7 conclusions from Europe’s first Covid-19-era election
There was little unexpected about Serbia’s election result on 21st June, the first to be held in the Covid-19 era in Europe. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won handsomely. But this was expected in part because the opposition was boycotting the election, citing the lack of an even playing field.
The opposition boycott to some extent worked. Election turnout was down from the 56 percent of 2016 to around 47 percent this time round (slightly higher on dodgy official figures). If we take into consideration that the coronavirus pandemic is still of concern to citizens, it is unclear how far the opposition had affected the low turnout, but it was clear it had done so - to some extent. Roughly the same number of people stayed home as had voted for the main opposition parties in 2016.
The ruling SNS party - a deeply conservative and neo-liberal party, friendly with Viktor Orban - in fact, appears to have increased its vote in absolute terms, and to have swept away opposition bastions where local elections were held. While many people in the public and private sector vote for the ruling party out of fear that jobs would be lost if they did not, this still represents a relative source of comfort for the regime. The party’s performance will allow it a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Still, there will be causes of concern for the SNS. Reports in European media emphasised the opposition boycott. Although Donald Tusk, president of the 'European People's Party' (EPP), congratulated the SNS on its victory, there are significant rumblings in the European Parliament. These along the lines that the SNS will have to relax its domestic authoritarian tendencies to allow more freedom of the press and less pressure on the opposition if it wants to progress on its path towards EU integration. However, Aleksandar Vučić, president of Serbia and leader of the SNS, knows that the foreign powers now need to factor him into various peace deals in the tumultuous region, as on the Kosovo-Serbia issue. So, any threat to him is in the longer term.
The other main worry for the SNS is the domestic effect of the elections. Besides his coalition partners, the Socialist Party of Serbia, and a party with a local base in Belgrade led by a former sports star who runs a municipality of Belgrade - no other party or coalition crossed the (lowered) 3 percent barrier. While this could in part be attributed to the success of the opposition boycott, it also speaks to the lack-lustre performance of smaller opposition groups, including several far-right parties that had hoped to use the occasion to become visible actors on the political stage. Serbia thus bucks a regional trend with no far-right presence in parliament. But, more worryingly for the ruling party, it has failed to create a pseudo-opposition to compete with the mainstream opposition that boycotted the elections.
The question is, therefore, in the long-term, how the SNS will be able to deal with discontent in its rule? That depends to some extent on the opposition. However, the opposition is largely made up of the same people who ran Serbia in the 2000s, and whose unpopularity because of the neo-liberal reforms and the 2008 crash has continued to cripple any challenge to the SNS. People simply do not want a return to the past. The opposition has failed to offer anything new: it represents merely a more liberal variant of the same programme being rammed through by the SNS along EU recipes.
The left in this situation has an opening. It has continued to build new grassroots initiatives on a variety of issues like housing, access to water, and the like. We have also developed better links with trade unions and some progressive civil society actors. A left rooted in mass campaigns and longer-term extra-parliamentary mobilisations can make a difference in societal attitudes and gain ground. The field of extra-parliamentary activity will, however, now be deeply contested, as a plethora of actors tries to position themselves at the head of opposition and resistance to the government. The task of winning out over them will require not just boldness but also creativity. As the world edges towards another great recession, everything will be to play for in Serbia too.
This article first appeared in Counterfire. Reproduced with the author's permission.