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Serbia local elections: Can the opposition break through?

May 30, 2024

Despite divisions and differences over whether or not to boycott this weekend's local elections, Serbia's once-united opposition parties hope to break the ruling party's dominance.

Graffiti on a pavement in Belgrade, Serbia, calling on voters to boycott the local elections on June 2, 2024
Because of reports of widespread irregularities in December's parliamentary election, there are calls for voters to boycott Serbia's local elections on June 2Image: Ivan Djerkovic/DW

A few solitary election billboards and stands are the only indications that local elections are taking place this weekend in the city of Novi Sad in northern Serbia. The scene is similar in the southern Serbian city of Nis, where residents say they cannot recall such a quiet election campaign.

Nevertheless, public sentiment suggests that the opposition may have a chance of defeating the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of President Aleksandar Vucic in both cities.

"I believe the expectations are partially justified," Dusko Radosavljevic, a political scientist from Novi Sad, told DW. "In these major centers in Serbia, the opposition has to a certain extent united and become visible. But even if the opposition itself is not highly visible, the negative effects of the current harmful government are."

Dusko Spasojevic, a political scientist from Belgrade, shares this view but says that it is hard to make predictions because there is less enthusiasm now than there was in the run-up to the parliamentary election on December 17.

People walk past a campaign stand in the southern Serbian city of Nis
Serbian voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect representatives to 88 local assembliesImage: Jelena Djukic Pejic/DW

"It seems that there is hope for the opposition parties, primarily based on the results of the parliamentary elections, which serve as a good indicator," he told DW, pointing to the fact that the opposition list came first in most polling stations in Novi Sad. "What is particularly interesting is that for the first time in quite a while, we have open and competitive elections, which might draw out voters who have not participated before."

Recent election irregularities

The upcoming local elections are taking place after months of opposition efforts to highlight irregularities in both the national parliamentary and Belgrade local elections last December.

Several election observers concluded that these elections were neither free nor fair. The Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), an independent, non-partisan civil society organization, stated in its final report that "The spectrum of severe threats to voters' and candidates' rights includes unscrupulous pressure on citizens, manipulation of the voter registry, forgery of support signatures for nominated lists, misuse of citizens' personal data, and the falsification of the election results publication date in the Official Gazette to prevent the opposition from utilizing the legal deadline for submitting complaints to the Constitutional Court."

Protesters carry a banner that reads: 'We don't agree' during a demonstration in central Belgrade, Serbia, December 30, 2023
Thousands of people gathered in Belgrade last December to protest what election observers said were widespread irregularities in the country's general election. The banner here reads 'We don't agree' Image: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture alliance

These findings were backed up by the final report of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. This led the European Parliament to call for an international investigation.

Electoral law amendments since December

Although no international investigation was ever launched, the reports of irregularities led to negotiations on electoral conditions between the government and the opposition. As a result, electoral law was amended to prevent the organized practice of temporarily moving voters' registered addresses to other constituencies to influence election results.

"This is a step in the right direction, but it's certainly not enough," Radomir Lazovic of the opposition Green-Left Front told DW. "A Voters' Register Commission needs to be established, and the media's approach to the opposition must change."

Opposition split

Because the opposition's demands were not fully met, the once-united opposition had to decide whether to participate in the elections at all. The debate led to a split in the opposition Serbia Against Violence alliance. One side formed a new group, I Choose to Fight, which will run in all local elections. The other side opted for a boycott.

A poster for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of President Aleksandar Vucic is seen on a billboard on the side of a street in Belgrade, Serbia, June 2024
President Aleksandar Vucic (pictured in the center of this election campaign poster) will hold a large SNS rally in the Serbian city of Nis on the final day of the local election campaignImage: Ivan Djerkovic/DW

"It seems that while the united opposition was pushing for changes in electoral conditions, the pressure on the government was greater, and there were indications that progress could be made," said Lazovic, who is part of the I Choose to Fight group. "But after part of the opposition decided to boycott the elections, this pressure decreased, and the government now feels less compelled to make further concessions."

"For us, participating in the elections is a surrender, playing the game on their terms, and that's the main disagreement," said Marinika Tepic, vice president of the Party of Freedom and Justice, which opted for a boycott.

While this boycott primarily relates to the re-run of last December's local election in Belgrade, all local branches of these parties are allowed to decide for themselves whether to participate in the elections.

Opposition confident in Novi Sad

The broadest opposition coalition was formed in Novi Sad, uniting 12 parties and movements. They believe that despite all the irregularities, they can defeat the ruling SNS.

"I think it's naive for our colleagues in Novi Sad to believe they can win under these conditions," said Tepic. "They won't win; they will face a reprise of December 17, or an even worse result."

Miran Pogacar of the United for a Free Novi Sad alliance disagrees: "We expect Novi Sad to be the first truly free city in Serbia. But a victory in Novi Sad is a victory for all of Serbia, and we hope the same will happen in other cities, like Nis, where there is a real possibility for change, to initiate changes across the country."

Igor Novakovic of the Socialist Party of Serbia in Nis speaks to DW, June 2024
Igor Novakovic of the Socialist Party of Serbia, which is in coalition with the SNS, is confident that the ruling parties will emerge strongest from the upcoming election in NisImage: Jelena Djukic Pejic/DW

There is the possibility of change in smaller towns as well, but some feel that these elections will be a repeat of what happened in December. In the town of Bac near Novi Sad, for example, local leaders were filmed unloading aid packages, which the opposition assumes contains basic foodstuffs and claims will be distributed in Bac before the elections in an attempt to buy votes for the ruling SNS.

Voter turnout will be key

A quiet campaign and heated debate over the boycott have overshadowed discussions about party policies and programs. Political scientist Dusko Spasojevic believes this could mean that some voters will stay at home on Sunday. "I think this debate has really confused the Serbia Against Violence voters, and it remains to be seen how they will react," he said.

Adding to the confusion, he said, is the makeup of some of the coalitions and uncertainty among voters about where the opposition is boycotting the elections and where it isn't.

To make matters worse, citizen group lists have appeared with names similar to opposition lists in numerous municipalities. "The aim of these phantom lists is to further confuse voters, and I believe that in all this confusion, some votes will be cast in error," said Spasojevic.

While the opposition is pinning its hopes on high voter turnout, the ruling SNS is leaving nothing to chance: President Aleksandar Vucic will hold a large SNS rally in Nis on the final day of the campaign.

Is this an indication that the SNS is rattled and fears losing? Igor Novakovic of the Socialist Party of Serbia, which is in coalition with the SNS, is confident that there will be no surprises. And if there are, he claims it will only be the citizens of Nis who will suffer.

"The opposition's proposals depend on the government of the Republic of Serbia, because the city doesn't have the money to finance them. And what will happen if the opposition wins in Nis while the Serbian government remains in power for the next four years? How will Nis develop without alignment between the city and the national government? I'm not threatening or trying to scare anyone, but that's the electoral and political system," he said.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan