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Serbian presidential elections in 2017: Vučić’s clear victory in the not-so-clean elections

Reading Time: 13 minutes

By Miloš Milojević.

On April 3, 2017, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić won the presidential election at the first round, with 55% of the votes. He will become officially president of Serbia on May 31, 2017.

Serbia, Belgrade – It is unlikely that the outcome of the presidential election held in Serbia on Sunday, April 2, could have been different. After fierce, expensive and unfair campaigns, the use of state resources and his position as Prime Minister, with various minor irregularities throughout the country, it is unusual that Aleksandar Vučić, the Prime Minister and now the newly elected President of the Republic, had not achieved a landslide victory. That cannot do much to comfort opposition candidates who – all together – won 13% fewer votes than the winner of the election. Perhaps they can find consolation in the fact that politically diverse coalition that supported Aleksandar Vučić as its presidential candidate received several hundred thousand votes less than in the parliamentary elections last year. But, frankly, much more solid and successful incumbent governments over the course of five years (the coalition’s period in office) would have had a greater decline in ratings.

All in all, the presidential elections in Serbia deserve a more analytical view, even though they had a predictable result and did not bring about change in the national leadership. First, the decision of the ruling coalition’s prime minister to run for president is unusual. Formally, the President of the Republic of Serbia has relatively few constitutional powers. It boils down to protocol duties of representing the country before the outside world: he embodies the unity of the Republic and is supreme commander of the armed forces; he awards medals and other honors; can return adopted legislative proposals for reconsideration in the Parliament after the second vote or adoption must be initialed and confirmed by him to acquire legal force. And that is all. However, the specific position of the President consists in the fact that, despite relatively few political powers, he is elected in direct elections, which practically shows that he is the most popular political figure at any given time. Maybe that’s why the president of the Serbian Progressive Party and Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić – despite already being endowed with these two powerful positions – decided to enter the race anyway for the mostly ceremonial office of President of the Republic. And perhaps the key reason was also the quite predictable expectation that as his prime minister he would select someone politically weak who would be strongly influenced by the President – rather, the President and the ruling party, which will continue to have a decisive influence through its parliamentary majority.

Another interesting feature of these elections is the conduct of the opposition. Opposition candidates were not particularly optimistic before the elections – and have even less reason to be after the publication of the results. But as many commentators suggested, the elections were an opportunity to test the relative weight of various opposition candidates and that may prove to be the starting position for future coalition combinations. The curiosity of choice is the emergence of opposition candidate Luka Maksimović, a twenty-four year-old from Mladenovac, near Belgrade, with no previous political experience or career at the national level. He led a local political movement under the pseudonym Ljubisa Preletačević Beli, and achieved exceptionally high scores on the elections – just over 9% of the vote, placing him in the third place, just behind the newly elected President Aleksandar Vučić and opposition candidate Saša Janković, the liberal candidate. The latter had an unimpressive bureaucratic career and received around 16% of votes, which is a pretty good result. Luka Maksimović, aka Ljubisa Preletačević, received considerable attention from the Western media – including Britain’s BBC – and his phenomenon was interpreted as a local, youthful and humorous response reflecting general distrust of the political establishment. Something similar to the Five Star Movement in Italy or, in Spain, Podemos (Podemos albeit with a much more serious infrastructure and clear ideological orientation). Unfortunately for those who believe that such a movement could represent a powerful generator of changes in the political life, European experience teaches us the following. Movements “from the electoral base” aimed generally against “everything” usually just fortify established power centers, the ossified political mainstream, and technocrats committed to European integration, like Angela Merkel. It is not difficult to guess that in Serbia the beneficiary would be none other than – Aleksandar Vučić!

The Candidates

The foreign policy aspect of these elections we will look at later, but now we must go back to the beginning – the presidential nomination. Since Aleksandar Vučić has managed very well for himself in the role of presidential candidate, it would seem surprising that on several occasions over a long period of time he claimed that he does not dare run in the presidential election. In fact, since the former (and current) President Tomislav Nikolić won the 2012 election as a candidate of the then opposition Serbian Progressive Party, many expected that he would be the logical choice again to be his former party’s presidential candidate in these elections.

