Within the past few days, Serbia has been downgraded by democracy watchdog Freedom House from a “free” country to a “partly free” country. This decision by Freedom House is no surprise as Serbia and populist President Aleksander Vucic has appeared increasingly authoritarian and has “accumulated executive powers that conflict with his constitutional role,” according to Freedom House. Freedom House also stated that the “smear campaigns against independent journalists,” and the “election irregularities” that exist were also to blame for the country’s downgrade. Over the past year it has become clear that the rate at which political opposition has been harassed and beaten, combined with the shrinking freedoms the country has, democratic backsliding is not just inevitable, but has already progressed immensely.
When examining the tools of erosion, Serbia’s current toxic situation exemplifies everything a country falling out of a democracy will display. The first tool being the strategic manipulation of elections which Freedom House specifically cited as cause for dropping Serbia from the “free designation.” As recently as 2017, Vucic’s most recent election victory, protests were rampant in the streets of Serbia with several people supporting the ruling party out of fear and necessitate. According to cw.com, a nameless supporter of Vucic claimed that doing so would make it easier for her to get a job, and that others felt intimidated to do the same.
Fast forward to today and Vucic and the ruling party is still trying to use faulty elections to his advantage. Amid protests, Vucic claimed he would be willing to hold a “snap election.” Doing so would give off the appearance of a President who wants to understand his people and their claims. But, according to Bloomberg.com, these elections would only give Vucic more power. The report states that polls show Vucic would come away from this election successful, in large part due to his voter intimidation tactics, and allow him to reset the clock on his power and continue his push towards joining the European Union.
The election manipulation and voter manipulation tactics represent a clear threat to Serbia’s democracy and explain a why their status was downgraded. Not allowing for elections to freely represent the will of the people and then claiming to be a President catering to his citizens needs while just trying to create a stranglehold on power shows Vucic’s authoritarian tactics and desires. But Vucic’s election mishandling is not the only evidence of democratic backsliding. During the 2017 election and in the recent months, opposition party members and independent journalists have been beaten and even killed in an effort to suppress and opposition movement.
According to Balkin Insight, protesters have been widespread and many of the main demands are related to the slaying or attempted slaying of Serbian left-wing leaders and journalists. Zig Info journalist Milan Jovanovic had his home burned to the ground in an attempted killing while politician Oliver Ivanovic was murdered without any investigation. The protesters also demand at least five minutes on the main news show in Serbia, which is currently controlled by Vucic and his party.
What is abundantly clear in Serbia, with a president that won’t listen to his people, is that democratic backsliding and erosion is in full affect. Vucic has resorted to executive aggrandizement to make it more difficult for his challengers to win yet has done so using legal methods. Most notably and apparent is the election manipulation that Vucic and the ruling party has made such an essential part of their power grab. Starting in the 2017 election with fear tactics and suppression, combined with the torture and violence against journalists and opposition candidates, to today where Vucic is attempting to give off the appearance that he is listening to the protests, while he is merely trying to consolidate power and restart the clock on his presidency. Without any vocal opposition or free media allowed, Serbia appears vulnerable to continue sliding into authoritarian rule.
Photo by Oliver Bunic of Bloomsberg.