Serbia’s Strongman Wins Big in Election Boycotted by the Opposition

Serbia’s Strongman Wins Big in Election Boycotted by the Opposition

Serbia’s Strongman Wins Big in Election Boycotted by the Opposition

Serbia’s Strongman Wins Big in Election Boycotted by the Opposition

BERLIN — President Aleksandar Vucic’s nearly complete control over the Serbian state was bolstered on Sunday after his party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections boycotted by most of the opposition in protest at his autocratic policies.

Mr. Vucic was not personally up for re-election, but his political coalition, the nationalist Serbian Progressive Party, was projected to win more than 60 percent of seats in Parliament, according to initial results.

This puts the party on the threshold of a “supermajority,” which, if secured, would allow its lawmakers to change the constitution without the support of any other political faction.

The result could also give Mr. Vucic greater leeway to forge a peace agreement with Kosovo, the former Serbian province that broke from Belgrade in 1999, helped by an American-led bombing campaign, but whose sovereignty Serbia has never officially recognized.

The vote cemented Serbia’s move, under Mr. Vucic, away from a pluralist political culture. Since Mr. Vucic won the presidency in 2017, the quality of Serbian democracy has fallen from “free” to only “partly free,” according to Freedom House, an independent Washington-based rights research group that makes an annual assessment of each country’s political freedoms.

Rights observers regularly express concern over the influence Mr. Vucic wields over the judiciary, the electoral process, and both state and private media.

A former minister under Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader during the Kosovo War, Mr. Vucic said Sunday’s results were “absolutely incredible.”

“I’ve been in politics for a long time,” he said in a news conference after polls closed. “But I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an intergovernmental body funded by 57 mainly European member states, said that the election had been administered efficiently but that the “dominance of the ruling party, including in the media, was of concern.”

Tthe main opposition parties called the election illegitimate, noting that initial projections suggested that turnout was one of the lowest in Serbia this century. With most votes counted, the electoral authority said just over 50 percent of voters took part, while other monitors said less than half participated.

At a news conference on Sunday night, opposition leaders argued that turnout would have been even lower if Mr. Vucic’s party hadn’t intimidated thousands of people to vote in the final hours of polling on Sunday, or if the Serbian public broadcaster had run a more balanced program during the campaign.

“Serbia unequivocally said ‘no’ to Aleksandar Vucic,” said Dragan Djilas, the leader of an alliance of seven opposition parties that boycotted the ballot, and encouraged their supporters to abstain from voting.

While the results give Mr. Vucic yet more power at home, analysts said they also put him under greater pressure internationally — because foreign leaders may now expect him to wield that power in their favor.

In recent years, Mr. Vucic has successfully curried support from competing global powers — maintaining a strong relationship with Russia and strengthening ties with China, while still positioning Serbia as a potential member of the European Union, and an interlocutor for the United States.

Mr. Vucic has said he has no intention of choosing between rival global powers and has, for the most part, successfully managed to navigate between outside interests.

But with the election passed and won, he faces immediate international pressure — particularly over the issue of Kosovo.

On Monday, he met with a senior envoy from the European Union, Miroslav Lajcak, to discuss a European-led initiative to forge a settlement with Kosovo.

On Saturday, he will meet at the White House with President Trump and his Balkan envoy, Richard Grenell, to discuss a rival, American-led initiative for a Serbia-Kosovo peace deal.

And in between, Mr. Vucic will fly to Moscow to meet President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has historically said that any deal with Kosovo must have the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia occupies a permanent seat.

“What he does next is going to be very interesting,” said Marko Savkovic, program director for the Belgrade Security Forum, an annual politics conference in Serbia. “It’s going to be very hard for him to keep doing what he’s been doing for the last couple of years.”

Mr. Savkovic added: “He’s going to be asked by more and more people: Are you going to take this country, that you’re now fully in control of, closer to the West? Or are you going to be just another Balkan autocrat?”


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