Elections that were meant to consolidate the rule of Serbian president-elect Aleksandar Vucic have backfired, producing the biggest mass demonstrations since the revolution that overthrew dictator Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.
The spark was voting irregularities: opposition candidate Sasa Jankovic accused Vucic of stealing 319,000 votes in the 2 April first round poll – almost 10 percent of the total vote, and enough to secure the former prime minister outright victory in the first round of voting.
The trajectory of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka – SNS) is now widely seen to be veering toward authoritarianism, after parliament was suspended a month before the election and the Electoral Commission was stacked with pro-Vucic operatives.
The demonstrations have continued daily since the election, peaking at 50,000 in Belgrade on 8 April. They meet at 6pm, march, give speeches and then agree to do the same the next day. Protests of thousands went ahead in Novi Sad, in the north of the country on the banks of the Danube River, even after the street lights were turned off.
Far right groups have attempted to influence and lead the protests to no avail. They have been chased away by students. According to the revolutionary socialist group Marks21 in Serbia, the majority of placards at the demonstrations do not fit with the ideology of the existing political parties and are even further away from far right sects.
The majority of people are concerned with the defence of working conditions and wages; they want free education and they are against Vucic’s flirtatious attitude to Western imperialism.
However, the police and army unions have been major players in the protests. They have been protesting for months against a new budget that would cut their pay while increasing arms expenditure. On the day of the largest protest, the Ministry of Internal Affairs directed all employees to report for duty – not because the repressive arm of the state was needed to beat up protesters, but because the government is frightened at the prospect of rebellion in its own police force.
For decades, people have been fed the same message about the need to attract foreign investment with low wages. Politicians such as Vucic consider themselves “more IMF than the IMF”. But the “benefits” have not accrued to workers. Zeljko Veselinovic, president of the Sloga trade union, told one newspaper of the conditions at the South Korean-owned Jura factory in Leskovac, in the country’s south:
“Our battle with Jura lasts already five years. They have been hitting [workers] with metal sticks, harassed women, although there were no rape cases. They forbade them [female workers] to go to toilet and suggested them to wear diapers for adults.”
Vucic has a long record. He was elected general secretary of the far right Serbian Radical Party in 1995 and was responsible for the persecution of journalists and the spread of wartime propaganda as the minister of information in the last years of the Milosevic regime.
When Vucic split with others to form the SNS in 2008, he ditched his anti-EU rhetoric while never truly supporting independence for Kosova. This has been the de facto position of the ruling coalition; it has risen to prominence while straddling pro-Russia, Greater Serbia chauvinism and liberal pro-EU integration politics.
The liberal opposition has been pathetic, refusing to challenge the core of SNS’s project: a Serbia run in order to provide bosses with a skilled but cheap workforce. The “We’ve had enough” coalition, formed by Vucic’s former minister of the economy, spends its time trying to convince people that government jobs are a waste of resources because they’re given to lazy workers who are employed only because they will vote for Vucic. Its presidential nominee, Sasa Radulovic, failed to receive 2 percent of the vote.
Jankovic, the former ombudsman, ran on an anti-corruption platform. Everything the SNS does is terrible, according to him, because it is illegal. He upholds the constitution, but he does not oppose privatisation – he just questions the way in which it is done and who the proceeds go to. He received less than 17 percent of the vote, running second.
The far right Serbian Radical Party and Dveri/Democratic Party of Serbia coalition have done even worse than the liberal opposition, receiving 4 percent and 2 percent respectively.
The most interesting of the opposition presidential candidates is indicative of the public mood. Luka Maksimovic, a comedian, heads the “You haven’t tried the stuffed cabbage” party. His success (running third with almost 10 percent of the vote) points to the significant levels of cynicism in the electorate.
To turn that around, the movement against Vucic will need to continue and deepen.