Capital Belgrade
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 381
Mobile Codes 60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67
ccTLD .rs
Currency Dinar (1EUR = 101RSD)
Land Area 88,361 sq km
Population 7.3 million (excl. Kosovo)
Language Serbian
Major Religions Orthodox Christianity, Islam

Serbia’s Upcoming Elections: Candidates, Platforms and Implications

By Matteo Albertini 

There is just one week to go until Serbia’s May 2012 elections, and expectations are growing in the country and abroad. Many indications suggest that these elections could represent a crucial turning point for the future of the country and of the whole Western Balkans’ transition to the EU, giving strength to – or, possibly, holding up – the process of European integration.

Emphasis on Social and Economic Issues, not the EU or Kosovo

One feature stands out among the others: the main theme of the campaign is not the entrance in the European Union, the defense of the Serbs in Kosovo or the never-ending tug of war for the Republika Srpska in Bosnia & Herzegovina; instead, it is social and economic reforms, the best plan to attract foreign investments and to maintain currently feeble economic growth, a goal that the current government led by Cvetković and chosen by President Boris Tadić failed to obtain.

Nobody, therefore, was caught by surprise when Tadić resigned from his position on Thursday, 5th April 2012, ten months ahead the expiration of his term. This allowed the Speaker of the Parliament, Slavica Đukić Dejanović, to take over the role of Acting President until the 6th May elections.

“In line with the constitution I have decided to shorten my mandate […] to allow the holding of elections on all levels on May 6,” Tadić said for media on that occasion, “I will run in these elections and I expect them to be tough.”

And they will certainly be, as the entire western Balkans is suffering to various extents from the ripple effect of the euro-zone sovereign debt crisis. Foreign investments have decreased during the last couple years, especially from typical partners like Italy and France. Tadić’s Democratic Party fears a looming failure in the next parliamentary elections (and a victory from the major opposition party, the SNS lead by Tomislav Nikolić); it is thus now banking on the president’s personal popularity to boost the party’s vote also in the parliamentary election already set for May 6.

April Polls

As reported by B92, opinion polls conducted by Faktor Plus published on 10th April, showed the two main rivals neck-to-neck. Tadić enjoyed the support of 35.8% of the electorate and Nikolić followed with around 35.7%, only a 0.1% difference. But considering the coalitions running in the parliamentary elections, the SNS-lead one is still leading with 33.4 % against DS’s coalition of around 29.4 %

The DS hopes that good results from its leader may lead to an unexpected victory for the Democratic Party. The difference between these polls and presidential ones may be, however, Tadić’s very figure, and in his way of conducting politics as a strong president with a weak cabinet. His outstanding presence may obscure other party members, and may make it more difficult to demonstrate the ability of the Democratic Party (as an entity) to drive Serbia out of the crisis.

Further, we must not forget that prominent members of Tadić’s government, such as Interior Minister Dačić and Health Minister Stanković, will run for the presidency on their own. Thus he need for the recently retired leader to foster his own popularity will likely worsen the opportunities of his party as a whole.

A Boost from the EU’s Decision?

Not by chance, then, the entire party welcomed the declaration by the European Council as a momentous event, and every analyst agreed that getting the EU candidate status has provided some wind at Tadić’s back going into the elections. And indeed this was a great result, even if it will take almost a decade before Serbia would became an effective EU member. Nevertheless, still there are doubts about the consequences on the country’s population and its standards of living.

As President Tadić said in March, “after all the requests, the objections and the warnings from the European Union about Serbia, the Candidate status is the first official confirmation that this country is following the right path to be considered a place of freedom, democracy, and shared European values.”

Tadić needs to underline the symbolic importance of this recognition, because it is the only real result he gained during his tenure: for Serbian citizens, faced with unemployment, inflation and corruption, the opportunity for their country to become an EU member is not an urgent question. It is much more something to be handled tomorrow, long after the problems of the current years will have passed.

A Healthy Skepticism

As reported by the Italian magazine Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, many citizens have shared their doubts about the real advantage they will derive from eventual EU membership, since it is now likely that, when the day of Serbian accession will come, the European Union will not be nearly the same entity it is today. The magazine reported also a joke, typical of Serbian irony: “when Serbia will enter the European Union, it will be Turkey’s turn to preside as President.”

