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Early elections in Serbia: Progressive win is a warning to the working class (part 1)

koricaSerbia held early parliamentary elections on 16 March 2014. The results were an apparently spectacular victory for the outgoing ruling coalition, and the Serbian Progressive Party above all, which secured 48.35 percent of votes cast, or 158 out of 250 seats. The Progressives’ erstwhile allies, the Socialist Party of Serbia, won 13.49 percent or 44 seats. Only two other major parties crossed the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament. The Democratic Party gained just over 6 percent and 19 seats, while a breakaway faction from the Democratic Party, calling itself the New Democratic Party, was just shy of that result, claiming 5.7 percent or 18 seats. Several national minorities also won representation, garnering a total of 11 seats. Other political parties that had previously been in parliament, including the Democratic Party of Serbia, the United Regions of Serbia and the Liberal Democratic Party, all failed to cross the 5 percent barrier, while the Serbian Radical Party, which had already failed to cross the 5 percent barriers in the previous elections in 2012, was totally eclipsed. With voter turnout at a dismal 53 percent of the eligible electorate, the political failure of opposition in Serbia is very palpable. Nonetheless, the high level of abstention also underlines the limits of the Progressive triumph. The meaning and extent of this triumph, therefore, need examination.

The meaning of the Progressives: a return to or a break with the 1990s?

The victory of the Progressives was not unexpected in these elections, though the scale of victory surprised many. The Progressives are currently led by the outgoing deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, the most popular man in Serbia. His own leadership role in the Progressives is very recent, though he has been a domestic name in Serbian politics since the early 1990s, when multi-party democracy emerged at the same time as the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia. Vučić rose quickly. He was a parliamentarian aged 22 and general secretary of the newly-formed, extreme right-wing Serbian Radical Party aged 24. During that time, he and the SRS publicly supported Serb forces in the Croatian and Bosnian civil wars. Indeed, the party stands accused of close association with paramilitary groups that perpetrated atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia. Vučić also served as minister of information during the 1990s when the SRS was in coalition with Milošević’s Socialists. He threatened a prominent oppositional journalist in 1999, a day before the latter was assassinated. The mystery of the assassination is yet to be solved.

Following the defeat of the Socialists and Radicals in Yugoslav and Serbian elections in late 2000, Vučić continued his political career as a prominent member of the Radical Party, running unsuccessfully twice for mayor of Belgrade, in 2004 and 2008. The Radicals, in this period, represented the main opposition to the post-Milošević establishment. They maintained a rhetorical continuity with the ruling nationalism of the 1990s, looking to Russia rather than the EU, but they combined this approach increasingly with economic populism. This tension began to express itself in the personalities of the leaders of the Radicals. Vojislav Šešelj, the long-time party leader, was an unrepentant nationalist, but he was in the Hague from 2003, awaiting and then standing trial for war crimes. Tomislav Nikolić, his deputy and effective leader of the party following Šešelj’s departure, was beginning to be more pragmatic. The year 2008 proved on several levels a turning point. Incumbent president and Democrat leader Boris Tadić held early elections as a referendum on European integration and narrowly defeated Nikolić. Soon after, in spring, parliamentary elections delivered a strong majority to the Democrat coalition, albeit with the support of the slowly reforming Socialist Party. The influx of foreign capital in the mid-2000s had succeeded in raising living standards for enough people to make it difficult for opponents of Western integration to hope for power. Soon, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence under Western sponsorship, making it appear that the West would make Serbia choose between the EU and Kosovo. The Socialists under Ivica Dačić had already drawn the lesson, and Nikolić followed suit, splitting the Radical Party and leading a mass walk out. Within weeks, he had managed to win over party leader number three, Vučić. They soon launched the Progressive Party and looked like the only viable alternative to the ruling coalition. The Radicals began to dissipate and are now close to non-existent.

Much was made of the fact that Nikolić visited several foreign embassies, most prominently the US embassy, before making his decisions. Indeed, it was clear that the Progressive Party was symbolically breaking from a rabid nationalism and a pro-Russian position in international affairs. What exactly it stood for was not clear, however. It seemed the Party’s only promise was that they were different from the ruling coalition. Party leaders decried the Democrat-Socialist tendency to resort to clientelism and corruption, media monopolisation, and police thuggery to maintain power, after the outflow of capital after the world crisis hit in 2008. The opposition leaders also criticised the ‘regime’s’ close links with several prominent big capitalists or ‘tycoons’. All the same, it seemed that their negative stance was not going to land them victory. They narrowly topped the 2012 parliamentary election, receiving 24 percent of the vote, but still had much less support than the Democrats (22 percent) and Socialists (14,5 percent) put together. Nikolić even threatened to withdraw from the forthcoming second round of the presidential elections, having lost narrowly to Tadić. In the event, he stayed in the race. And he got lucky. Through a combination of voter anger with Tadić’s arrogance, widespread apathy amid the faltering economy and rising corruption, and the new sanitised image of Nikolić’s Progressive Party, no longer so readily comparable with their 1990s predecessor, Nikolić edged out Tadić to become president. Turnout had in fact fallen from almost 58 percent in the first round to just over 46 percent in the second round of the election: it was Tadić who had lost, not Nikolić who had won.

