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In Serbia’s One-sided Elections, Belgrade is the Opposition’s Hope

The Vucic government has an arsenal of dirty tricks up its sleeve to make sure elections don’t produce any ‘surprises’ – but the capital could still deliver an upset.

The image of Serbia before early parliamentary elections scheduled for December 17 recalls all election years since 2012, when Aleksandar Vucic and the Serbian Progressive Party took power.

Vucic has called the elections when it suited him, the deadlines for the campaign and verification of electoral lists are short, the media is under the control of the government, and lies and fear feel like stale air.

Although everything has been seen before, there are differences compared to the previous elections in April 2022, however.

The popularity of the ruling Progressive Party, which won as many as 120 out of 250 parliamentary seats, is in decline. The opposition got stronger by entering parliament, and it could be said that it became more mature and responsible.

Thanks to live TV broadcasts, members of the opposition have been able to enter the homes of ordinary citizens and attack the regime’s corrupt and criminal activities. In this way, Radomir Lazovic, Marinika Tepic, Miroslav Aleksic, Aleksandar Cuta Jovanovic, Srdjan Milivojevic and others became recognizable among voters.

The descending trend of the Serbian Progressive Party is partly down to the unreasonable and harmful attitude taken towards the Serbs in Kosovo, who have been turned into hostages of Belgrade. Also, two tragic events, two mass murders, shook Serbia in May. The first happened in a Belgrade elementary school when a pupil killed eight of his classmates and a guard and injured a teacher and six other children. The second happened only a day later, near Mladenovac, where the killer killed eight people and wounded 14 in two villages.

Both massacres go on the conscience of the regime, which has created an atmosphere of fear, hatred and conflict in society. Citizens in Belgrade and other places took to the streets under the slogan “Serbia against violence”. The protests, held with varying intensity, lasted until the announcement of elections.

Although the authorities ignored them, they shook them up. At one point, on May 26, Vucic tried to pull off an old trick in response – he organised a counter-rally. They brought people from all over Serbia, handed out sandwiches, paid daily wages, but the response was below expectations. Devastating.

The opposition that was with the people at the protests will go to the elections under the same name – “Serbia against violence”. The coalition comprises the Party of Freedom and Justice, SSP, Together, the Democratic Party, DS, the People’s Movement of Serbia, the Green-Left Front, Serbia Center, SRCE, Movement of Free Citizens, PSG, Romanian Party, Ecological Uprising, Movement for Reversal, the Sloga union and the New Face of Serbia movement.

Other opposition parties, mainly from the “patriotic” bloc, will come out in several columns. So far, two coalitions have been registered. One formed by Zavetnici (Oathkeepers) and Dveri (doors), who put Kosovo at the forefront of their campaign, and the other in which are the New Democratic Party of Serbia, NDSS, and the Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia, POKS. Interestingly, these four right-wing parties failed to come together, perhaps because some of them do not find the idea of post-election cooperation with Vucic disgusting.

Three opposition parties, for now, are not in the election race: the Social Democratic Party of former President of Serbia, Boris Tadic; the People’s Party of former minister Vuk Jeremic and “Enough is Enough” (Dosta je bilo) of former Vucic associate Sasa Radulovic. Each of them can hardly cross the electoral threshold of 3 per cent on their own. Their individual performance will only help waste some of the opposition’s votes, just as the 2.86 per cent of the votes from Tadic’s list went to waste in the previous Belgrade elections, which enabled the Progressive Party to remain in power in the city.

In addition to parliamentary elections, on the same day, leaders of 65 municipalities and cities whose leaders have submitted their resignations by directive from the Serbian Progressive Party will also be elected.

Vucic’s power is most threatened in Belgrade, so the question is whether the opposition can win in the capital.

Analysts and public opinion researchers believe it can. Djordje Vukadinovic, editor of New Serbian Political Thought, estimates, based on research from October, that the chances for success are real. According to his assessment, the ruling coalition of the Progressive Party and Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, could get less than 40 per cent of the votes in the capital.

Belgrade has become less and less suitable for living for some time. Many streets are neglected or dug up, traffic jams are a daily occurrence, public transport does not function well, there are few new trams, trolleys or buses. Air pollution on winter days is often the highest in the world. In the ten years of Vucic’s rule, all these problems have increased and everything is visible to the naked eye; no expert analysis is needed for that.

Many Belgraders’ expectations have been let down due to broken promises. Vucic repeatedly promised citizens living on the left bank of the Danube a sewerage system. Years passed and the settlements of Borca, Ovca, Kotez and Krnjaca, home to more than 100,000 people, still have problems with septic tanks and human waste. The Progressive Party cannot count on their votes as safe now.

Most of what the Progressives have done in ten years in the capital can be summed up in two words – Belgrade Waterfront. They invested everything in this project, relocated railway traffic, demolished buildings, even at night, donated hundreds of hectares of state land in the heart of the city to private investors and equipped it with utilities. The citizens have received no benefit from the project. The money from thousands of built apartments goes elsewhere, and many voters feel that.

The “headquarters” did not ask the authorities in Serbia’s second city, Nis, to resign – for two reasons. The first is that the Progressive Party has little chance to win in this city, and the second is that a number of voters from Nis have been registered on the electoral rolls of other places where power is “shaking”.

Moving voters that way is an established practice of the Progressives that changes the electoral will of domiciled citizens. During the previous elections in Belgrade, there were many cases of “phantom voters” who were never seen by anyone at a specific address, yet even election materials were delivered to them.