Future progress towards EU accession, which could take a decade, will depend on improved relations between Serbia and its former Kosovo province, which declared independence in 2008. Serbia rejects the secession, with continuing support from major powers like China and Russia, but is under continual Western pressure to normalize ties.

About the upcoming elections, Tadić said: “the people will have the opportunity to decide which path Serbia will take. I am sure Serbia will proceed towards the European Union, but we will never recognize Kosovo.”

Voting in Kosovo

Still, the question of Kosovo lies as a sword of Damocles on Serbia’s next government, which will be called to reach an agreement about the status of the north and its Serbian majority, and to stop the cyclic unrest over border control. The Serbian Constitution guarantees the right to vote to the Serbs living in Kosovo, so the next elections should include areas of northern Kosovo in the count.

Pristina has strongly objected and said it would use force, if needed, to stop the election in its borders. “We have an operative order clarifying what police should undertake in such cases” said Arber Beka, Kosovo Police spokesperson. Kosovo police arrested four Serbs on March 28th for holding Serbian election material and voters lists. Beka told SETimes that the arrests were related to the attempts of Serbia to hold elections in Kosovo.

Gerard Gallucci, a former UN regional administrator for Mitrovica who was previously interviewed by, told SETimes that Pristina should allow the elections to proceed in Kosovo: “It would be wiser for Kosovo, and perhaps better for everyone, if Pristina did not obsess over these elections. It has the option of simply dismissing their legality and importance while standing back and taking the high road,” Gallucci said.

The American expert added that the elections could be stopped in the Serbian enclaves in southern Kosovo, but not in the northern part, and that the failed effort to stop the vote would only deepen the division and underscore that Pristina has no real influence in the north.

Taking Credit

Anyway, it would be an error to overrate the advantage the DS party will get from the candidate status and the current management of the situation in Kosovo: they may consolidate Tadić as a highly-regarded politician on the international chessboard – in fact, more than any other candidate, European Union officials are hoping for Tadić’s victory.

But at the same time, however, it is simple to observe that the most difficult acquis (the fight against corruption and organized crime, the arrest of war criminals, and so on) have been carried out by ministers from other coalition partners. Among these is Ivica Dačić, interior minister and leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, who has already showed his strong stance towards the northern province of Kosovo on several occasions.

Tadić himself boasted on 14th April 2012, in an interview for Belgrade newspaper Politika, that his government did in fact “create 200,000 news jobs,” but conceded that “the [financial] crisis took away 400,000 more”, and promised that “solving that problem” will be the priority of a new government that he expects will be formed by the DS and the coalition gathered around them.

Investments and Politicking

Going deeper into these economic policies, it is also possible to stress how the choice of attracting foreign investments by tax-relief policies (on an annual term, between 5,000 and 10,000 euro per worker) and by the creation of public-private joint ventures, can become a boomerang for the recently retired president during the electoral campaign.

As a matter of fact, anyone in Serbia will remember the farcical case of the government and Turin’s Fiat Industries 2008 agreement. It was signed with little in the way of transparency, allegedly to boost the DS presidential campaign, and ended up without the expected returns in the Kragujevac area’s employment and general economic conditions.

A new plan was signed last January, foreseeing investments by Fiat of around 940 million euros (as discussed in a previous article), but the final terms have not yet been published.

This is why Verica Barac, president of the anti-corruption council of Serbia, commented with concern on this decision in an interview for the Italian online newspaper Lettera22: “the simple fact that this agreement has been concluded without a transparent procedure – and in the middle of an electoral campaign – puts us in doubt that state budget items and goods may have been used to foster their partner’s resistance.”

DS Election Strategy: Fear

There are two main political strategies in any presidential campaign- hope and fear (the difference was often made, for example, in the divergent rhetoric of US presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, respectively). Now, the strategy of the DS in next week’s electoral campaign seems to be driven in large part by fear: as in the past, the party seeks to play up the alleged extremist and chauvinist tendencies of the main opposition party.

Jelena Trivan, deputy leader of DS, has thus been reported to have said that next week’s elections would be a choice “between peace and war,” and Tadić, in his interview for Politika, piled on some new declarations in a similar vein: their political rivals “have nothing to show for, no results: the only consequence of their activity is destruction, chauvinism and violence,” he charged.

