Serb voters put faith in pro-EU parties

epa05275083 A man casts his vote during Serbian parliamentary election in the town of Gracanica, Kosovo, 24 April 2016. Serbia is holding snap parliamentary elections. EPA/VALDRIN XHEMAJ©EPA

In results hailed by observers as a resounding endorsement of the EU from outside its borders, more than 85 per cent of Serbian voters in Sunday’s parliamentary elections backed pro-Europe parties, according to preliminary figures.

The results offer a counterpoint to the stunning success of the far right in Austria’s presidential vote. More broadly, the success of pro-EU politics in Serbia stands in contrast to a wave of Eurosceptic sentiment sweeping the continent, most notably in Hungary, Poland and France.

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Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s prime minister, made winning EU membership and rooting out endemic corruption the key planks of his political programme and received a strong endorsement from voters with 48 per cent of support, according to unofficial results.

Johannes Hahn, the EU’s enlargement chief, declared himself “confident that [Mr] Vucic will use citizens’ strong support in a responsible way and that it will strengthen Serbia’s EU perspective”.

But Mr Vucic’s electoral triumph is only partly a tale of pro-EU zeal; it also reveals the success of the populist political apparatus built by his party and conceals a resurgence of ultranationalist forces that appeal to nationalist and pro-Russian sentiment.

More broadly, Serbia’s EU membership aspirations face challenging headwinds — and possibly dashed hopes if EU members, fatigued with the bloc’s perceived over-reach on expansion, eventually fail to offer the Balkan country entry to the club.

Serbian voters have pinned their hopes on Mr Vucic’s goal of EU membership by 2020 but the threats to this ambition may come as much from the EU’s own reluctance to expand after years of economic and political crisis as from Serbia’s delayed reforms. On Monday, Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, listed Serbia among several countries afflicted by organised crime, corruption and terrorism.

“We have to ask ourselves, is it really right that the EU should just continue to expand, conferring upon all new member states all the rights of membership?” Ms May asked.

We have to ask ourselves, is it really right that the EU should just continue to expand, conferring upon all new member states all the rights of membership

– Theresa May, UK home secretary

Although Sunday’s vote dispels fears of a lurch towards Moscow by Serbia’s politicians, many Serbians feel that EU member states have already reached a negative answer to that question. Mr Vucic’s task is to convince them entering the EU is still a realistic goal.

His renewed mandate gives him a stronger hand in tackling unpopular requirements demanded by the EU and IMF, notably dealing with losses in the country’s bloated public sector and reducing the fiscal deficit to below 4 per cent.

Mr Vucic’s far right adversaries will be more prominent in the Serbian debate. The former war crimes suspect and paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj may now emerge as leader of the opposition if, as expected, Mr Vucic renews a coalition agreement with his current partners, the socialists.

The renewed political challenge on Mr Vucic’s right flank may polarise opinion further but it may also provide the prime minister with cover for criticism from European partners for slow progress on unpopular reforms.

I don’t think Seselj’s return to parliament will in any way harm the EU reform programme but he is a loose cannon

– Sonja Licht, president of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence

Analysts cautioned against overstating the far right resurgence but said the vote marked a definitive return to the scene for Mr Seselj, who was exonerated of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in March.

“I don’t think Seselj’s return to parliament will in any way harm the EU reform programme but he is a loose cannon. It will certainly mean more tough debates in parliament,” said Sonja Licht, president of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence.

The scale of Mr Vucic’s success will not be clear for days or even weeks — final counts must be completed by Thursday but repeat votes are likely in some districts where irregularities were reported.

The extent of any SNS majority hinges in part on how many of the small left and rightwing parties which populate the opposition reach a 5 per cent threshold for representation in parliament. If several marginal parties, including former president Boris Tadic’s social democratic party alliance and the ultra-conservative DSS-Dveri grouping surpass the requirement, Mr Vucic’s majority may shrink.

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