It's not official yet, but the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) appears set to make Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic its candidate for president. The party leadership's decision was announced late on February 14, and the move is expected to be confirmed by the party's general assembly on February 17.
"I accepted the candidacy only because I believe it is important for the continuity and stability of Serbia," Vucic told public broadcaster RTS. "There is nothing that I would not do for that cause."
Vucic added that he did not rule out the prospect of early parliamentary elections, and said a decision would be forthcoming soon.
The SNS statement suggests Vucic will "continue talks" with President and fellow SNS member Tomislav Nikolic in an effort to avoid any split within the party's ranks. Nikolic is regarded by many observers as a hard-liner who has played an undersized role on the Serbian political stage as president. However, he recently made waves by saying in the aftermath of the "promo train" dispute between Belgrade and Pristina that he was ready to go to war "to defend Serbs in Kosovo."
The train's planned crossing into Kosovo from Serbia -- plastered with the message "Kosovo is Serbia" -- threatened to further sour relations between the two countries, and Nikolic's statement did nothing to defuse the tension. After a January 15 meeting of his National Security Council, Nikolic told journalists: "We don't want war, but if it is necessary to protect Serbs from being killed, we will send an army to Kosovo. We will send soldiers; we'll all go. I'll go, and it won't be the first time that I go [to defend Serbs]."
At the time, his critics interpreted the statement as the opening salvo of a reelection campaign. Yet Nikolic has repeatedly said he won't run again for president without his party's backing.
"Defending Serbs outside Serbia" is no longer a winning ticket, it seems. The most recent national poll shows that 73 percent of Serbs would not go to war for Kosovo, with 17 percent undecided and only 10 percent saying they would respond favorably to a call to arms like the one issued by Nikolic.
Recent polls also suggest that those most inclined to take up arms identified themselves as supporters of the Serbian Radical Party, while the majority of those who expressed a preference for the peaceful resolution of political problems said they would vote for the governing Progressives, a party founded by former Radical Party members Vucic and Nikolic.
It thus appears that Progressive leader Vucic's repeated statements in favor of diplomatic solutions resonate more among the party's supporters.
One of Vucic's potential rivals for the presidency is Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, no doubt adding color to the campaign. Seselj spent 11 years in UN detention while on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) for alleged ethnic cleansing. He was acquitted in 2016 on all counts, pending appeal, and returned to Serbia in time for the elections that year, when he led his Radical Party to 23 seats in the national parliament.
Seselj has been President Nikolic's most outspoken critic, whereas he has never had a major public dispute with Vucic. He is, however, opposed to Vucic's pro-European policy and is strongly in favor of closer relations with Russia.
Another pro-Russian candidate in the looming presidential vote is Bosko Obradovic, the president of the Dveri (Door) party. A former Serbian foreign minister and onetime president of the UN's 67th General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic, is selling himself as a European politician but he is very close to Moscow. In the opposition camp, the only clearly pro-European candidate is former Serbian ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, who made his name fighting corruption and defending the rule of law in Serbia.
None of the opposition candidates is currently considered much of a match for Vucic, who is widely expected to secure more that 50 percent of the popular vote, enough for outright victory in the first round. The official start of the Serbian presidential race is set for early March, with the election expected a month later, in April, although no date has been finalized.
The Serbian Constitution gives limited powers to the president, and incumbent Nikolic has been seen by many as a marginalized figure in Serbian politics.
But with Vucic in office, that could change, in no small part because of his personal clout with the electorate and among the country's international partners.
If elected president, Vucic might well seek to maintain his balancing act between Moscow and Brussels. And while he might continue to purchase weapons in Russia or Belarus, he has been assertive in implementing a European agenda. Importantly, he is seen by EU leaders as a reliable partner. But above all, Vucic appears eager to pin his campaign's hopes on an ability to deliver what his Balkan country needs most at the moment: stability.