The president went on to draw a connection between the current opposition and the former government of Slobodan Milosević, stating that in the 1990s “these people conducted a dangerous war-mongering policy… they were even against the agreement that ended the (NATO) bombing in 1999. Until a few years ago they celebrated war criminals, they wished to rename the Zoran Đinđić Boulevard after Ratko Mladić, they were destroying Belgrade because (Radovan) Karadžić was arrested.”

Tadić went on to describe SNS leader and presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolić as “an unpredictable, unreliable person, who flip-flops, with whom one is uncertain where one stands, and who cannot be trusted.” He thus seemed to emphatically quash any possible speculation over a “great coalition” between the two major parties, whatever their “colors,” as happened in Germany and more recently in Italy.

SNS Strategy: Moderation and Development

From their point of view, Nikolić and SNS are now challenging Tadić and DS by maintaining a moderate stance, with the goal of moving towards the center of Serbia’s political spectrum, and to defuse the party’s nationalistic reputation.

Thus, while keeping his strong position towards Kosovo, Nikolić welcomed the obtainment of EU candidate status during a rally in Jagodina on 4 April, and has declared that the main focus of his tenure, if he is elected, would be the fight against corruption and organized crime.

He also responded to the concerns voiced by Jelena Trivan, saying that his party wants “to disclose those who were stealing money from the citizens, and to see how self-governments realized public procurement, and how your money was spent.”

The second pillar of Nikolić’s campaign is the economy: Tanjug reported his speech during a meeting in Babusnica, when he stated that his party will advocate for the establishment of a development bank and granting of loans from the Development Fund, but without the burdens imposed by banking mortgages.

Nikolić pointed out that small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the economy across the world, and that only in Serbia the authorities, with their “failed policy,” allowed the destruction of 60,000 companies and over 260,000 jobs, increasing only the bureaucracy and the privileges of the political elite.

As reported above, the main opponents were neck-to-neck in opinion polls earlier in April. Yet anyway, with a foreseen turnout of around 51%, it is necessary to consider this data with caution. As reported by the analyst Zoran Stojiljković, the population’s trust in political parties and officials is now at its lowest level since 2001, and probably, whoever will be elected president, the winning party will be the non-voting one.

SPS Strategy: Highlighting the Achievements of Ivica Dačić and the Police

Five more candidates (in addition to Tadić and Nikolić) have been confirmed by the Serbian Electoral Commission: the first one is the current Minister of Internal Affairs, Ivica Dačić, leader of the SPS, whose candidacy was strengthened by the great results Serbia obtained, during his tenure, in the fight against organized crime.

These efforts have been recognized, amongst others, by the American DEA, as a consequence of the joint operation codenamed ‘Balkan Warrior’ (this operation was also reported in a previous article). In general, the past couple years have seen Serbia take a much stronger and more reliable role in hosting regional and international law enforcement events and in cooperation over international investigations ranging from drug busts to cracking down on art theft and helping with intelligence leading to arrests of criminals on three continents. The party is thus seeking to associate these results with its leader in support of his candidacy.

Recent surveys credit the interior minister with 11.2 % support, which is said to represent the majority of the Serbian population still doubtful about the SPS’s capability to lead a government that will have to take some crucial decision about the state’s future. Dačić has taken a strong position over Kosovo, as demonstrated with the arrest of the Albanian policemen Shukri Binaku and Sami Beqiri, on Saturday March 31, at the Merdare border crossing.

Dačić said “the incursion of the two KPS [Kosovo Police] members constituted a drastic violation of the Military Technical Agreement signed in Kumanovo [in Macedonia] in 1999,” B92 reported. “I will continue to arrest them, as long as they keep threatening Serbia’s constitutional order. They called me from the EU to release them immediately and I told them ‘when you release the Serbs in Kosovo’. That’s the way to defend Serbia, not by constant concessions and going down on our knees,” Dačić stated.

“What are they doing in the territory of central Serbia and what agreement does that fall under?” Dačić asked, adding that “anyone who dared to violate the Kumanovo Military Technical Agreement this way would be arrested.”

The officers were released into the custody of EULEX officials on Monday, April 2, and taken to Kosovo. In their defense, Pristina said the officers had been patrolling in an area of responsibility of Kosovo police.

This behavior could grant Dačić some votes, but could also make it more difficult for him to enter a future DS-led government, and also for his position about Serbia’s European future. He has called on Serbian citizens to support him in the presidential elections “because for him there is only Serbia and social justice,” adding that he would always fight for them.

