The party of Serbia’s nationalist president Aleksandar Vucic is on course for a landslide victory in Europe’s first parliamentary elections since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, with more than 90 per cent of ballots counted, Mr Vucic’s conservative Serbian Progressive party, was projected to return to power with 189 of 250 seats in parliament, having won 63.4 per cent of the vote.
The populist Socialist party, formed after the demise of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s party that is the junior partner in the ruling coalition, came second with 10 per cent of the vote.
As the results came in, Mr Vucic — who promised Serbs more jobs and foreign investment — said “we have gained huge trust from the people, the greatest ever in Serbia, in conditions when few people believed in it”.
The president’s party increased its share of the vote from parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2016, when it won about 48 per cent. But amid a boycott by a number of opposition parties, who said the poll was not free or fair, turnout fell from 56.7 per cent in 2016 to 48 per cent, according to Serbian pollster CRTA. In the capital, Belgrade, an opposition stronghold, turnout on Sunday plummeted from 52 per cent in 2016 to 35 per cent.
Some opposition groups left parliament last year in protest at political violence and what they said was the increasing dominance of Mr Vucic in political life. Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in cities across Serbia for months.
A woman prepares to vote during the recent Serbian parliamentary elections, at a polling station in Gracanica, Kosovo © Valdrin Xhema/EPA/Shutterstock
“It seems we are becoming more of a one party system,” Serbian political scientist Srdjan Majstorovic told the Financial Times.
Tena Prelec, a researcher in the department of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, said it was “harder for opposition parties to come to the fore in Serbia because there was “a fundamental imbalance in access to the media, in the control of polling stations, and most importantly in access to state resources”.
Mr Vucic has consistently dismissed opposition concerns over lack of access to public media and terms for fair elections. However, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, he acknowledged some shortcomings, especially regarding the judicial system.
Serbia is seeking EU membership and has enacted several democratic reforms after intervention from Brussels, including lowering the threshold for entering parliament from 5 per cent to 3 per cent. Only two parties would have made it to parliament without the reform.
A party led by a former professional water polo player won 4.2 per cent of the vote with the next most successful party representing the movement to restore the Serbian monarchy, taking 2.7 per cent. Several other parties representing ethnic minorities will also have seats in parliament because of constitutional guarantees.
Serbia has come under increasing scrutiny from democracy watchdogs such as Freedom House, which recently said the country was no longer a democracy due to “years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics employed by Aleksandar Vucic”.
Mr Vucic will travel to Washington on Saturday for a meeting with Donald Trump and the president of Kosovo, whose 2008 independence Belgrade does not recognise.
Washington hopes to inject new momentum into peace talks that stalled under the auspices of the EU. Nato bombed Serbia in 1999 to force Serbian troops to withdraw from their former province, and Kosovo remains a politically charged issue in Serbia.
Mr Majstorovic said Mr Vucic would need to include other parties “to share responsibility for the upcoming difficult decisions he is expected to deliver,” such as a potential deal on Kosovo.