The Serbian president, and others, say the country swung “radically” to the right after the April elections. BIRN examined whether this was really the case and who could benefit from such a perception.
By Sasa Dragojlo
Going on stage Sunday evening, Aleksandar Vucic did not claim victory for himself and his Progressive Party in the presidential and parliamentary elections of Serbia. He also acknowledged the seemingly strong performance of three other candidates in the parliamentary vote – the right-wing Dveri party and the NADA alliance and the far-right Zavetnici, or Oathkeepers.
“The impact of the Ukrainian crisis on the election results is huge,” he said. “Serbia has moved radically to the right.”
Vucic was not the only one struck by what at first glance looks like an impressive performance by the pro-Russian, anti-EU right in Serbia.
A closer look, however, shows that in terms of votes and seats, the right is no better off than it was in 2016, when Serbia last held parliamentary elections that failed. not been boycotted by much of the opposition.
Indeed, Dveri, NADA and Zavetnici, along with the Progressive Party’s junior partner in government, the Socialists, simply appear to have garnered some of the 330,000 votes the Progressives lost in this election compared to 2020.
“I don’t see the situation getting worse,” said Dario Hajric, a sociologist and political analyst who studies the far right in Serbia.
The leaders of Dveri, NADA and Zavetnici “are less radical” than many progressive or socialist lawmakers, he said.
“Leaders of these right-wing parties are embracing global alt-right trends and are more like opportunists using right-wing ideas to build their careers,” Hajric told BIRN. And maybe that suits the Progressive Party, SNS, he speculated.
“This is a project of the SNS to somehow resolve the discontent of its electorate by pouring it out on the parties that are in its orbit.”
The lower threshold paved the way for the right to enter parliament
Between them, NADA, which stands for “Hope”, Dveri and the Zavetnici were supported by 487,688 voters, which translates to 35 of the 250 seats in parliament, based on 99% of the votes counted.
NADA, which is centered on the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, won 5.4%, while Dveri and the Zavetnici just crossed the 3% threshold to enter parliament with 3.8 and 3.7% respectively .
The last election of 2020 is not an appropriate comparison given that much of the Serbian opposition was boycotted.
In 2016, however, Dveri and the DSS ran together, winning 5% of the vote, while the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, of convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, won 8%, trailing only the Progressives and Socialists. . Between them, Dveri, DSS and the Radicals won 496,582 votes, which translated to, again, 35 seats.
While this year the Zavetnici entered parliament for the first time, the radicals are now a depleted force, drained by Vucic’s decision in 2008 to break with his political mentor, Seselj, and embrace the cause of joining the European Union with a new party – the Progressives.
Indeed, the Zavetnici and Dveri only entered parliament this time because the progressive-controlled parliament voted in February 2020 to lower the threshold from 5% to 3%.
If the threshold had remained the same, only NADA would have crossed it. NADA is led by DSS presidential candidate and Sorbonne-educated lawyer Milos Jovanovic, and is far more conservative than far-right.
Tone down the rhetoric
All three, in fact, have toned down their rhetoric in an effort to broaden their appeal, experts say.
Dveri now presents itself as “a moderate European right”, while its leader, Bosko Obradovic, has dismissed the “right-left” political divide as a relic of the past.
The Zavetnici began as a pro-Russian far-right fringe movement with presumed ties to progressives, but are now considered less extreme than Seselj’s radicals.
Ratislav Dinic, a political theorist and commentator on the Pescanik.net portal, said NADA and the Zavetnici were heavily promoted in pro-government media, unlike other more centrist opposition parties, collectively known in Serbia as name of “liberal opposition”.
“Their act in public is not as radical and anti-systemic as before,” he said. “They opted for decency, calm and ‘statesman’ rhetoric as opposed to the Liberal opposition’s harsh criticism of the government. And that’s why they were given plenty of space in the pro-government media without the smear campaign that was reserved for the liberal opposition.
He said Vucic had wanted to do something similar in 2020, but the boycott ruined his plans. “The census drop was part of that plan,” Dinic told BIRN. “But this year they succeeded.”
