Serbia is not well but these latest elections may be a reason for cautious optimism

Time will tell whether these elections will be good for Serbia, but this is most certainly a time for cautious optimism rather outright pessimism

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Ivica Dacic, of Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), defaced with the word "invalid"
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Daniel Hamilton
On 8 May 2012 16:13

Serbia is not well. Unemployment stands at 24 percent, the country’s €24 billion is unserviceable and political and military unrest continues to fester along its southern border with Kosovo.

Against this uncomfortable backdrop, the country went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a ‘big bang’ election for the country’s Presidency, Parliament and local authorities. 

The Presidential race produced a close race between incumbent Boris Tadic of the centrist Democratic Party (DS) with 27 percent and Progressive Party (SNS) challenger Tomislav Nikolic with 26 percent. The two will advance to a run-off on May 20th, which Tadic enters as a mild favourite

For now, the real attention has been focused on the outcome of the parliamentary election. 

Five years ago, DS topped the poll with 38 percent of the vote with the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Vojislav Šešelj in second place. This strong result came despite the fact Šešelj was forced to campaign from his prison cell in The Hague where he was awaiting trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for war crimes committed against Croats, Muslim and other non-Serbs. His policies included the forcible establishment of a Greater Serbia, outright opposition to engagement with the European Union and an end to the search for Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadžic

Uncomfortable with Šešelj’s far-right rhetoric, the party split six months after the election with supporters of leading MP, Tomislav Nikolic, leaving in order to form a new populist, right-wing block – the SNS

While still supportive of close links with Russia and unafraid of adopting nationalist rhetoric, the party’s first national convention voted decisively in favour of advocating Serbian membership of the European Union. Šešelj predictably condemned Nikolic and the wider SNS as “western puppets” and “traitors to the Russophile cause”.

On the basis of Sunday’s vote, the SNS appears to have placed first in the election with 24 percent of the vote followed by Tadic’s DS at 22 percent. In third place were the Serbian Socialists (SPS) with a surprisingly-strong 14.5 percent. 

There can be little doubt that the EU’s Western European power-brokers would have preferred that President Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS) had finished in first place – easing their ability to form a coalition government. Despite the country’s economic problems, Tadic’s administration is able to point to a string of foreign policy successes – most notably the opening of negotiations with the largely ethnic Albanian government in Kosovo and the commencement of EU membership negotiations.

Given its nationalist roots, the SNS’s first place finish has resulted in bien pensant commentators presenting the result as a hammer-blow to Serbia’s chances of gaining European Union membership and a return to the ultra-nationalism of the Milosevic era. To interpret the SNS’s victory in such a way is at best sloppy and, at worst, smacks of scaremongering.

Indeed, a closer examination of Sunday’s full results could only lead one to conclude that the emergence of the SNS has been a moderating factor in Serbian politics – just as the Law and Justice party in Poland has been in ensuring the eradication of the odious League of Polish Families.  

Partial results show that Šešelj’s party (which secured 29 percent of the vote in 2008) has failed to cross the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation, leaving responsibility for the isolationist, pro-Moscow and anti-EU cause to former Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) who won only 7 percent of the vote.

While Nikolic’s party will be the largest in the Serbian National Assembly, the most likely outcome of the coalition negotiations that will rage for the coming weeks is a continuation of the existing power-sharing arrangement between DS, the centre-right United Regions of Serbia (URS) and Ivica Dacic’s Socialist Party, the party founded by Slobodan Miloševic.  

As a prize for his support, Dacic is likely to become Prime Minister. While his historic links to Miloševic are regrettable, he has played a constructive role as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister over the past five years - including securing visa-free travel across the European Union for Serbian citizens, a move which was seen as an important precursor to the country securing EU candidate country status.

As Prime Minister, any impulses Dacic may have towards implementing either nationalist or hard-left economic policies will likely be countered by a cabinet dominated by DS and URS ministers. Such blocking tactics are unlikely to be necessary given his past willingness to play the EU’s ‘carrot and stick’ game of trading internal reforms for acceptance on the European stage.

Also possible is an alliance between Nikolic’s SNS and Koštunica’s DSS – but such a move would require the unlikely support of minority parties such as the Hungarian Coalition who advocate increased regional autonomy for the northern province of Vojvodina.  Similarly, it would seem hard for Nikoli? and Koštunica to reconcile their differing views on EU membership.

With weeks of painstaking coalition negotiations ahead, it’s clear that the situation facing Serbia is far from desirable.

It is an embarrassment that, however demonstrably committed to reform Dacic is, a former Miloševic ally is likely to become Prime Minister. There is not even the smallest crack of light at the end of the tunnel for Serbia’s economy while corruption continues to pervade all level of public life. Serbia’s relationship with Kosovo remains fractious and any coalition configuration will involve uncomfortable or even unsavoury compromises. 

Strangely though, yesterday’s elections showed the country is in a politically robust position – even if it can’t be comfortably viewed through the prism of Western European norms.

In a country where democracy has existed for little more than a decade, the elections came and went without allegations of vote rigging. On the same day as Greece elected neo-Nazis to its National Assembly, Serbian voters comprehensively threw them out. In a year when economic woes have driven voters across Europe to embrace isolationist economics, the Serbian people and political classes have voted with their feet for a future as a country that looks towards the west rather than Moscow.

Time will tell whether these elections will be good for Serbia, but this is most certainly a time for cautious optimism rather outright pessimism.

Daniel Hamilton is an independent commentator on the Balkans and Caucasus region. He writes in a personal capacity

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