Recently, Serbia has been faced with various issues, such as mass anti-government protests and the attack in Kosovo, which has shifted the international community’s approach towards the Serbian-Kosovar conflict. As a result of these protests, the President of Serbia dissolved the parliament and decided to hold elections.
As announced by President Aleksandar Vučić, early elections to the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia (Skupština) will be held on Sunday, December 17th, 2023. They were initially scheduled to take place on April 30th, 2026. However, during numerous protests and the Kosovo crisis, it was decided to dissolve parliament and announce snap elections. Additionally, local elections will be held in 65 cities and municipalities, including the capital city of Belgrade and the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.
During the election campaign, issues regarding recent acts of violence, the Kosovo matter, sanctions against Russia, and integration with the European Union are being discussed.
Skupština is the highest legislative body in Serbia and has 250 seats. Assembly members are elected by closed-list proportional representation from a single nationwide constituency. In the electoral system, political parties and coalitions submit lists of candidates, and voters cast their ballots for one of these lists. Those lists that won at least a 3% electoral threshold for political parties and a 5% threshold for electoral coalitions will get the parliamentary seat[i].
Social and economic conditions in Serbia
In 2012, Serbia started accession talks with the European Union. Although initially, Serbs were very positive about joining the community, sadly, according to Ipsos research conducted in 2022, the attitude has been systematically decreasing. As a result, 44% of Serbs opted against joining the European Union, and only 35% voted for membership[ii]. The results of the polls were worrying because, for the first time since polls have been conducted, such a small number of Serbs have voted in favour of joining the Union. This is likely due to the Serbs’ lack of understanding in approaching the conflict in Kosovo. Serbia’s internal and external policies are determined through the prism of the Serbian-Kosovo conflict. As previously noted, Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and considers it as its province. Both countries strive for membership in the European Union. However, normalisation of relations between them is a prerequisite.
During Vučić’s rule, Serbia has been manoeuvring between various international actors such as China, Russia (refusing to impose sanctions), the EU, and even the USA. This policy translated into many investments, both Chinese and European Union financial instruments, which are crucial for the Serbian economy.
Serbia showcased a remarkable recovery in 2021, registering a noteworthy growth rate of 8.6% in its average GDP per capita. Nonetheless, in 2022, there was a modest decline to 3.4%. Furthermore, Serbia boasts the lowest unemployment rate among Western Balkan countries, at a commendable 9.47%[iii]. Despite some positive aspects, Serbia still confronts several significant challenges. One prominent concern is the prevalence of corruption within the state, which ranks the country at a discouraging 101st out of 180 nations, as reported by Transparency International in 2022[iv]. A regrettable trend has also been observed since 2019, showcasing the urgent need for improvement in this area.
Moreover, issues surrounding the rule of law and organised crime have proven particularly taxing during negotiations with the European Union. EU representatives firmly assert that Serbia has yet to implement reforms in this critical domain. As can be observed, consumer price inflation in Serbia averaged a comparatively low 3.7% over ten years leading up to 2022, which falls below the regional average for Eastern Europe at 7.7%. However, in contrast to this trend, the average inflation rate for 2022 surged to 12%[v].
In 2020, Serbia was classified as only a half-democratic country in the Freedom House report for the first time since 2003 as a transitional or hybrid regime[vi]. The reason was the coming to power of the Serbian Progressive Party of Aleksandar Vučić, who is accused of populist rule and total control of the media in the country[vii]. Anti-government protests have been ongoing in Serbia since 2018, manifestly. Initially, a movement emerged in opposition to Aleksandar Vučić’s leadership, corruption, media nationalisation, and violence against journalists and opposition members[viii]. The protests persisted until the end of 2019, when early elections were announced for April 2020 (later postponed to June due to the pandemic). However, the opposition boycotted the elections, resulting in Vučić’s ruling party emerging victorious[ix].