One Stamenko Jovicic confirmed to TV N1 in 2022 that there were five such persons in his building. The well-known rock critic Predrag Peca Popovic stated that before every election, mail for a non-existent Marija Djordjevic arrives at his address.

There are indications that “phantom” voters from the interior of the country and from Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska can be expected to come to Belgrade to change the soul of the capital. This was pointed out by MP Djordje Miketic in whose building a certain phantom voter called “Mrs Radica” is registered.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic denied Miketic’s claim. But this well-established election set-up also contains a criminal act, because phantoms vote with fake ID cards, and those cannot be obtained without logistics in the police. That is why no one ever was held accountable for it.

While Vucic’s defeat in the capital can be expected, the real question is whether the opposition will be able to take power, even in case of victory.

At the previous elections, in 2022, the opposition in total won thousands more votes than the Progressive Party. But the elections were repeated in many places, the vote count was dragged out, and in the end the Progressive-Socialist coalition had 56 out of 110 council seats. That narrow majority was then strengthened to 57:53 by a “switcher” from the opposition Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia.

The opposition gathered around the “Serbia against violence” coalition is Vucic’s main rival in Belgrade. But, while Vucic has a sure post-election ally in Dacic’s Socialist Party, “Serbia against violence” has no reliable partners. There are those who, like the leader of New Democratic Party of Serbia, Milos Jovanovic, exclude the possibility of cooperation with the Progressive Party, but it is discouraging that the Dveri leader, Bosko Obradovic, avoids speaking out on the subject in public. No doubt, in the event of a close result, enough “switchers” from the “patriotic” opposition will come to the aid of the authorities.

It is a pity that “Serbia against violence” and the Dveri-Zavetnici coalition will not come together in Belgrade. It would be a winning combination. Both have two excellent candidates for mayor. Both are university professors: Vlada Obradovic, from the Faculty of Organizational Sciences, and Ratko Ristic, from the Faculty of Forestry. Both are both people of integrity and experts. Obradovic was also a member of parliament, while Ristic stood out in the fight for environmental protection. There is also no doubt that each will “steal” votes from the other.

“Serbia against violence” has enormous support from non-party-oriented figures who gathered around the ProGlas initiative like the former president of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts Vladimir Kostic, the former rector of the University of Belgrade Ivanka Popovic, the actors Svetlana Bojkovic and Dragan Bjelogrlic, judge Miodrag Majic, director Srdan Golubovic and others.

They did not explicitly support the “Serbia against violence” coalition, but their public appearances and calls to citizens to go to the polls have put wind in the sails of the coalition. More than 100,000 citizens signed the ProGlas initiative in a few days.

Vucic’s biggest opponent in these elections will not be on the opposition list. That invisible enemy is inflation, declining living standards and the difficult life of most citizens. No type of propaganda can erase that. Last year, inflation was 15-16 per cent, among the highest in Europe, and food prices, on which the most money is spent, rose by over 30 per cent. Inflation is higher even than in war-torn Ukraine. Many Serbian products are cheaper in neighboring countries than they are in Serbia.

What life looks like for many can be seen in the case of Belgrade pensioner R. F. who says that once he pays the bills for his apartment and phone, he has 5,000 dinars left.  That’s about 42 euros for the month. It’s not enough to live on for five days, which is why he has to work as a taxi driver, even though he is chronically ill.

The government knows this very well, which is why it has promised a one-time payment of 20,000 dinars to each pensioner and 10,000 to each social benefit recipient. The payments will come right before the elections – a typical example of buying votes with state money.

In order to create more optimism among people, the ruling clique announces that by 2027, the average monthly salary in Serbia will be 1,400 euros and the average pension, 650. We just have to survive until then. That is why Finance Minister Sinisa Mali joyfully announced that inflation in October fell to 8.5 per cent, “much faster than expected”. Whoever does not trust his own pocket should trust the minister.

The authorities are doing everything not to leave voters to chance and vote according to their own will. There is a well-known matrix at work; if the opposition wins, Serbia will collapse. Vucic himself has said that if the Progressive Party loses, he will no longer be President, and will step down: “After that, I can’t do anything for the citizens of Serbia. To pretend so would be nice for me, and bad for the people – I won’t do that.”

At least half of the citizens who vote against the Serbian Progressive Party would be happy with such an outcome, but it probably turns the confused and undecided in the direction of the authorities.

In order to turn voters away from the opposition, the government does not shy away from the dirtiest tricks. So recently, Belgrade was plastered with posters with the image of Pavle Grbovic, leader of Movement of Free Citizens, in the uniform of the Ustasha – the Croatian fascist organisation during World War II. This young man has nothing to do with Nazism or the crimes of World War II, but for the Progressives this is no problem. Recent former minister Aleksandar Martinovic claims the opposition is preparing to take to the streets after the elections, to cause chaos, and perhaps “civil war”. The Prime Minister repeats her claims about causing chaos.

In other words, vote for the Progressive Party if you want to keep the peace. Yet the only side that has hooligans, thugs, armed groups and all state power is the authorities. Only they can cause conflicts if they are dissatisfied with the election results. In case of defeat, according to the Professor Miodrag Jovanovic, a member of the Republic Electoral Commission, they have already formed five judicial panels that will deal only with election complaints.

To all this we should add “safe” votes, that is the votes of blackmailed employees in the state administration and public companies. Many are employed for a certain period only, and in order to keep their jobs they have to secure “a certain numbers of votes”. Also, there is still time to submit electoral lists, and there is no doubt that the authorities will support anyone else who can snatch votes from “Serbia against violence”. Neither money nor staff will be spared for this.

Source : Balkan Insight