In June of 2017, Ana Brnabic became the first female and first openly gay prime minister of Serbia. Coupled with the overtures by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, one might believe that the Western Balkan country is a beacon of democratic ideals. However, as the recent elections for the Belgrade City Assembly demonstrate, Serbia is on a dangerous path towards autocracy.
On March 4, 2018, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won the majority of seats in the City Assembly of Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Even though the SNS only won 45% of the vote, they captured 63 out of 110 seats. While the first-order effects are minimal, this election signals the success of Vucic’s efforts to consolidate democracy and hold Serbia under one-party rule.
Disturbingly, the Serbian electorate increasingly views its elections as noncompetitive. The SNS has not lost an election since 2012, due in part to its popularity but also to control of the media. Now, the party has taken on an air of invincibility that significantly raises the political cost of voting against the SNS. As one voter said in response to a poll about Serbian elections, “he would vote for one of the candidates when that candidate comes to power.” The results of the Belgrade election further cement the air of invincibility. Even though the SNS usually performs worse in Belgrade than in the rest of the country, they were able to win enough votes to maintain an outright majority of seats.
This view of elections degrades the quality of Serbian democracy. Most definitions of democracy require the presence of potentially competitive elections. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter describes democracy in entirely procedural terms. For Schumpeter, democracy is a system in which leaders are selected by competitive elections. In Serbia, the general sentiment that elections are not competitive contributes further to the non-competitiveness of elections by demotivating potential opposition votes and energizing SNS voters.
Even more concretely, the ruling party engaged in electoral fraud to cement their advantage in government. The Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA), the NGO that monitors election in Serbia, reported electoral irregularities at 8% of polling stations that “could influence voting results.” In addition, CRTA observers were temporarily prevented from observing three polling stations and in three other cases physically attacked. The CRTA also observed unauthorized people near some polling stations when the ballots were counted. Overall, they recording more irregularities than during parliamentary elections in 2016 and presidential elections 2017.
Now, this is far from the widespread, systematic electoral fraud that marks other elections as certainly illegitimate. While these irregularities probably did not significantly impact the plurality of votes that that SNS received, they certainly could have impacted the overall results. Even though Serbia’s electoral threshold is only 5%, the opposition is fragmented, so the electoral threshold does effectively prevent full representation of oppositional political parties. Only 4 of the 24 lists that voters could choose from crossed the threshold, so 19.5% of voters selected a list that will not be represented in the city assembly.
Considering the number of parties that just missed the electoral threshold, the level of electoral irregularities could have reasonably prevented those parties from achieving representation. If the SNS targeted their election tampering at keeping opposition parties from crossing the threshold, then this helped them translate only 44% of the vote to 57% of the legislative seats. Using electoral thresholds in conjunction with other manipulations to stay in power is a common tactic of leaders perpetrating democratic backsliding. Would-be authoritarians find weaponizing electoral thresholds to be an effective tactic because they can mask their undemocratic motives with pro-democracy rhetoric about the rule change.
The troubling election results fall in line with President Vucic’s recent maneuvers to consolidate power. One of the avenues through which Vucic stifles dissent is the bureaucracy. Tax authorities block newspaper companies and non-governmental organizations that criticize the ruling party from accessing their bank accounts under the guise of investigating financial crimes. Furthermore, democratic backsliding in Serbia is occurring against the backdrop of Serbia’s bid for EU membership. In order to join the union, the EU had required Serbia to privatize its state-run media. While the government has technically complied, they sold media outlets to close allies of the ruling SNS party. The EU has since noted that the Serbian government continues to exert improper control over media companies and impede on the freedom of expression.
Disappointingly, European leaders are failing to confront Vucic’s authoritarian tendencies and are unlikely to condemn the electoral irregularities that occurred. Western European leaders worry that alienating Vucic will push him further into the open arms of Putin and Russian influence. Additionally, EU countries see Vucic as a leader that will keep peace in the Balkan region. In selling stability at the price of democracy, some scholars have called Vucic’s regime a “stabilitocracy.”
The Belgrade City Assembly elections spell further turmoil for Serbian democracy. Increasingly, Vucic is supplementing media control with election irregularities to maintain one-party rule of the country. Though the country is not irrevocably on a path of democratic backsliding, the opportunities for international and internal actors to reverse this course are waning.
*Photographer unknown, “Serbian Castle,” Creative Commons Zero license.