It seems that for a time Tomislav Nikolić was under the same impression – although late last year he did not explicitly state whether or not to enter the presidential race. This possibility was mentioned semi-informally at the time of the feats of the Visitation, a church and national holiday when Serbia marks the beginning of the First Serbian Uprising and the restoration of its statehood, at the state reception and was instantly conveyed by journalists of the Russian news agency Sputnik. The news spread instantly over the Internet and when it became clear that Tomislav Nikolić would run, the question arose whether there would be a rift within the ruling party. Media loyal Aleksandar Vučić – and that is most of the media in Serbia – showered the current President with public calumny and defamation by writing about him as if he were at the forefront of some anti-state conspiracy. This was followed by a meeting of Aleksandar Vučić and Tomislav Nikolić behind closed doors – Nikolić said afterwards that he was ready to support Vučić’s candidacy, although in the end he participated very little in the campaign.

Thus, Aleksandar Vučić, ignored the earlier multiple denials of his intention to run as the presidential candidate of the ruling coalition gathered around the Serbian Progressive Party. Within that coalition of smaller parties that for some time have linked their political fate to the SNS was to be found also the Socialist Party of Serbia, which previously always had its own presidential candidate!

Unlike the SNS, where the public could easily figure out how the short-term crisis over the presidential candidate would ultimately be resolved, in the ranks of the opposition the situation was more complex. At the liberal end of the political spectrum was the Democratic Party, whose former leader Boris Tadic had suffered electoral defeat in 2012 and also launched a chain of events that led to the strengthening of the power of SNS, was not prepared to nominate its own candidate. Its candidate thus became Saša Janković. A few years ago Saša Janković was, as far as the general public was concerned, a largely unrecognizable figure – a lawyer by profession, for several decades he held a variety of bureaucratic red tape and political functions regardless of which party or politician was dominant in Serbian political life. So in the second half of the 90s he held the post of secretary in the Ministry of Youth and Sport, in a period that among liberal voters is especially abhorred. However, such a career marked by mostly non-political functions in the long halls of the state bureaucracy did not work against him – he was, in fact, embraced by various liberal and moderate leftist organization in Serbian public life, including the Democratic Party and the New Party whose leader, Zoran Živković, briefly served as prime minister after the assassination of Zoran Đinđić in 2003. Besides the two aforementioned parties, Jankovic had the support provided by small local movements (Local front) as well as the organization called “Do not drown Belgrade,” aimed against the construction of the Belgrade waterfront project and the numerous financial and legal irregularities that accompany it (see article that briefly addresses this issue).

Jankovic has gained a public reputation for his performance as the ombudsman – which is strictly speaking a legal-bureaucratic and not political function. His statements related to the Sava Мala case and numerous other abuses of power have created – with the skillful use of social networks – the halo of a staunch fighter for justice against the corrupt regime, even though his risk was virtually non-existent – as he was elected to a ten-year term, which expired this year.

In addition to the aforementioned Janković and Luka Maksimović (alias Ljubisa Preletačević) among the opposition candidates there stood out Vuk Jeremić, a former foreign minister, who after his political career in Serbia achieved a distinguished career at the United Nations – he chaired the UN General Assembly, established a number of important contacts high-up international politics and in the election to the post of UN Secretary General took second place. Jeremić has long figured in the Serbian public as a person who has a significant political capital, and in Serbia that can achieve significant results. During his ministerial mandate he was noticed as someone who fiercely resisted in the international arena the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo, a struggle – in Serbian circumstances equivalent to a miracle – which yielded certain results.

Other presidential candidates – including hard core nationalist Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj – were not given particularly high chances. Specifically, Šešelj had long flirts with the regime of Aleksandar Vučić. Since he is known as a stubborn and unwavering opposition figure, that seriously damaged his rating – which was clearly demonstrated in this election.

The campaign: what was said and the media torture

The campaign for the presidential election was relatively short but brutally intense. There is a distinct advantage for the ruling party in the available media and financial resources.

To gain insight into this situation, I will mention a few details from the article devoted to media opportunities during the election campaign. Journalist Sandra Petrušić from the Belgrade weekly NIN calculated that in prime time news broadcasts on national television RTS, between 9 and 29 March, Aleksandar Vučić spoke 2,374 seconds while the runner-up Saša Janković was present for only 285 seconds. At the national daily TV Pink, quite popular among the Serbian audience, Vučić had a chance to articulate his political ideas for a total of 17,334 seconds, which is more than 90% of the total time devoted to pre-election activities and far more than the time available to all other candidates put together. Vučić had the advantage that, as the Prime Minister (he did not resign for the campaign) he could perform his regular job, which is exhaustively reported on by all the media, while the other candidates were given space exclusively in a regular election programs. An interesting detail is the fact that on 17 February in the National Journal on TV Pink applause for Aleksandar Vučić on one occasion was broadcast for a full three minutes and 46 seconds, without any accompanying comments!

