Serbia in crisis: Can authoritarian trends be reversed?

Despite making progress in EU accession negotiations since 2014, Serbia is a country which has witnessed major democratic backsliding in recent years. Ever since Srpska napredna stranka (Serbian Progressive Party, SNS), led by Aleksandar Vučić, won an absolute majority of seats in the national parliament in 2014, the country entered a period of crisis in relation to democracy, the rule of law and media freedom from which it has yet to escape. Following this, since 2019, progress towards EU accession ground to a halt due to EU member states’ concerns over the rule of law and democracy in Serbia, with a new cluster of negotiating chapters reluctantly opened only in December 2021.

Democratic backsliding in Serbia has been slow, but constant. When the centre-left Demokratska stranka (Democratic Party, DS) led by Boris Tadić lost both the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012, the new coalition government consisted of nominally pro-EU centre-right SNS and former DS’s coalition partner Socijalistička partija Srbije (Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS), whose leader Ivica Dačić became prime minister. The country made several significant steps towards EU accession between 2012 and 2014, including a breakthrough deal with Kosovo on normalization of relations in April 2013 and the opening of EU accession negotiations in early 2014. However, after the aforementioned convincing victory of SNS in parliamentary and local elections in March 2014, which gave Vučić’s party an absolute majority in parliament, democracy in Serbia began its downward spiral.

In the years since 2014, Serbia dropped 39 places in the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters without Borders, was demoted into a “hybrid or transitional regime” by Freedom House and is considered by the V-Dem Institute as one of the five countries which witnessed the largest degree of democratic backsliding in the last decade. It is currently classified by V-Dem as a “competitive autocracy” and continues to fall across all major indices that seek to measure democracy and media freedom.

However, nothing can describe the state of Serbian democracy as clearly as a simple look at the make-up of the national parliament. In the 250-seat Serbian National Assembly, only 7 MPs represent the opposition, out of which 6 represent national minority parties. This practically single-party parliament is a direct consequence of the 2020 parliamentary elections which most opposition parties and figures boycotted due to objections to the conditions that would be necessary for free and fair elections to take place, but even without the boycott the dominance of the SNS would be all but guaranteed. The SNS and its allies also govern in almost every municipality in Serbia, as they have managed to win even in those few cities where the opposition managed to stay in power until 2020.

This unusual political landscape is the consequence of significant problems in electoral conditions in Serbia. Media capture is perhaps the most significant problem facing the country. Television stations with national broadcasting rights are either state-controlled or are owned by individuals close to the SNS, and media bias in favour of the government is enormous. Almost all daily print media is pro-government, and pro-government tabloids have the widest circulation. These tabloids are barely more than propaganda outlets for the government and do not shy away from warmongering, inciting ethnic tensions, and demonising the opposition, and routinely make fabricated reports regarding potential coups d’état orchestrated by the opposition and foreign (i.e. Western) powers.

Centre-stage is taken by Aleksandar Vučić, president of SNS since 2012, who has held several different posts in government including deputy prime minister from 2012 to 2014, prime minister from 2014 to 2017 and President of Serbia since 2017. Still leading the ruling SNS, Vučić practically pulls all strings in the government single-handedly, and not even the prime minister Ana Brnabić – who he personally hand-picked in 2017 – shies away from calling him her “boss”. Vučić himself has unparalleled media coverage in pro-government media. For example, in March 2021 he appeared 29 times in 31 days as a guest on national television stations. During last year’s state of emergency brought about by the pandemic, when the entire country was placed in lockdown, sitting at home glued to the television screen, he was a staggering 147 times more present on the main television stations than any opposition leader.

As above, most opposition parties boycotted the 2020 parliamentary and local elections due to their dissatisfaction with electoral conditions, especially as regards media bias and different mechanisms of pressure on voters. Reports by relevant local civil society organisations and international organisations such as the OSCE have largely acknowledged serious problems in electoral conditions over recent years, but there have hardly been any improvements. Even the inter-party dialogue facilitated by the European Parliament, held before the 2020 elections, did not bring any meaningful proposals for improvement and was itself boycotted by most of the opposition parties.

The results of the 2020 elections brought significant criticism in the international community. Especially vocal was the centre-left S&D group in the European Parliament, which labelled the newly elected parliament as a “mockery of democracy”. It therefore came as no surprise that EU officials and institutions called for a new phase of the dialogue, and that Aleksandar Vučić announced another parliamentary election to be held in Spring 2022. This provided one more opportunity to improve electoral conditions and to ameliorate the political crisis gripping the country.