In 2021, a wave of protests erupted once more, fueled by a contentious bill aimed at facilitating the expropriation of individuals to construct strategic mining investments that would enable the extraction of precious lithium in the country. Spanning over 50 towns nationwide, these demonstrations saw thousands of individuals standing up against these regulations and voicing their dissent towards the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, led by Aleksandar Vučić[x]. However, in April 2022, Aleksandar Vučić won the presidential elections, and his party (SNS) won in the early elections to the National Assembly.
In May 2023, mass protests again erupted in Serbia, initially sparked by concerns surrounding violence and the issue of weapons. However, the movement later transformed into a wave of anti-government demonstrations. The catalyst behind these protests was the tragic shooting on May 8 at a school in Belgrade, where a 13-year-old killed a security guard and nine students aged from 12 to 14. The following day, in a small village near Mladenovac, a 20-year-old man unleashed gunfire using an illegally possessed weapon, resulting in the deaths of eight young individuals gathered in the school square. In total, these events claimed the lives of 18 people, while an additional 20 individuals sustained injuries. Because of these events, opposition parties have united in the protest movement, declaring their demand for the resignation of Minister of Internal Affairs Bratislav Gašić, head of the Security and Information Agency (BIA) Aleksandar Vulin, and members of the Council of the Electronic Media Regulatory Office.
Furthermore, they were calling for the revocation of broadcasting licenses for pro-government television stations that allegedly promote violence, as well as the closure of tabloids that disseminate such content. In response, the government has addressed the situation by replacing the Minister of Education, initiating a program to hand over illegal weapons without legal consequences, and reinforcing security measures in schools and other institutions. However, the protesting society and the opposition have deemed these concessions insufficient. Their demands have extended to include the resignation of President Aleksandar Vučić and the removal of the management board of the public television broadcaster RTS. Consequently, in November, the President of Serbia decided to dissolve the parliament and hold early elections scheduled for December the 17th, 2023.
Who is competing in the parliamentary elections in Serbia?
The electoral list[xi] of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka – SNS) bears the name of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. The slogan of this list is “Aleksandar Vučić – Serbia cannot stop”. Until May, the president was the leader of the SNS party, and now he wants to convince people to vote for him, claiming “For or against me”[xii]. In the campaign, Vučić emphasises that he will not recognise Kosovo and will continue to engage in dialogue on the international stage without imposing sanctions against Russia. Vučić has another opportunity to win due to his approach to many issues that have the support of the majority of society. Regarding Kosovo, the society clearly opposes recognising Kosovo’s independence and knows that such a policy will continue to be pursued[xiii]. The manoeuvring between the European Union, Russia and China in Serbia has led to significant investments, greatly aiding economic development. The low unemployment rate and respectable economic growth favour the ruling party. Additionally, Vučić emphasises maintaining good relations with Russia and avoiding sanctions. According to research conducted by the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), as many as 66% of surveyed Serbs stated that they are closer to the Russian side in this conflict. In comparison, only 22% sided with Ukraine[xiv] (CRTA, 2022). Aleksandar Vučić also has total control of the media in the country, which is why his government is portrayed positively during elections. Moreover, most people who rely on the party are employed in public administration and receive the majority of benefits, which has allowed the President to significantly weaken the democratic institutions of the nation in recent years.
The SNS party and Vučić’s list are supported by the “Ivica Dačić – Prime Minister of Serbia” list. It is a list of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the leader of the Socialist Party, Ivica Dačić, who is running for prime minister. The Socialists have been a coalition partner of the SNS since the progressives came to power in 2012. They support joining the European Union but claim that they will “never turn their backs on Russia and China”[xv]. They oppose the sanctions imposed on Russia in connection with the aggression in Ukraine. They support dialogue with Kosovo but claim that there is “no seat” for Kosovo in the UN or Kosovo’s independence.
