Since the victory of Aleksander Vučić in Serbia’s 2017 presidential election, democracy in the country has been on the decline. The Freedom House score for Serbia points to erosion of democracy, with scores indicating the country going from “free” in 2017 to “partly free” today. With great disapproval for President Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), opposition members gathered numerous times throughout 2019 for one of the biggest protests in present-day Europe. Citizens passionately protested against Vučić and for “democracy, free society, and the rule of law.”
It was interesting to see how the opposition’s protests would have any success in affecting the outcome of the country’s upcoming parliamentary election in 2020. While there was still support for the president, the opposition may have been hoping to win a few seats in parliament. However, this was not the case.
The protestors’ dreams of democracy and a free and fair election in Serbia would not be fulfilled in the 2020 parliamentary election. Vučić would take measures to ensure that his party would be successful in the election, and the opposition parties did not even have the chance to compete for support. By ensuring the opposition parties could not come to power, the decisions made by Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) surrounding the 2020 parliamentary election indicate an eroding democracy.
Citizens and officials of the Serbian opposition were clearly concerned with the downfalling of democracy long before the parliamentary election. Fearing what President Vučić was capable of doing in order to secure his power and his parties win in parliament, opposition leaders tried to make negotiations for electoral reform. The negotiations initially had some promise for legitimacy with some European parliamentarians mediating. However, the ruling party had no intention of actually enacting electoral reform to legitimize the election. They refused to make reform claiming that it was too close to the election date. When the opposition suggested postponing the April election date, the proposal was turned down. By turning down suggestions from the opposition and failing to negotiate fairly with them, Vučić and other SNS party leaders are consolidating their power and lessening the opposition’s opportunity to fairly compete in the election.
Failure of the ruling parties to come to an agreement with the opposition-led the opposition parties to declare an electoral boycott. An electoral boycott by the opposition meant that five Serbian opposition parties would not participate in the election, and neither would most of their voters. Although this boycott would secure another win for the SNS party and ultimately increase Vučić’s power, the opposition believed it was necessary. The desired outcome of the boycott was to get international attention and push Serbia into pursuing actual electoral reforms.
After all, the parliamentary elections ended up being postponed because of a declared state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. Vučić postponed the elections without the consent of parliament, which was an undemocratic move by the president. This decision is another threat to democracy because the executive used full power to act without the other branches of government.
While Vučić acted throughout the pandemic, especially in the time leading up to the election, his intentions were questionable. He regularly addressed the public and delivered necessary medical equipment to his citizens, but critics saw these moves as attempts of campaigning. Attempting to indirectly buy votes by using state funds to help the people is a form of corruption. When corruption occurs, democratic institutions are undermined and the legitimacy of a democratic state is threatened.
Vučić further secured his power by rescheduling the election to be on June 21, 2020. This date was strategic because it benefitted the ruling SNS party. First, economic measures taken by the government during the pandemic, such as giving citizens money, would benefit the ruling party’s popularity and increase their voters. Next, these economic decisions would likely not have consequences until later in the year. Consequently, Vučić’s scheduling of the election benefitted his own interests and further reduced the ability of other parties to compete.
As previously mentioned, many surrounding events of Serbia’s 2020 parliamentary election alluded to democratic erosion. European election monitors claimed that the election was administered correctly, and election monitors blamed the ruling party’s power over the election on media control. The inability of parties to seek power through the election is the main issue, but media control further took away from democracy’s necessity of free and fair elections.
Only around 50% of voters showed up to the polls to participate on election day. Among those who did, some votes can be accounted for by the economic or medical assistance from the government during the pandemic. The turnout was proving to be even lower throughout the day of the election until Vučić’s party leaders intimidated people to vote within just hours of the polls closing on June 21st. While there were still some citizens who voted on election day, whether it be by force or at their own will, the blatant decisions of the ruling party that facilitated the opposition’s election boycott portray indications of democratic erosion in Serbia.
Great topic. Considering Serbian resistance to undemocratic rule in the past I was curious to see how they were coping with the current down turn in democracy. It was interesting to read about Aleksander Vučić and his attempts to consolidate his power. I find it odd that the opposition Boycotted the Elections. I understand their reasoning in terms of calling the attention from the international community; however, Its is fairly common for opposition parties to have to contend with an uneven playing field. The situation seems similar to OTPOR in the late 1990s. I am curious as to why they felt boycott was the best solution when they could have spent the extra time putting together a stronger opposition. I certainly agree with your characterization of what is going on in Serbia as democratic erosion and am interested to see what happens next. I apricate your post and it has piqued my interest in Serbian democracy.