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June 11, 2020

SERBIA: Controversial election will solidify dominance of ruling SNS

BY Andrius Tursa

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The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is expected to win the 21 June parliamentary election by a large margin, as the main opposition parties are boycotting the poll. This suggests policy continuity and a greater concentration of power in the hands of SNS. The contested vote may renew public unrest in the near term, while the democratic backsliding may weaken the country’s institutional capacity and business environment in the longer run.

The general poll was postponed from 26 April due to Covid-19. The 250-seat unicameral legislature is elected for a four-year term in a single nation-wide constituency under a closed-list proportional system. The electoral threshold of 3% – lowered from 5% in February – does not apply to ethnic minority parties/coalitions.

Although the election will see 21 electoral lists competing for seats in parliament, the Aleksandar Vucic-For Our Children coalition led by the ruling SNS is the clear frontrunner. The ruling party polls at 57-61%, boosted by relatively good handling of the pandemic and popular economic response measures such cash handouts to all citizens. The Socialist Party and United Serbia – having united under a joint electoral list – ranks second with 12-14%. Both parties are currently supporting the SNS-led government and are expected to continue this partnership after the election. Meanwhile, the most popular opposition parties running in the poll – the center-right Serbian Patriotic Alliance, the center-left Movement of Free Citizens, or the right-wing Serbian Radical Party – are polling at just 3-5%.

The pre-election surveys, however, do not reflect the full political landscape. The main opposition movement, the Alliance for Serbia, is boycotting the vote claiming that it is neither free nor fair. The opposition has been holding regular protests since December 2018, calling for greater media freedom and electoral reform. It has also blamed the ruling SNS for harassing opposition politicians and using public resources for campaigning. Most of these concerns were shared by the European Commission back in 2019, and the European Parliament-facilitated inter-party dialogue failed to achieve tangible changes. As a result, the contested vote may trigger another round of public demonstrations, especially as all Covid-19-related restrictions on outdoor public gatherings have been lifted.

The incumbent’s victory will mean continuity in most policy areas. The post-Covid-19 economic recovery will be the key priority, which is likely to entail continued support for the most affected sectors, such as tourism, restaurants, and transport, along with the main state-owned enterprises. The government is also expected to keep its focus on large infrastructure projects and IT services to boost employment. After a ballooning budget deficit and a surge in public debt in 2020, the SNS government would likely return to the path of fiscal consolidation. However, the concentration of political power in the hands of a single party could increase corruption as well as weaken the business environment in the longer term.

Finally, no significant changes are expected to the country’s foreign policy. The government will continue to favor close relations with Russia and China on the one hand and EU accession and cooperation with the US on the other. A renewed dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo may be expected after the election considering Pristina’s recent decision to lift all trade barriers on Serbia and active attempts from the EU and the US to bring both sides back to the table.

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