To make things even stranger, the ruling party had continuously accused opposition candidates of spending huge amounts of money for their campaign – publically wondering at the same time where the money for these purposes was coming from. Presumably this charge comes down to a total fabrication because the number of TV spots that were aired by opposition candidates was pitiful compared to the gigantic campaign mounted by the ruling party candidates.

However, what is particularly disturbing is not the official campaign but the tabloid media torture through which they passed opposition candidates. Although the targets were all opposition figures except those in favor of the government (such as Vojislav Šešelj, the obscure Miroslav Parović and Nenad Čanak), particularly vicious attacks were directed against Vuk Jeremić. The defamation Jeremić and his family marks the culmination of the moral downfall of the Serbian media. Two examples are particularly striking: the Informer tabloid and its editor Dragan J. Vučićević published accusations that the former minister arranged for his wife to receive state funds “allegedly” for treatment in the United States; the word “allegedly” is used to imply that there wasn’t any treatment but a shady financial transaction. Also targeted were the Jeremić children – another example of the professional dishonesty of tabloids supporting Aleksandar Vučić, which were not shy to violate the privacy of people who have never been associated with any criminal act or any financial controversy.

All the preceding is nothing compared to what followed. Milenko Jovanov, official of the Serbian Progressive Party, said in a statement that Natasa Jeremić, wife Vuk Jeremić and former presenter of Radio Television Serbia – was the head of the largest drug cartel in the country! There was a press conference where Natasa Jeremic, visibly shaken, denied these absurd accusations. This was followed by a mild reprimand by Aleksandar Vučić, and a party official’s apology “to the citizens of Serbia” (not Natasa Jeremic, the target of this horrible slander). The kind of media campaign that was unleashed was the subject of Vuk Jeremić’s pre-election interview with the weekly “Vreme”: “I was the target of very aggressive media campaigns in all these semi-state media, you could have heard or read all sorts of things, from the accusation that I was involved in the murder of guards soldiers, to participating in the robbery, or embezzlement, of millions in state funds … This of course has nothing to do with the truth, but I think that, as with many other things, it went much too far. “

In this media situation where elections were characterized as a choice between nasty forces that prey on Aleksandar Vučić, and you guessed it – Aleksandar Vučić, it was not too important what the candidates were saying in campaign.

In short, Vučić throughout the campaign stressed “stability,” insisting that the election of a candidate from another party would be disastrous for the country and the political process, which he painstakingly has been building up over the past few years. In Serbia relatively recently there was a situation when the President and Prime Minister were from different parties – when Vojislav Koštunica was Prime Minister and Boris Tadić President – but nothing particularly devastating happened so it is hard to figure out what was meant by Aleksandar Vučić when he spoke of preserving stability. His tabloids published absurd allegations that opposition candidates Sasa Janković, Vuk Jeremić and Boško Obradović were conspirators who were ready to drag the country into a civil war! Vučić also claimed to his credit some prominent achievements of the Government, especially in the sphere of economic policy, and international support that Serbia enjoys. He also tried to attract potential voters by glamorizing his personality – his elderly parents and minor daughter were featured on television and gave brief interviews to the Belgrade newspaper Blic. These invasions of privacy and attempts to glorify the prime minister appeared to ordinary people as funny and sometimes grotesque.

Criticism of Aleksandar Vučić was a key theme of other opposition candidates. Saša Janković focused his criticism on encroachment of the law. The struggle for “a decent Serbia” and “rule of law” were the main slogans of his campaign. Luka Maksimović did not have a campaign. Some commentators indicate his election campaign as a symbol of anti-politics that ultimately favors the ruling parties because it does not offer any political alternative. Vuk Jeremić conducted his campaign from moderate right-wing positions while insisting that he opposes Serbia’s membership in NATO and supports the sovereignty of Serbia in Kosovo and Metohija. He also sharply criticized Aleksandar Vučić, alluding to possible criminal conduct that is associated with his family. It is quite possible that this is one of the key reasons why he was attacked particularly fiercely in the pro-government media.

