Serbia’s parliamentary elections that appear to have given President Aleksandar Vucic's ruling party a landslide victory were administered fairly but media coverage was largely one-sided, monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says.
Vucic’s government benefited from extensive coverage on TV editorial programs and on broadcaster’s websites, the OSCE said in a June 22 statement, a day after the vote. However, opponents were provided with free airtime and equal access to regular election programming as required by law.
“Most major TV channels and newspapers promoted the policies of the government and gave it extensive editorial coverage, limiting the diversity of views,” the OSCE statement said.
Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) was leading with around 61 percent of the vote, followed by his ally, the Socialist Party, with around 10 percent, based on results published by election authorities with nearly two-thirds of the ballots counted.
The vote had been tarnished by a boycott from parts of the opposition and concerns about the coronavirus.
Urszula Gacek, head of the mission of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said the dominance of the ruling party "risks the neutrality of the country’s democratic institutions, and dialogue is needed to bridge the deep political divisions and protect pluralism.”
Vucic's victory over the weekend strengthens his position as he heads into internationally mediated peace negotiations on the future of Serbia’s former province of Kosovo.
The Serbian president met with EU Special Representative for the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue Miroslav Lajcak on June 22, pledging support for the EU-mediated effort to reach an agreement in the long-standing dispute.
"I expect that EU-facilitated dialogue resumes in July in Brussels," said Lajcak, who is a former Slovak foreign minister.
A U.S.-brokered Serbia-Kosovo meeting is set for June 27 in Washington.
Projections showed the right-wing Serbian Patriotic Alliance in third place, tentatively with about 4 percent of the vote. Other groupings failed to reach the minimum 3 percent threshold to gain places in the 250-seat legislature.
“I have been in politics for a long time, but I have never experienced a moment like this,” Vucic said. “Tonight we gained the great trust of the people, the greatest ever in Serbia, in conditions when few believed in it."
At the same time, he added, the SNS received a warning from the people that the party must "be even more responsible and serious and that we have to work harder and make the best possible results for the citizens."
The new four-year mandate comes amid intensified international efforts to restart dialogue with Kosovo, which used to be an ethnic Albanian-majority province of Serbia.
In 1998-99, an armed uprising by ethnic Albanians triggered a Serbian crackdown in Kosovo that caused numerous deaths among civilians and triggered a wave of refugees.
In March 1999, NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo and protect the civilian population. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence, a move recognized by the United States and the majority of the international community, but not by Serbia, Russia, and a handful of EU states.
Richard Grenell, the U.S. special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo negotiations, said on June 15 that he had received commitments from Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaci, to meet at the White House on June 27.
Vucic’s trip to Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to begin three days before the planned White House meeting.
Early this month, Avdullah Hoti became prime minister of Kosovo after winning a vote in parliament by a razor-thin margin. The new government moved swiftly to scrap all trade sanctions against Serbia, opening the door to restart normalization talks with Belgrade.
Serbia has sought European Union membership for years, but talks with the bloc stalled in 2018. Its membership bid is contingent on settling its disputes with Kosovo.
The EU's enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, welcomed the SNS's victory in a message on Twitter, saying he was ready to work with Belgrade on reforms needed to advance Serbia's EU aspirations.
"Looking forward to working with new government on #EU-related reforms. Committed to help Serbia move forward quickly towards EU accession and to support economic recovery in the wake of #COVID-19 crisis," Varhelyi wrote.