BELGRADE -- With Serbian citizens set to vote in presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections on April 3, a retired army general and a leading opposition candidate for the presidency, Zdravko Ponos, recently appeared on one of Serbia's most popular political talk shows, Utisak Nedelje (Impression of the Week). There he was asked to clarify comments he had made about General Ratko Mladic, a convicted war criminal and the military leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the Yugoslav wars.
"Serbia didn't commit genocide, Serbs aren't a genocidal people," stressed Ponos, in a measured, mild-mannered tone that stands in stark contrast to the usual tub-thumping of political discourse in Serbia. "[Mladic] was a good officer, he implemented brilliant military campaigns throughout those wars...but, in the end, the forces that were under his command committed atrocities that besmirched his military career and he's paying the price for that."
For many in Serbia and abroad, Ponos's comments will be an ugly reminder of Serbia's enduring failure to face up to atrocities committed in its name during the 1990s. But for others, including potential voters, Ponos could represent a break from the past for Serbia's opposition. Eschewing a more typical choice who would appeal to the urbane middle class and the West, his selection shows that the Serbian opposition is becoming more pragmatic as it attempts to reverse a decade-long losing streak in nationwide votes.
Ponos "is a candidate of the center-right and it seems that the opposition wanted to find an individual that can be a good candidate for what's considered the political mainstream in Serbia, which leans more to the right," said Bojan Klacar, the managing director of the Belgrade-based Center For Free Elections and Democracy polling agency.
While criticizing Mladic might have pleased politicians and Balkan-watchers in the West, for Ponos it would have been political suicide, helping the highly partisan, pro-government media caricature him as a Serb-hating, pro-Western stooge. Analysts say that Ponos, a member of the center-right Serbian People's Party, is clearly focused on winning over the conservative-minded, middle-of-the-road voters that have repeatedly backed the incumbent president, Aleksandar Vucic, and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) over the last 10 years.
"The opposition wants to send a message that Zdravko Ponos isn't someone who will diverge dramatically from the desires of the average voter in Serbia," Klacar said.
Sixty-year-old Ponos grew up in the Krajina region of Croatia, which used to be home to a large ethnic Serb population prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia. After completing his studies at the military academy in Zagreb, he relocated to Belgrade to work for the military-technical institute in the late 1980s.
Rapidly rising through the army ranks, Ponos worked for the military's General Staff throughout the war before moving to the Defense Ministry in 2002. There he helped form a cooperation department with NATO, an act that has been used against him throughout this campaign by pro-Vucic figures, who have labeled Ponos a "NATO general" in an attempt to smear his reputation by linking him to the alliance's 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia.
A political dispute with then-President Boris Tadic led to his forced retirement in 2009, which precipitated his move into national politics. Ponos very quickly made his way into the Foreign Ministry, where he attached himself to then-Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and became a member of Jeremic's Serbian People's Party when it was established in 2017. Ponos was then elected as vice president of the party and held that post until November 2021, when he stepped down to focus on running for the presidency in this election. At the time, Jeremic didn't seem pleased, initially suggesting that he might back an alternative candidate. But in the end, he threw himself behind Ponos.
Due to the incumbent's large popular support and a mostly loyal Serbian media, Ponos is unlikely to prevail against Vucic. A new poll from the Belgrade-based Institute for European Affairs predicts that Vucic will win in the first round by taking 60 percent of the vote, with Ponos a distant second with 18 percent.
However, with the government on the back foot after a number of controversies in recent months, Serbia's opposition parties can feel more confident going into these elections than any vote since 2008.
The most notable of these controversies was a series of mass protests in December 2021 against plans to allow international mining conglomerate Rio Tinto to dig for lithium in the country, which opponents said would be harmful to the environment. The protests were supported by 17 percent of the ruling SNS's own supporters and forced them into a rare climbdown. And although the government won a referendum in January on constitutional changes that would give presidents more power to appoint and remove judges, it secured just 60 percent of the vote on a 31 percent turnout, suggesting that opposition support might be growing, albeit slightly shakily.
