How Serbia Against Violence did violence to Serbia’s hope for change

For a while this winter and spring it seemed like the Serbian opposition had all the momentum. The Serbia Against Violence (SPN) coalition came in a close second to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in the 17th of December election for the Belgrade City Assembly. Moreover, given the split in the vote, neither party could form the majority needed to govern the capital.

And, like in most electoral contests of the past decade, the opposition claimed it lost because of widespread voting irregularities favouring the Progressive Party, in this case particularly a “migration of voters” brought by bus into Belgrade from other cities and villages. However, unlike at other times, these accusations drew a reaction from Serbia’s Western partners.

On February 8, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an international investigation into alleged fraud in Serbia’s December elections. Later that same month, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), released its report on the December elections.

The document partially vindicated the opposition’s claims concerning problems with the voting process, and issued a number of recommendations on how best to remedy them, though the report also acknowledges that the elections adequately allowed for freedom of expression and assembly, and were “technically well-administered and offering voters a choice of political alternatives.”

This international attention produced an environment in which Serbia Against Violence could push for a rerun of the Belgrade election. The ruling Progressive Party was initially resistant to the idea, but, with no viable option, had to give in; it proposed that the new elections be held on April 28. However, it was now the opposition’s turn to balk at the date. April 28 was simply too soon, because Serbia Against Violence had a number of demands to be satisfied, or else the coalition threatened to boycott the elections.

Serbia Against Violence requested that a commission be formed to oversee the revision of the electoral register, and that the media coverage of the Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) should henceforth be in a manner that the opposition considers to be objective and professional. The third and final demand, was that the elections for the Belgrade City Assembly and the local elections scheduled for later this year, should be held on the same date, in part to prevent the infamous “voter migration.”

The Serbian Progressive Party agreed, in principle, to the revision of the voter lists and an overhaul of RTS’s reporting guidelines. To this purpose, a number of meetings with the opposition took place, though in a predictable fashion both sides blamed each other for the limited progress. However, the real sticking point appeared to be whether or not the Belgrade and local elections could be held on the same day.

Government officials pointed out that this would be unconstitutional, but Serbia Against Violence would not give in. And, in a rare show of compliance, deputies from the Serbian Progressive Party voted in the National Assembly to amend the Law on Local Elections, enabling the two sets of elections to be both held on June 2nd. It was an almost complete victory for the Serbian opposition. Or so it seemed.

Because Serbia Against Violence chose to break up at what should have been the moment of its greatest triumph.

Politics in the Balkans are rarely straightforward, and Serbia is a case in point. The polls tell us that not only had Serbia Against Violence a real chance of winning Belgrade, but also Novi Sad and Nis, the country’s second and third cities. But to achieve this, the parties making it up had to keep working together. Instead, three of them, including the largest party in the coalition, decided that a boycott of the elections was somehow the wiser course. The remaining six parties decided they would run anyway, and lost no time in forming a new electoral coalition named “I Choose to Fight!” What are we to make of all this?

The pro-boycott parties – Freedom and Justice Party (SSP), Serbia Centre (SRCE) and Together (Zajedno), argue that the ruling party’s apparently accommodating attitude is merely an act put on for the benefit of the international community, and that, until there is real improvement in electoral conditions, it is unconscionable for the opposition to participate in any elections. In their vision, June 2nd is much too soon to be able to see amelioration in the electoral climate, and that, while the Belgrade and local elections should be held simultaneously, they should both be pushed back into the fall.

This line of reasoning is difficult to understand, given that all three parties ran in the parliamentary elections a mere few months ago, each have deputies serving in the National Assembly, and, until very recently, all were part of a coalition boisterously advocating for a repeat of the Belgrade elections. Was political freedom really that much better in December?

There are those who point out that the ruling party, in particular the opposition’s arch-nemesis, President Aleksandar Vučić, agreed to hold the local and Belgrade elections concurrently only in order to drive a wedge between the Serbia Against Violence partners. This is neither here nor there. Of course the Progressive Party had its political calculus behind every decision it took, and obviously the aim of the ruling party isn’t to help the opposition. This is how politics works, whether in Serbia, or the United States.

Nor is it the first time Serbian elections are boycotted. 2020 saw an almost complete boycott of both parliamentary and local elections by most opposition parties. The result was that the Progressive Party governed alone, and with a majority in the National Assembly wide enough to modify the constitution. It also meant that the boycotting parties received no government funding until new elections were held. Nobody would call 2020 a great success, but at least back then the opposition acted united – now it’s split almost down the middle.

A paradoxical reaction to the Progressive Party’s long tenure in office is that the opposition is no longer concerned with what their voters’ priorities actually are. Take the Belgrade public for example. Is their overwhelming concern the improvement of Serbia’s electoral process no matter the cost, or would they prefer a functioning city government which can deal with the less glamorous issues they face, like poor road traffic safety or the crumbling public buildings? What the boycotting parties are doing, is keeping the moral high ground, not only at the expense of their coalition partners, but also of their voters.

The immediate result is that Serbia Against Violence is dead. Not everyone realizes it quite yet, but the split over the June 2nd elections is not something that can be walked back.

Political analyst Đorđe Vukadinović put it best when he said that “regardless of the declarative goodwill and occasional conciliatory statements from one side or the other, there is no doubt that in the coming weeks, tensions and even mutual accusations in this relationship will only grow. And opposition-minded citizens are currently acting a bit like children whose parents are in the process of divorce. Some are angry, some still don't believe, and some hope for reconciliation."

This is not necessarily a bad thing in the long run. Perhaps coming so close to success and then failing to grasp it will hammer some much needed political maturity into the Serbian opposition. Perhaps we will see a consolidation of its ranks, and the parties which manage to survive will be less inclined to view public elections as a contest between democratic and autocratic forces, and more as dialogue between different layers of the same society. And perhaps we will see Serbia’s young urban voters finally get the representation they deserve, the representation which Serbia Against Violence ultimately proved unwilling to give them.