Serb Vote Hands President’s Party Total Power Over Nation

Serbia’s president led his party to a landslide victory in general elections boycotted by the opposition, securing a crushing majority in a country that’s at the center of a struggle for influence among global powers.

Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party won 61.6% of Sunday’s vote, according to partial official results with 71% of polling stations counted.

Boosted by the boycott from opposition leaders and turnout marred by fear of coronavirus, the result is enough for his party to change any law uncontested. It also eclipses the majorities held by ruling parties across Europe save those of Russia and Belarus.

“This is a historic moment,” Vucic said after declaring victory. “We got enormous confidence from the people, the most ever in Serbia.”

Serb Vote Hands President’s Party Total Power Over Nation

The win will allow him to tighten his political dominance over the former Yugoslav republic that began when he transformed himself from nationalist firebrand to a pro-European Union prime minister in 2014.

It also renews the government’s mandate to tackle thorny issues ranging from trying to lead the economy into a post-virus recovery to mending ties with Kosovo and navigating the uncertain path toward EU membership.

In second place behind the Progressives was the Socialist Party of Vucic’s foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, with 10.4%, followed by one moderate group that didn’t want to boycott the ballot. Ethnic minorities secured combined 16 seats in the 250-seat assembly. Voter turnout was around 50%.

Overcoming Protests

Buoyed by state media coverage of his government’s efforts to quash Serbia’s Covid-19 outbreak and engagements with leaders in the U.S., China and Russia, Vucic overcame weeks of protests against his government by tens of thousands of Serbs who took to their balconies during the virus lockdown.

His victory exceeds the most votes won by the late wartime strongman Slobodan Milosevic, a former boss to Vucic in the 1990s. The biggest opposition parties refused to field candidates, saying the Progressives denied them access to media and undermined conditions for a free-and-fair vote.

“This result is an election tsunami,” said Slobodan Zecevic, an analyst at the Institute of European Studies. “I don’t know anyone in Europe capable of such an election result.”

Vucic’s intense pre-election media presence has “blurred the line between his official duties and the election campaign,” said Urszula Gacek, who represented election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Since switching to the job of president in 2017, Vucic has transformed the role from a largely ceremonial post into Serbia’s main executive position.

During that time he has reined in public finances, attracted foreign investment, and raised wages. Still, living standards have languished virtually unchanged at about two-fifths of the EU average for the last decade, and Freedom House, a largely U.S.-government funded think tank that monitors democracy, ranks Serbia as only “partly free.”

Kosovo, Covid-19

Vucic’s biggest struggle has arguably been his effort to lead the country of 7 million into the EU. The main hurdle to that is Kosovo, which declared independence a decade after the two nations fought a war that ended when a NATO-led bombing campaign forced Serb troops out.

While Brussels has demanded that Serbia mend ties with its neighbor as a condition for entry, Vucic has spent years preventing Kosovo from gaining international recognition. He has vowed to never consider it a separate and independent entity, a position backed by Russia and China.

But pressure is building for a deal. U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy, Richard Grenell, has persuaded Vucic to head to the White House on June 27 to meet his Kosovo counterpart to discuss economic cooperation. Before that, he’ll head to Russia to meet his ally Vladimir Putin.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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