The last decade has been one of repeated failure for the Serbian opposition. After failing to live up to the high -- and arguably unrealistic -- hopes of the Serbian electorate following the removal of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the long-dominant Democratic Party was voted out of office in 2012. But instead of taking stock and learning from its mistakes, the liberal political elite descended into infighting. At the next elections in 2014, Vucic's SNS won in a landslide.
In the four nationwide votes since 2012, the opposition insisted upon fielding candidates that had already discredited themselves during previous spells in government, which critics say came across as more than tone-deaf. Every defeat bought Vucic more time to consolidate power through media capture and other underhanded, undemocratic tactics, which, in turn, made each subsequent election all the more difficult for the opposition. In 2020, Vucic won another landslide after most opposition parties boycotted the vote, saying there wasn't a level playing field for their electoral campaigns.
For these elections, however, the opposition has shown much greater discipline. Two of the three leading opposition coalitions, the green-left Moramo! (We Must!) and the centrist United Serbia bloc that Ponos represents, have maintained a pact of nonaggression throughout the campaign despite failing to unite around a single candidate or political platform. While this split is likely to diminish the opposition's potential gains in the parliamentary vote, its chances in Belgrade's municipal elections look more promising: in January's referendum, major urban centers generally voted against the government and this trend is expected to repeat itself on April 3.
According to public-opinion polling by Stata.rs, the ruling coalition is on 29.3 percent support in Belgrade, a mere 1.1 percentage points ahead of United Serbia. Polling also indicates that both of the other main opposition groupings will clear the 3 percent threshold for entry into municipal government: Moramo!, which is on 7.1 percent, and the center-right coalition, National Democratic Alternative (NADA), on 3.6. One far-right fringe party polled 4.6 percent, but as things stand, Vucic looks set to lose the capital to the opposition, which could band together to form a working majority.
There are, however, a few wrinkles to this newfound unity. Moramo! initially signaled that it would not field its own presidential candidate in order to consolidate the anti-Vucic vote around Ponos, but in the end decided to nominate academic Biljana Stojkovic to appeal to progressive voters.
Stevan Filipovic, a prominent movie director, activist, and political commentator who backs Moramo!, said that any splits in the vote shouldn't be a reason for fatalism. "I think that the opposition is more united than ever and the fact that there are, let's say, two [main] groupings (United Serbia and Moramo!) isn't a bad thing for the elections at all," Filipovic said.
"You have people who are genuinely closer to one than the other and possibly wouldn't ever vote for a more right-leaning option but this left-leaning one (Moramo!) is acceptable to them and vice versa," Filipovic said. "I don't think that some variety is any sort of drawback or that it would necessarily be better if they united under a single banner."
So far, however, the polling numbers nationwide don't look great for the opposition. According to the Institute for European Affairs poll, the new parliament will likely comprise four or potentially five parties: the ruling SNS with 57 percent; United Serbia with 19 percent; the Socialist Party of Serbia with 6.6 percent; Moramo! with 5.7 percent. NADA is hovering around the 3 percent threshold, so the party could just scrape through. Such a result would be massive for SNS, as it would be the first time the party had crossed the 50 percent threshold.
In addition to the unfair electoral conditions, which include widespread voting irregularities and a highly partisan media, Vucic has always had the advantage of being supported by the European Union. But his recent failure to unequivocally stand with Brussels against Russia's invasion of Ukraine has attracted unprecedented scrutiny, which could sour relations with his European benefactors and present an opening for the opposition.
"I think it's about time that the EU realizes that its tacit approval of everything that [Vucic] does in Serbia and their occasional support gives flight to his undemocratic and, if you will, anti-European regime," said Borko Stefanovic, a United Serbia candidate and former government staffer during Tadic's presidency.
"If the war in Ukraine is a time for reassessing Europe, just look at the sort of people they've supported and continue to support. Most of them have finished on the scrapheap of history or under arrest, like Vucic's good friend Borisov in Bulgaria," Stefanovic said. Conservative former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was voted out of office in April 2021, ending a decade-long rule. He was detained on March 17 in graft probes related to the misuse of EU aid funds.
If the opposition can make incremental progress on April 3, it could potentially be able to present itself as a viable alternative partner for the EU should Brussels begin to apply greater pressure on Vucic. And while the Ukraine crisis has probably come too soon to have much effect on these elections, it could make the next one more open -- and more significant -- than ever before.