: The Caucasus And Kosovo and The Balkanization Of The Internet And The 'Death' Of The Journalist.

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