However, the new phase of the EP-mediated dialogue held in 2021 also proved to be a failure, as most opposition parties also left the talks in September 2021, unhappy with the agreement proposed by the EP-mediators, considering it a far cry from what is needed. In any case, any potential impact of this process remains to be seen as the government is already late with the implementation of the agreement, demonstrating the lack of political will to make even mild concessions. In short, it is unlikely that electoral conditions in 2022 will be any better than they were in 2020 or in 2019 when the opposition first announced its electoral boycott.

2022 elections: An opportunity for the opposition?

However, notably, the vast majority of opposition parties seem likely to take part in the forthcoming spring elections. This abandoning of the boycott came as no surprise as  the boycott has put the opposition in a dire situation and the 2022 elections will be a different kind of contest altogether. Parliamentary elections will probably be held on the same day as the presidential and City of Belgrade elections, most likely on 3 April 2022.

The true jewel in this contest will actually be the Belgrade elections, where the opposition has a good chance of winning and where a victory could provide the opposition with a much-needed morale boost and a stepping stone for further changes at the national level. The electoral importance of Belgrade is exactly the reason why this contest will probably be merged, as President Vučić’s popularity significantly surpasses that of SNS or any candidate the SNS could put forward in Belgrade. This has significantly raised the stakes and made any boycott an extremely risky strategy for the opposition regardless of electoral conditions.

One alliance of opposition parties has already been formed. The coalition of the centre-left Stranka slobode i pravde (Freedom and Justice Party, SSP) and Demokratska stranka (Democratic Party, DS), centre-right Narodna stranka (People’s Party, NS), liberal Pokret slobodnih građana (Free Citizens’ Movement, PSG) and other smaller parties has already expressed their intention to compete in the elections and has presented the leader of their electoral list, Marinika Tepić from SSP. The formation of this coalition and its decision to stop the boycott is especially important as it is similarly composed as the Savez za Srbiju (Alliance for Serbia, SzS), an alliance that pushed through the electoral boycott campaign in the first place. This coalition is expected to come second after the SNS in both Belgrade and at the national level.

Another important opposition alliance will be the green-left coalition of Belgrade-based Ne davimo Beograd (Do Not Let Belgrade Drown, NDBGD), centre-left Zajedno za Srbiju (Together for Serbia, ZZS) and the citizens’ movement Ekološki ustanak (Ecological Uprising), alongside many smaller parties and movements. This coalition is believed to be able to win double-digit share of votes in Belgrade, but their chances on the national level remain questionable. They are seen, however, as new faces on the opposition’s left-wing, and may profit from the increased importance of environmental issues in Serbian politics and public life.

One significant problem that opposition parties in Serbia face is the lack of trust of the citizens. For this reason, many large protests that took place over the last five years did not lead to any increased support for opposition parties. The organisers of protests usually avoid any links with political parties and many protesters do not think much better about the opposition than they do of the government. Serbia has just witnessed perhaps the largest and most radical protests since the SNS came to power in 2012, as thousands of people have blocked bridges and roads across the country on 27 November and 4 December due to changes to two laws – one on Referendums and Citizens’ Initiatives and the other one on Requisition – that are believed to be linked with the controversial Rio Tinto lithium mine project.

A major challenge for the opposition remains how to transform the very evident dissatisfaction that citizens feel into tangible political action. There have been important cases of activists entering the political arena, such as citizens’ movement Do Not Let Belgrade Drown entry into politics in 2018, but the results so far have not been spectacular. The government of Aleksandar Vučić has done a good job of not only demonising existing political parties, but also of dissuading people from entering politics in general. When government officials want to delegitimise protests, they claim that they are “political”, as if political would mean something dirty and treacherous. Civil society organisations and activists have done a good job in mobilising people and in raising awareness about specific issues that citizens care about, but without the change of attitude regarding political parties and politics in general it is not clear where change could come from. Unless, of course, Serbia indeed turns into a single-party political system, where mobilisation and street politics becomes the primary political arena and the only means of bringing pressure to bear on an authoritarian government.

The 2022 elections will most probably not lead to a change of government at the national level but may very well result in the opposition’s victory in the capital city and its consolidation after years of disarray. Depending on the future of the ongoing protests, 2022 might also present a formula for how citizens’ anger and disappointment can be effectively channelled into the political arena, as is required in a healthy democracy, or in this case, for democracy to make a comeback.

This is the latest in our Spotlight on the Western Balkans series. For the previous piece, on Bosnia and Herzegovina, see here.