International factor: friends and even better friends

Among the successes of the Government that Aleksandar Vučić amply exploited in his political appearances, the international prestige of the state is something that he frequently cited. During the election campaign Vučić met with Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, and – from the standpoint of Serbian public opinion far more significant – with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin received Aleksandar Vučić on an official visit in Moscow on 27 March. The meeting apparently did not have too great a practical significance. The Serbian public have long known about the procurement of weapons from Russia (especially combat aircraft), but so far the implementation of the agreement has been stalled. The Russian president said he hopes the Serbian-Russian relations will develop in a friendly spirit, “no matter how the political situation turns out.” He wished Vučić and his party success in the elections, which might have been just a courtesy or a statement that could have been interpreted as political.

The Russian president enjoys great popularity among the Serbian public and has strong political authority that was obviously used by the generally pro-Western Aleksandar Vučić to present himself in a more favorable light to the part of the electorate that favors Russia.

In terms of media, Vučić could not resist these two visits to capitalize in a striking and at the same time grotesque way – in a television studio during his appearance in the background stood a huge picture of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, between which was a portrait of himself. This author is puzzled as to the meaning of this visual symbolism.

But far more unambiguous was the symbolism Gerhard Schröder’s visits to Serbia on March 24 and his participation in the presidential campaign. Schröder was in fact the Chancellor of Germany at the time when that country, as a NATO member, participated in the bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The day when he visited Serbia was actually the anniversary of the NATO aggression during which a number of civilians were killed and Serbia and Montenegro suffered significant material damage. Ironically, Aleksandar Vučić in whose election rally Schröder spoke was in 1999 the Government Minister responsible for Information. It seems that even such a provocative move did not damage Vučić’s rating. Some commentators have wittily noticed that Vučić presumably wants to see what outrageous things he can do without his voters reacting (a great deal, apparently).

Results and Post-Election Perspectives

When reflecting on the political processes in Serbia in the preceding months the election results should not be surprising. Opposition candidates had hoped and struggled to make it at least into the second round (which takes place when no candidate receives a majority of the votes) but they did not succeed. Turnout was as usual, despite expectations of Saša Radulović, one of the presidential candidates and leader of the movement “Enough”, that more candidates mean greater voter turnout. According to presently available results (based on data from 97.42% of the polling stations) Aleksandar Vučić received 1,953,481 (55.02%) votes, Saša Janković 580,914 (16.36%), Luka Maksimović 334,859 (9.43%), Vuk Jeremić 200,984 (5.66%) and Vojislav Šešelj 159,912 (4.5%). Other candidates received significantly fewer votes. Among them, the pleasant surprise of the election was Milan Stamatović, long-term Mayor of Čajetina who has so far been active mainly at the local level. He was the choice of 41.591 (1.17%) voters.

The insight into the political condition of the nation based on these elections is not very encouraging, especially viewed from the right of center political perspective. Slobodan Antonić, sociologist and political analyst, wrote about the results of these elections as a “warning to patriots”. According to him, these elections were “a serious indicator of the weakness of the patriotic forces.” Đorđe Vukadinović, MP and editor of a prominent opposition portal NSPM, wrote that “commenting on the Serbian opposition under Vučić is a somewhat morbid, not to say necrophiliac job.”

Aleksandar Vučić, of course, can be satisfied by this situation – especially since he achieved his main goal, victory in the first round. Actually, by appointing a weak prime minister he will be in an ideal position to bear no significant political responsibility while making virtually all key political decisions. Especially so because the achievements of the Government about Vučić likes to boast may prove phantasmagoric. Dragoljub Žarković, editor of the respected weekly “Vreme,” has stated that favorable economic indicators depend on several factors (the dollar, oil prices in the international market and changing interest rates on the international financial market) which Serbia cannot influence but that could reverse the situation. Being prime minister under such circumstances can be quite unpleasant.

These presidential elections have shown the power of the media machinery that is available to Aleksandar Vučić. He is able to fully delegitimize political debate and by means of a skillful use of media mechanisms to direct the mood of public opinion. In addition, the political struggle is presented as a personal showdown – the battle for and against a person who has taken on a great number of functions.

However, even under the present relationship of political forces the position of President can be more comfortable than that of the Prime Minister. The post-election protests that are already almost a week old are being held in several cities in Serbia. They show that there is strong discontent not only with the Vučić government but also the manner in which it conducted the presidential elections. So far, the protests gathered up to twenty thousand people in Belgrade and several thousand in other Serbian cities (detailed analysis of this protest will be given in another article about current political conditions in Serbia). It is still premature to assess their significance.