The aspiring candidate also said that he would only promise one thing to the voters – that Serbia would always come first and that he would renew the trust in Serbia and protect its national and state interests: “we will go to the EU only if it is in Serbia’s interests, if it is not, we won’t.”

Koštunica Looks for a Comeback

The fourth candidate is by no means a surprise, since he had already served as the Yugoslav Federation’s president for three years and as Serbia’s prime minister during two cabinets (2004-2009): Vojislav Koštunica, leader of SDS, who jumped into the election race just few hours after the announcement of Boris Tadić’s resignation.

His figure, even if not counted as a possible winner, will probably affect future surveys which had reduced the presidential race to a contest between Tadić and Nikolić. In particular, his nationalistic stance may gain him votes from Nikolić and SNS.

And from the URS: Zoran Stanković

The fifth candidate in next week’s election will be the current Minister of Health Zoran Stanković, whose name was put forward by the United Regions of Serbia, a coalition founded by the G17 Plus, Together for Šumadija, Vojvodina’s Party, People’s Party and many minor political formations.

URS spokesman Dinkić said at an electoral rally in Belgrade on Saturday 31 March that they do not want to follow Tadić’s politics, but that he does not “want Tomislav Nikolić’s path either. We need neither the first nor the second option, but the third, a clear path and a clear plan proposed by the URS,”

Dinkić stressed that he was “disappointed” with the way the DS had been running the country “because not a single problem can be solved with a strong president and weak prime minister and finance minister.”

He also pointed out that he was not satisfied with the number of investors in Serbia “because there are still factories from the past century in many towns and municipalities in the country, even in Belgrade, and many of them still work.”

URS criticizes the government’s economic policy, especially the subsidies for agriculture and the policies made in the construction sector. Dinkić underlined also that the EU candidate status was not enough “because Europe will not abolish taxes in Serbia, Serbia has to do it by itself,”

Finally, from the Extremes: Cedomir Jovanović and the Radical Party’s Jadranka Šešelj

The sixth candidate will be the president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the U-Turn Movement, Cedomir Jovanović, who is characterized by a pro-western stance towards the EU, NATO and, above all, Kosovo.

In January 2012, he stated that “we need to bring some common sense into the policy toward Kosovo, it is an axiom that Kosovo is independent from Serbia. We need to sit down at the table with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci as soon as possible.”

He also said that he is running in order to remind the country of its past mistakes: “Serbia needs a president who would be supported by Sarajevo, understood by Croatia and who would not be satisfied with having divided the Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo”. These views make him a controversial figure in Serbian political life, and his not considered a possible winner.

Finally, the Radical Party of Vojislav Šešelj will offer its jailed leader’s wife Jadranka, running for the presidency for the first time in a largely symbolic expression of the far-right and ultra-nationalist electorate. Opinion polls grant her less than 5% of the votes, but this would also take away what would be perhaps a crucial clinching margin of victory from the center-right candidates.

Marginalia and Minutiae

Some other more marginal political figures previously announced that they would submit their names for the vote: leader of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM) – Istvan Pastor, leader of the Dveri movement Vladan Glisić, leader of the Movement of Workers and Farmers (PRS) Zoran Dragisić, and Chief Mufti of (one of the two) Islamic Communities in Serbia, Muamer Zukorlić, a controversial Islamic leader based in Novi Pazar.

The deadline for submission of nominations for the presidential elections was April 15, while the order of candidates will be determined by drawing lots, which was scheduled for 7.15 PM on April 20.

The Numbers

When it comes to coalitions that will compete in the parliamentary elections, as said the one led by Nikolić’s SNS continued to top public opinion polls in April, with 33.4 percent support, followed by the one gathered around Tadić’s DS, which would receive 29.4 percent according to April polls. The coalition formed by the SPS would backed by 11.6 percent of voters, with the LDP-led U-Turn, the Serb Radicals (SRS) and the DSS following with 6.3, 5.7 and 5.5 percent respectively.

The Mlađan Dinkić-led United Regions of Serbia (URS) could hope for only 3.4 percent, according to this survey. Since Serbian electoral law set a 5% threshold to enter the Parliament, at this moment it would not win any seat.

The Serbian presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for Sunday 6th May, will probably require a second, run-off ballot for the presidency two weeks later. At that time we will certainly know more about the possible policy shifts and general trends we can expect from Serbia over the next four years.