Serbia finally held its parliamentary and local elections on June 21 — they were supposed to take place on April 26 but were postponed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. After convincingly winning the 2016 legislative and 2017 presidential elections, President Aleksander Vučić’s SNS party scored an even more impressive victory with more than 63 percent of the votes. This was one of Europe’s biggest landslides, with a 53-point difference with the party that came in second, its coalition partner SPS.
With the opposition boycotting the elections, the only other list to make it into parliament is the right-wing Patriotic Alliance. Here are five reasons Serbians had so few voting alternatives in the recent elections.
1. The setting
Serbians held mass demonstrations in more than 100 cities during January and February 2019, protesting against attacks on media freedom and political violence against opposition leader Borko Stefanović. This gave momentum to the opposition, which came together in an “Agreement with the People” with two main aims: ensure fair elections and restore the rule of law. Four months later, the opposition, formed mainly by the Alliance for Serbia, demanded electoral reforms.
The opposition laid out all of the problems facing Serbian democracy: from a media monopoly to lack of electoral integrity, from political pressure on voters to institutional malfunctioning. And signatories of the Agreement with the People threatened to boycott the 2020 elections if the government failed to take steps to improve Serbia’s democratic process.
2. The negotiations
The boycott threat prompted talks between the ruling and opposition parties at the end of July, first at the Faculty of Political Sciences, then in parliament with the mediation of various European parliamentarians. Some opposition members soon left the negotiations, suspicious that representatives of the ruling parties had no real desire to make changes, but instead were just checking the “well, we tried” box. Paradoxically, the ruling parties opposed any changes too close to the elections but also refused to postpone the April election date, which was what part of the opposition demanded.
3. The boycott
The failure of last summer’s talks prompted the five most relevant Serbian opposition parties — Democratic Party, People’s Party, Party of Freedom and Justice and Dveri, which are part of the wider “Alliance for Serbia,”and the Free Citizens Movement — to declare an electoral boycott in January. The main aim was to attract the attention of international organizations like the European Union, in the hope of jump-starting a negotiated process of structural electoral reforms, similar to the process in North Macedonia four years ago. Free Citizens later abandoned the boycott.
4. The pandemic
Then the pandemic hit. Government authorities initially played down the risk, calling the coronavirus “the funniest virus in history.” On March 4 the government called for elections to be held at the end of April. While some opposition candidates struggled to obtain the necessary 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot, the ruling SNS candidates had no problem collecting five times the minimum signatures.
The pandemic prompted the Serbian government to introduce a state of emergency on March 15 and eventually suspend the April elections. However, this occurred without the consent of parliament, with did not reconvene until the end of April. Although the government had banned all events — including political rallies — President Vučić regularly addressed the nation and personally led the delivery of medical equipment in what critics called campaign events, rather than humanitarian aid.
After the country started to flatten the virus curve, the government scheduled elections for June 21. This was electorally convenient, as an economic crisis would likely hit the country after the summer. The June date also allowed the governing parties to benefit from the popularity of economic measures taken against the advice of economic experts: for example, giving 100 euros to every citizen once the state of alarm was over.
5. The reforms fall short
Using the pandemic as an excuse, the government changed the electoral law in May, just one day before the electoral campaign restarted. This means politically driven local governments, not notaries, must now verify the minimum number of signatures required to get candidates on the ballot.
Many Serbians have grown increasingly suspicious of the legality of the electoral lists. Despite outcries from both the public and news media asking the Electoral Commission to make this information public, only three parties announced how they collected signatures and who certified the necessary signatures to stand in the elections.
This wasn’t Serbia’s only electoral reform. In fact, the government introduced a new, lower threshold to enter parliament in February in anticipation of an opposition boycott. The aim was not to increase the number of political factions represented in parliament, which in Serbia — at least in comparative perspective — is already high, but to allow other “walk-on” parties to overcome the new 3 percent electoral threshold, which is two points lower than before. Only three parties passed this threshold, as pre-election opinion polls suggested.
As we previously noted in The Monkey Cage, Serbia is slowly moving toward a hybrid regime that is part democratic, part authoritarian — what political scientists call a “competitive authoritarian” regime. Freedom House has reported a decline in both political and civil liberties in Serbia.
This was the fourth SNS victory in the past 12 years. Marred by the pandemic, media manipulation, opposition boycotts, thousands of voters (about 150,000) spoiling their ballots, last-minute legislative changes, electoral irregularities and the lowest turnout in Serbia’s parliamentary history, many Serbians question whether the recent elections were competitive elections or just a vote without choice.
Several groups in the E.U. Parliament have already sent warning letters about the worrisome state of democracy and electoral conditions in Serbia. As a result, the E.U. might be obliged to intervene, as it did in North Macedonia, and try resolve Serbia’s political crisis around electoral legitimacy and government representation.
Boban Stojanović is a PhD candidate at the University of Belgrade, Serbia (@Radoholicar). Fernando Casal Bértoa is an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom (@CasalBertoa).