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26 March 2022updated 25 Mar 2022 4:28pm

Will this be Serbia’s dirtiest election yet?

Divided and facing a combative government, Aleksandar Vučić’s opponents will struggle to unseat him on 3 April.

By Aleks Eror

BELGRADE — The covert smartphone footage gathered by the Serbian opposition shows vans and minibuses with Bosnian licence plates parked outside police stations in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, while a dramatic action-movie-style soundtrack plays in the background.

As the scene cuts to shots of people queuing up inside state buildings, the narrator explains that the Serbian government is bussing in ethnic Serbs from neighbouring Bosnia and offering them fast-tracked Serbian citizenship: “The only condition is that they vote for [President Aleksandar Vučić’s] party,” the narrator says. An undercover reporter asks where the bus passengers are from: Sarajevo, Doboj, Bijeljina, come the replies – all of them cities on the other side of the border.

Serbian citizens go to the polls on 3 April to vote in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. Vučić’s ruling party appears to have found a subversive new tactic as it looks to extend its decade-long spell in power and ensure that national votes remain anything but free and fair.

[See also: “We all drink the same water”: how environmental issues unite Serbia’s opposition]

Despite the opposition’s much-improved strategic planning, their chances remain slim: not only are they held back by unfair electoral conditions, but the long-divided opposition is still unable to rally behind a single candidate and maintain a united front. This stands in stark contrast to its counterparts in neighbouring Hungary, who have banded together in the hope of dethroning their own strongman leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, also on 3 April.

According to Belgrade-based political analyst Boban Stojanović, much of this division stems from the fragmentation of the pro-European Democratic Party, which led Serbia from 2000 to 2012 before splintering into disparate factions.

“A key problem is that a big part of the opposition originated from the same party, so I believe there are some personal animosities there,” says Stojanović. “So not only are they not standing together – they also attack each other.”

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Serbia’s moderate opposition is split across three separate electoral coalitions: United Serbia, a centrist grouping led by Marinika Tepić; the right-leaning National Democratic Alternative; and Moramo! (We Must!), a movement of leftist-green upstarts.

United Serbia are the frontrunners, which has made them a target of sniping from other factions. Stojanović describes this as the “biggest problem” for Vučić’s opponents and also says that it is evidently a “strategy” designed to “steal a few votes by criticising the rest of the opposition”.

Moramo!, by contrast, has at least refrained from open aggression. But overall, Stojanović says, the opposition hasn’t done enough to avoid splitting the vote, which will likely play in Vučić’s favour.

But the date of the vote isn’t the only parallel between the upcoming Serbian and Hungarian elections: Stojanović says that the two are comparable in that they both take place within “the context of undemocratic regimes”.

Over the last decade, Vučić has essentially copy-pasted from the Orbán playbook in his successful drive to transform Serbia into an illiberal democracy where he controls all the levers of power. Much like his Hungarian ally, Vučić has effectively silenced criticism of his rule by enlisting pliant oligarchs to buy up most of Serbia’s print and broadcast media, thereby ensuring favourable coverage, and has filled both the judiciary and public institutions with partisan lackeys.

Another parallel is United Serbia’s choice of presidential nominee. Orbán will face off against Péter Márki-Zay, the conservative mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a small city in Hungary’s provincial heartlands. As a practising Catholic with seven children who has backed Orbán’s controversial border fence, Márki-Zay is well placed to steal voters away from the incumbent.

[See also: Péter Márki-Zay could represent the last chance for Hungarian democracy]

Serbia’s would-be president, Zdravko Ponoš, is in the same mould. A former army general, he is far more likely to eat into Vučić’s base than the president’s previous opponent, the country’s former national ombudsman Saša Janković.

In a recent TV appearance, Ponoš ruled out recognising Kosovo’s independence, approving same-sex marriage or joining Nato. He even declared that “Serbia did not commit genocide in Srebrenica; the Serbian populace isn’t genocidal”, albeit in a way that eschewed the overt demagoguery that Serb politicians usually employ when discussing this subject. Taking a different stance on these issues is political suicide in Serbia.

This is the fifth nationwide election that Vučić has contested in the past 10 years. But this isn’t due to any sort of domestic political instability: the ruling coalition holds 231 out of 250 seats in parliament and wins each contest by an increasingly unassailable margin. Instead, Vučić has learnt how to use snap elections as a political tool to neuter the opposition by briefly shelving controversial legislation that they might use against him until victory is secured. He also uses ballots to batter their morale.

“From 2014 onwards [Vučić] kept calling snap elections so he could destroy the opposition,” explains Stojanović. “By holding constant votes, he sought to create the perception that he’s unbeatable, which both exhausted and demoralised opposition voters and activists alike.”

Apathy has become so widespread among the electorate that turnout rarely exceeds 50 per cent and those that do participate often see it as little more than a protest vote. However, there are some reasons for optimism. In January, Serbia held a referendum on proposed constitutional changes. Although the government won by 20 points, turnout was only 31 per cent and the country’s three biggest cities all voted against. Now the opposition sees a real chance of winning some urban seats, particularly on a municipal level in Belgrade.

Taking back the capital would be a huge boost for the opposition’s shattered morale and would give it a foundation to build upon for future elections. A reversal for the government might also indicate that, after a decade, Vučić’s star could be starting to wane.

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