In these elections, Vojislav Šešelj party coalition also declared support for Vučić’s list. Analysts highlight that the cooperation between these two parties may indicate the president’s fear of the opposition’s unity and potential victory. Šešelj was accused and later acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague for war crimes committed in 1992. Representatives of the “Vojislav Šešelj – Serbian Radical Party” alliance advocate for the end of European integration and Serbia’s accession to BRICS. They claim to be a solid obstacle to adopting the French-German plan and any other plan that does not see Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia. They are also against the imposition of sanctions against Russia. They advocate for the country’s military neutrality.
Two lists that bring together right-wing parties and have a chance to cross the electoral threshold:
The “Milos Jovanovic – Hope for Serbia” list brings together right-wing parties: the New Democratic Party of Serbia (Novi DSS) and the Movement for the Rebuilding of the Kingdom of Serbia (POKS). One of the leaders of this coalition and the chairman of the New DSS, Milos Jovanovic, announced that he will fight to the end to keep Kosovo an integral part of Serbia. Instead of EU membership, they advocate for economic, trade, cultural, and academic cooperation within the European Economic Area. The list includes Vojislav Mihailovic, the president of POKS and the grandson of Draza Mihailovic, the commander of the Chetnik (Četnici) movement during World War II.
The parties on the list “Milica Đurđević Stamenkovski – Boško Obradović – National Gathering” oppose any sanctions against Russia that are related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These parties are against Serbia’s entry into the EU and NATO, believing that the alternative is BRICS. They oppose the independence of Kosovo and plan for the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
The largest registered opposition list is “Serbia against Violence – Miroslav Miki Aleksić – Marinika Tepić,” consisting of several pro-European opposition parties. The list adopted the name of the protests that took place across Serbia for several months following two shootings. The parties forming this electoral list do not agree on all issues, such as the critical issue of Kosovo or sanctions against Russia. They advocate for the formation of a technocratic government after the elections, which will deal with “decriminalisation,” halting price increases, freeing the media, and subsequently organising free elections. According to CRTA scenario opinion polls, the opposition has a chance to gain a significant number of seats in parliament, posing a threat to the ruling coalition[xvi].
The list of national minorities that have the opportunity to gain parliamentary representation is the “For our president, for our community, for the future” list, which was included in the national minority lists of the Vojvodina Hungarians Union. Also, the “SDA Sandzak – Sulejman Ugljanin” list, which is a Bosniak minority list that supports Serbia’s membership in the EU and NATO and the “United for Justice” list, a Bosniak-Croat coalition that has ministers in the Serbian government and supports Serbia’s accession to the EU.
Additionally, an interesting minority list is the “Russian party – Slobodn Nikolić”, which advocates for Serbia’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union and full membership of Serbia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It supports strengthening cooperation with Russia in the fields of economy, culture, and education. According to the Russian Party’s website, it encompasses Russophilia, social conservatism, Euroscepticism, anti-globalism, and Serbian nationalism.
- Aleksandar Vučić once again announces elections amidst protests and a state crisis. His party has been in power for about ten years, and he has been president since 2017. Vučić has another opportunity to win due to his approach to many issues that have the support of the majority of society. Navigating between the desire to join the European Union but not recognising Kosovo and not joining the sanctions against Russia, Aleksandar appears to be the choice of the majority of Serbs. Compared to other Western Balkan countries, the low unemployment rate and respectable economic growth favours the ruling party. He also has total control of the media in the country, which is why his government is portrayed positively during elections. Moreover, most people who rely on the party are employed in public administration and receive the majority of benefits, which has allowed President Aleksandar Vučić to significantly weaken the democratic institutions of the nation in recent years.
- The opposition in Serbia has united to fight against the rule of Aleksandar Vučić by running on a common list. The protests that took place after two armed attacks in May in Serbia have sparked anger among the society and raised questions about the government. The opposition actively participated in the demonstrations, emphasising the need to change the approach to issues such as media, violence and gun ownership. The issue of Kosovo seems to be a problem that divides opposition parties. However, they believe that it is currently not the most urgent matter. People are tired of the situation in the country. High inflation, violence, corruption, and many other issues might encourage voting for the opposition, which aims to remove the ruling party from power.
