MS Risk Blog

Serbia’s Presidential Elections: Who is Serbia’s New Strongman?

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Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has won 54.9 per cent of the vote at the presidential election held on the 2nd of April, securing a five-year term as Serbia’s president. Addressing the press conference at the headquarters of the ruling Progressive Party, Aleksandar Vucic said he was proud of the support he received and that election results showed which direction Serbia wants to go.

The turnout for this election was 52.4 per cent, and According to the Centre for Transparency, Research and Accountability, CRTA, no major irregularities have been reported. CRTA noted irregularities in JUST 3 per cent of polling stations, including that electoral commissions sometimes did not check the personal documents of voters, failed to check whether a voter had already cast their ballot, and failed to mark voters’ fingers with special ink to ensure they did not vote again.

After his victory, the Serbia’s new president appears to be stronger than ever. Until he moves to his new office by the end of this month, Vucic will be both the prime minister and the president-elect, at the same time.

Nothing appears to get in the way of his victory – neither the fact that Serbia has now hit the lowest score on Freedom House’s Democracy Index since 2003, nor the thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Belgrade the day after the vote to claim that the elections were rigged. Nonetheless, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel were among the first to hail Vucic’s success, but best wishes also came from Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the EU’s bad boy, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

But who is Aleksander Vucic? The diversity of his foreign admirers reflects the multitude of faces he has been presenting at home and to the outside world.

To his Serbian critics, Vucic is no more than an autocrat who stomped out free media and subverted state institutions to his whims – something that Erdogan and Orban can surely appreciate.

In Brussels and Berlin, they see him as a pro-Western reformist, determined to bring Serbia into the EU. Also, the EU, more than ever, needs Vucic’s continued cooperation to keep the Balkan route closed.

And in Moscow, he’s welcomed as a staunch ally, who refuses to join Western sanctions against Russia, and keeps Serbia out of Nato.

In his youth, the new President was on the extreme right, but now, at age 47, he has abandoned ideology and become all things to all people.

Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party and his cabinet include reformists, nationalists, well-educated liberals, and low-educated supporters. Yet, he still somehow manages to keep them all in line.

His political agenda is equally eclectic, and his challengers – both from left and right – quickly discovered that he has co-opted many of their policies. Thus they lost the battle before the campaign had even started.

Despite Serbia has found itself in the middle of the Russia-West dynamic, Western leaders have opted for supporting the new President as he appears to be a stabilising figure. When they look at the Western Balkans, they see a deep crisis in Macedonia, paralysis in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and rampant crime and corruption in Kosovo.

Even Croatia, the only country in the region that managed to join the EU in this decade, is not exactly a paragon of stability.

The recent collapse of the retail giant Agrokor, which contributes more than 10 percent to Croatia’s GDP, is threatening to bankrupt the country.

Surrounded by neighbors like these, Serbia looks like an island of stability and, with Vucic in charge, the West at least knows what to expect.

Vucic has also proven highly cooperative on two issues that are highly important to Brussels: Kosovo and the refugee crisis.

On Kosovo, he has been engaged in the EU-sponsored normalisation talks between Belgrade and Pristina, which have been going on for several years, and produced some (albeit modest) results.

From Brussels’ perspective, as long as the two sides are talking, the possibility of renewed conflict between Serbia and its former southern province remains low.

When it comes to refugees, Serbia is in the middle of the Balkan route, which is now mostly closed. The EU wants to keep it that way, and would need Vucic’s continued cooperation on this issue as well.