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King’s Votes: Hope for renewed Serbian democracy

Comment editor Fintan Hogan interviews Vanja Savic on the upcoming Serbian elections and the state of democracy as part of Roar’s ‘King’s Votes’ series.

As Hungarians go to the polls today (April 3), their neighbours to the south will be doing the same. While less high profile than Viktor Orbán’s campaign, Serbia offers Europeans similar important lessons about institutions, liberties and democratic fragility. King’s College London (KCL) PhD candidate and democratic activist Vanja Savic explains how protest, electoral fraud and President Alekandar Vučić have shaped the Serbian experience.

Vučić leads the conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), serving as prime minister from 2014 to 2017 and president since. The SNS is a populist organisation, based broadly around conservatism and neoliberalism but lacking clear ideological conviction, like Orbán’s Fidesz party. They have won the most parliamentary seats and held the presidency since 2012. This has been a period of substantial democratic backsliding.

His 2017 presidential victory was marred by accusations of voter intimidation and media domination, including by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an agency with UN observer status (a privilege granted by the UN to non-member organisations giving them the ability to participate in the UN’s activities).

“The campaign was characterized by media bias and allegations of misuse of public resources and vote buying. Vučić remained prime minister throughout that election period, blurring the line between official and electoral activities” reports Freedom House. This comes from the ‘Orbán playbook’, with Serbian institutions becoming ‘hybridised’ between democracy and autocracy.

Media conglomeration is clear in Serbia, with most of the population reliant on public broadcaster Radio Television Serbia (RTS), Vanja tells me. Opposing parties get minimal airtime – for example, two 15-miute segments for opposition leader Dragan Djilas during the 2022 campaign. There was no presidential debate between Vučić and rival Zdravko Ponos either, with all opposition receiving negative portrayals in state media.

Vanja estimates that only around half of the population have access to cable TV which is critical of the SNS. Dragan Å olak, owner of the non-state affiliated D1 television network, has recently bought a majority stake in Southampton F.C. In an interview with the Guardian, Å olak stated that “my focus is really to put the light on the media freedom situation in Serbia… I think Vučić is making a case of how a dictator can, by playing nice and polite, get really far in Europe.”

Parliamentary elections in 2020 were boycotted en masse by opposition groups in protest of unfair electoral conditions, media control and fraud. State media organisations have been sold to SNS-friendly elites and protests have been marred by police violence. Turnout was the lowest for over three decades, allowing the SNS to take 75% of seats.

Inter-party talks on electoral standards in 2021 led to some compromises between the SNS and democratic activists. However, opposition is weak with the main alternative choice to the SNS fragmenting and disintegrating twice in the last two years due to internal divisions. Parallels between the ‘Alliance for Serbia’ and Hungarian rainbow coalition are clear, as anti-populist forces align despite ideological disagreement.

There are still fears over the validity of any election outcome announced this weekend. Vanja emphasised the work of the Serbian media watchdog the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) to highlight weaknesses of the 2021 cross-party resolution. They suggest that “instead of competing policies and programs, the election campaign is marked by more severe abuses of state institutions and their resources, which heightened the inequality between ruling and opposition parties.”

Thankfully, Serbians are aware of this institutional degradation. As Vučić copies Orbán, other parties are employing the tactics of the most effective Hungarian opposition groups. In mirroring Fidesz, the SNS have handed other parties the head-start of example resistance movements with replicable and effective tactics. This includes the models of anti-propaganda messaging and mobilisation which have weakened Orbán’s iron grip on power.

Vanja gives an example of this kind of learning pattern. “The opposition knows who they have to deal with, so they (the Justice and Freedom Party) said they would accompany the transport of all ballot bags.” This is a key tactic identified by the Electoral Knowledge Network to sustain the integrity of an election. She tells me that this will likely reduce vote-tampering, a “critical issue” in deciding Serbian elections.

Unlike in Hungary, the Alliance for Serbia has not managed to run pre-election primaries due to logistical issues. This is a tactic discussed in Roar’s opening ‘King’s Votes’ piece. Yet opposition parties have become “significantly less fragmented than in the past 10 years” due to implicit agreements about non-criticism of each another. Each party emphasises a different issue like corruption, the environment or ineffective leadership, diversifying the attack on Vučić.

This has substantially weakened the image of the SNS. Their 2022 electoral candidates now include an ex-volleyball player and a public health doctor. “All the candidates are like that, people not closely affiliated with SNS, which is a reflection of their declining popularity” says Vanja. She is sceptical about Vučić’s chances of leading the SNS to victory on Sunday.

There are still reasons to be optimistic about democracy. Both Hungary and Serbia have developed powerful opposition movements against populist incumbents who threaten civil liberties. If Sunday sees the defeat of either Vučić or Orbán, this will be a positive step forward for Europe.

Vanja sees integration, rather than exclusion, as important to sustaining democracy. Sanctions tend to impoverish the population, increasing dependence on the state. This also creates ‘imagined enemies’, which Kristof Horvath explained as central to populism.

It is important to shine a light on the curtailment of civil liberties everywhere. ‘King’s Votes’ will continue to highlight why democracy matters to KCL students and staff.

Roar would like to extend its thanks to Vanja Savic for her time in answering these questions.

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