The rise of Aleksandar Vučić: the iron man of capital?

It was these conditions which created the opportunity for the rise of Vučić. Nikolić gave up his party leadership when he took up the presidency, to underline the difference between himself and the corrupt Tadić. He thus took himself out of the political equation. Vučić now ran the Progressives, but he did yet not look like the new star of the show. In fact, it was Socialist leader Dačić who momentarily looked like the man of the hour. Though Nikolić was now president, he constitutionally wielded little real power. But he was able to offer Dačić premiership, to wean him off the coalition with the Democrats. In the general fragmentation of the political scene, shown by the lack of clear winner in the 2012 elections, Dačić seemed to be the only one who could successfully balance between the various groups. In a country in which state clientelist practices go far in explaining votes, it looked like a leaner and less dominant government could emerge around the new prime minister. But this proved to be a mirage.  Through control of the security services and the anti-corruption portfolio, the new defence minister was able to make a series of master moves that made him the prime minister-in-waiting before the close of 2012. Vučić arrested the biggest and most infamous tycoon of them all, Miroslav Mišković. Besides winning himself immense popularity, the arrest brought to light apparent contacts between Mišković and a global cocaine smuggling gang headed by Darko Šarić. Soon thereafter, in early 2013, rumours were swirling that the police had evidence of contacts between a ministerial aide to Dačić when he had been police minister in the previous government and the Šarić criminal clan, which had been hit in Latin America in 2010, though Šarić himself was still at large. His anti-corruption drive, in other words, gave Vučić a clean slate. He could contrast himself with almost all other political actors as not beholden to hidden interests. Moreover, he could be a people’s hero and a neo-liberal hero in anticipation of new elections: a winner in both Serbia and Brussels.

The trouble for Vučić was that he still had to prove himself in the eyes of Brussels. He decided to do so by allowing the Prime Minister Dačić a free hand in terms of negotiating a settlement with the EU relating to Kosovo. The new Belgrade government went through a series of negotiations with the government in Priština, recognising Kosovan independence in all but name. That would have been hard for any government in Serbia to concede without major loss of support, while it presented the new Serbian government, made up of the same parties as the 1990s coalitions, as a new face. It had gone further in recognising Kosovo than any preceding government, thus pleasing Brussels. It had simultaneously achieved candidate status to the EU without being seen to lose face in Kosovo, which the 2008 election had apparently given a mandate to the Democrats to do, and which they had failed to achieve. Thus, Vučić was gaining legitimacy in the eyes of Brussels and proving himself reliable to domestic power brokers. Indeed, he went a step further in the summer of 2013, forcing Dačić into an embarrassing cabinet reshuffle that made clear that the Progressives were running the country. They both ditched the United Regions party of long-time architect of the post-Milošević neoliberal transition, Mlađan Dinkić. Vučić was quick to promote several new faces, though, including a Yale graduate as new finance minister and a proven neo-liberal as new economy minister. Vučić spoke also of the need for austerity as the country was increasingly indebted. He was sending powerful signals about where he would head in the future. He apparently even hoped that he could ram through unpopular measures that included liberalising the labour market and restricting the right to strike before any early election.

That he failed, but still managed to win the election, is quite revealing of the mechanisms of power wielded by Vučić. We have reported on the grassroots union campaign that took off in opposition to the anti-worker legislation. It is hard to underestimate the extent of the union mobilisation given decades of division and few traditions of militancy. This was the first time that the representative unions, with a seat in the Socio-Economic Council, the state-channelled vehicle for ‘social dialogue’, formed an open and campaigning coalition, plastering cities, organising protests, and even holding a one-hour general strike. They claimed a turnout of a half million, though it is difficult to count participants in a one-hour strike. Another campaign of smaller, non-representative unions also took off, and managed a militant protest and significant publicity. Both campaigns openly associated on some level with organised forces of the left, especially in Belgrade and Novi Sad, the two principal cities of Serbia. Saša Radulović, the minister in charge of ramming the legislation through, was forced to call off public discussions of the new law that he had announced as he had become a hate figure in the press. He resigned in anticipation of the announcement of new elections, apparently feeling ditched by the prime minister-in-waiting. Vučić was letting others do his dirty work, prepared to let them take the blame, while he himself was happy only to take credit. He then ran a highly personalised electoral campaign promising to end corruption and create jobs. After winning his stunning victory, he announced the arrest of fugitive drug dealer Šarić, opening up speculation that he would use the case to embarrass other political opponents, including Dačić; in the past, Vučić has also threatened to investigate how new Democrat leader Dragan Djilas, obtained his wealth. Vučić was not just winning, he was looking unassailable.

(to be continued)

By Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is an editor at LeftEast and a member of Marks21 in Serbia and Counterfire in the United Kingdom. He is Lecturer in Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow. His first book was entitled “The Economic Struggle for Power in Tito’s Yugoslavia: From World War II to Non-Alignment” (IB Tauris, 2016).

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