Serbia: A case of Competitive Authoritarianism
After the fall of Milosevic in 2000, democratization process started in Serbia. Along with institutional reforms and adaptation of liberal economic policies, Serbia also reduced human rights violations. More importantly, Serbia aimed to join European Union for which structural reforms were also accelerated. According to V-Dem Dataset, Serbia increased its democracy score between 2000 and 2012. However, improvements and progress on democratic reforms paused and even started to deteriorate after 2012. Why Serbia’s democratization process stopped? Who is to blame for this? The agent is obviously Aleksandar Vučić, current president of Serbia who came to power in 2014 as a prime minister. He was deputy prime minister during 2012-2014 when for the first time his Serbian Progressive Party came to power. He is now also leader of the party that is regarded as right-wing populist. Vučić and his party also have positive relations with China and Russia. Despite his Euro-skepticism, he aspires to full membership in the European Union.
Today, Serbia is regarded as a competitive authoritarian regime, which Levitsky and Way describe as falling short of both democracy and full-fledged authoritarianism. There are common elements of both democracy and authoritarianism. In such regimes, elections are held regularly but there might be some electoral fraud by incumbent party. At the same time, opposition parties might be allowed to run in the elections, but they can also be harassed or threatened. What Serbia is confronting completely today is the presence of competitive authoritarian regime. It is obvious that after Vučić came to power, Serbia started to experience democratic backsliding. Serbia is still not a fully authoritarian regime but includes significant portion of authoritarianism. Serbia moved to such a competitive authoritarian regime not in a single day. It did not occur suddenly. However, Vučić’s authoritarian tendencies came to surface gradually. Month by month or year by year, Serbia became a competitive authoritarian regime through Vučić’ implementation of his authoritarian tendencies.
Serbian parliamentary elections, which would have typically taken place in 2018, were held in 2016 as a result of the decision to hold snap elections. In the same day of parliamentary elections, local elections were also held in its regular time. Vučić’s party led coalition got almost 50 percent of the votes. Voter turnout of that elections was 56 percent and Vučić’s party led coalition took 131 seats in the national assembly of 250 seats. However, opposition groups pointed that there were irregularities and nationwide massive fraud in the elections for which called for the protests. Even before 2016 elections, there were less media coverage for the opposition parties and even there was blurring of state and party activities by incumbent party. In 2017 presidential elections, there were again biased media coverage and pressure on voters. Most importantly, pressure on media increased and friendly media outlets were established by Vučic. Along with that, most of the state institutions were politicized and the resources were exploited by Vučić.
However, there were series of protests against Vučić and his party. These mass anti-government protests took place not only in Serbia but in other parts of the Europe by Serbian diaspora. Political tension led opposition parties to boycott the parliamentary elections held in 2020 during the pandemic. Due to the restriction of pandemic and irregularities, opposition parties emphasized that the elections are not free and fair. Voter turnout of the election that was boycotted by opposition parties was 49 percent. Vučić’s party led coalition got 188 seats in the national assembly. In 2022, presidential election was held and Vučić again was elected as a president of Serbia by taking 58 percent of the votes. There were also several reports indicating irregularities during that election.
In brief, Serbia is one of the important cases of competitive authoritarian regimes. Vučić and his party’s authoritarian tendencies paused democratization process of Serbia that started after the fall of Milosevic. Democratic backsliding started and eventually Serbia moved to the competitive authoritarian regime due to harassment of the opposition, mass fraud in elections, pressure on media and many other authoritarian policies.
Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan A. Way. 2002. “Elections Without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism.” Journal of Democracy 13(2), 51-65
Varieties of Democracy Institute. 2021. “V-Dem [Country–Year/Country–Date] Dataset V11.1