- No matter if Vučić’s list or “Serbia against Violence” end up victorious, changing the policy regarding the European Union is rather unlikely. The issue of Kosovo seems to be more deeply rooted in society, with parties that want to resolve it, thus approaching EU membership, having no chance of entering parliament. The situation remains similar regarding sanctions against Russia.
Dr Zuzanna Sielska- Jan Długosz University in Częstochowa
[i] Lists of national minorities can win mandates in the Serbian Parliament even if they win less than 3% of the votes. Moreover, at least 40% of candidates on electoral lists must be female.
[ii] Euronews, For first time, a majority of Serbs are against joining the EU – poll, https://www.euronews .com/2022/04/22/for-first-time-a-majority-of-serbs-are-against-joining-the-eu-poll, (09.12.2023)
[iii] Tradingeconomics, unemployment rate for Serbia, Bosna and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Nrth Macedonia, Kosovo, https://tradingeconomics.com/serbia/unemployment-rate (09.12.2023)
[iv] Transparency international: https://www.transparency.org/en/countries/serbia (09.12.2023)
[v] Focus economics: https://www.focus-economics.com/country-indicator/serbia/inflation/ (09.12.2023)
[vi] Freedom house: https://freedomhouse.org/country/serbia/freedom-net/2023.
[vii] Antonino Castaldo (2020), Back to Competitive Authoritarianism? Democratic Backsliding in Vučić’s Serbia, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol 72, 2020, Iss 10, p. 1617-1638.
[viii] In 2018, the president further fueled the protests by arrogantly dismissing the demands of demonstrators, regardless of their numbers reaching 5 million. This statement exemplified the ruling elite’s contempt and disregard for societal expectations. In response, the opposition leader proclaimed himself as one of the five million, leading to the creation of the hashtag #1from5million as a symbol of unity against the ruling elite’s policies, Zuzanna Sielska, Współczesne podejście do kapitału społecznego – kreowanie partycypacji obywatelskiej przez media społecznościow, ed. M. Marczewska-Rytko, D. Maj, Partycypacja polityczna, Wydawnictwo UMCS, Lublin 2020.
[ix] Dušan Spasojević, Jelena Lončar (2022), Facing protests in Serbia: patterns of new competitive authoritarianism, Democratization, V 30, Is 7, p. 1380-1399.
[xi] All election lists can be found here: https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/srbija-parlamentarni-izbori-kandidati/32707104.html (09.12.2023).
[xii] The list also includes parties such as the Socialist Movement of Alexander Vulin, Rasim Ljajić’s Social Democratic Party of Serbia, Party of United Pensioners of Serbia, Healthy Serbia, Nenad Popović’s Serbian People’s Party and Vuk Drašković’s Serbian Renewal Movement.
[xiii] Confirmation of the importance of this issue came from research conducted in 2023 by the Institute for European Affairs (Institut za evropske poslove). According to the results, as many as 69.8% of respondents would not support recognising Kosovo’s independence as a condition for entry into the European Union. Institut za evropske poslove, Percepcija građana prema Kosovu, https://iea.rs/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/35-Percepcija-gradjana-o-Kosovu-2023.pdf (09.12.2023).
[xiv] CRTA (2022), Democracy on the Margin of the War, opinion poll May 2022, Belgarde 2022, available at: https://crta.rs/en/survey-democracy-on-the-margin-of-the-war/ (9.12.2023).
[xv] Slobodna evropa, https://www.slobodnaevropa.org/a/srbija-parlamentarni-izbori-kandidati/32707104.html (10.12.2023).
[xvi] CRTA, https://crta.rs/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/CRTA-Istrazivanje-javnog-menjenja-Spetembar-2023.pdf (13.12.2023)