Experts say the likes of Dveri, NADA and Zavetnici have all profited from Russia’s war in Ukraine, which some right-wing Serbs support, popular frustration over COVID-19 restrictions and the spread of conspiracy theories of right.
Dveri, for example, appears to have enjoyed a boost in support after prominent pulmonologist and anti-vaxxer Branimir Nestorovic joined the party in the final week of the election campaign.
“The pandemic and the anti-vaxxer sentiment was big,” Dinic said. “Nestorovic’s entry into the campaign saved Dveri and pushed the [anti-globalisation, anti-vaxxer] “Sovereignists” below three percent. »
Progressives pacify the far right
Right-wing parties are not new to Serbia, where, in the 22 years since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, political currents have often been decided by arguments and debates over Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse and the crimes wars that have been committed.
A shift has occurred, however, since Vucic’s progressives came to power in 2012 as a more centre-right populist political option. Progressives, experts say, have succeeded in pacifying the far right, bringing many far-right supporters, including violent football ‘ultras’, into its ranks, officially and unofficially.
The clearest signal of this has been the absence of any significant far-right attack on the annual gay pride march in Belgrade, which, before the progressives came to power, could only take place with measures extreme security forces against far-right thugs.
The trend is also seen in the election results.
In 2008, when Vucic was still part of the radicals and the progressives did not exist, the radicals won 29.5%, or 1.2 million votes.
Four years later, in 2012, when the Progressives ran on a centrist pro-EU list and then took power, some 16% – or 623,680 votes – went to parties seen as right-wing, namely the Radicals , DSS and Dveri. Indeed, the hard right has been cut in half.
In the following elections, in 2014, right-wing parties saw their support drop again, to 10.5%, or 380,463 votes.
Two years later, parties considered nationalist right won 14.6%, or 551,163 votes – an increase, but still more than 70,000 votes less than in 2012.
In 2020, the opposition’s partial boycott hit turnout; right-wing parties won 406,251 votes, or some 12.6%. Former water polo star Aleksandar Sapic and his new party, which leaned towards the nationalist right, won an additional 123,393 votes, or 3.8%, but it was less clear whether people were voting for the man or for nationalism. Sapic quickly allied himself with the progressives and his support seeped through.
Vucic’s right-wing bogeymen
In the April 3 election, when turnout was similar to 2016 and there was no boycott, a group of small right-wing parties won around 17.6%, or 664,559 votes . Not all of these parties crossed the 3% threshold to enter parliament.
While the total number of right-wing votes is about 113,000 more than in 2016, many of them were among the 330,000 votes lost by progressives compared to the last election in 2020. Progressives are perhaps be more centrist, but they remain authoritarian in style and, while pursuing EU membership, still ostensibly pro-Russian.
There can be several reasons for voice loss:
One could be Serbia’s position on the war in Ukraine, which some on the right say is not clear enough to support Russia. Serbia voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor, but did not impose sanctions. NADA, Dveri and the Zavetnici have all been adamant in their support for Russia.
Then there is COVID-19. Some right-wing voters oppose the tough measures imposed by Vucic at the start of the pandemic, which sparked protests in 2020, and are skeptical of the government’s pro-vaccination stance. A series of criminal and corruption scandals linked to the ruling party may also have shaken his support.
Pundits, however, point out that NADA, Dveri and the Zavetnici have all flirted with progressives at one time or another. For years, the Zavetnici have been seen as an extremist puppet of the progressives, only appearing at election time or at Belgrade’s annual Miredita festival, Dobar Dan!, to protest the showcasing of Albanian culture from Kosovo.
Ahead of the April elections, a party called the Movement for the Renewal of the Kingdom of Serbia, POKS, which was known to have ties to progressives, split in two.
A part joined NADA and another Dveri. The decision of pro-government media favorite pulmonologist Nestorovic to join Dveri was widely seen as a progressive strategy to get the party over the parliamentary threshold.
It was therefore no coincidence that Vucic warned on election night of the rise of the right, said Hajric, the sociologist. He will gladly use such parties to present himself as the voice of reason, the guarantor of “peace and stability” which was his campaign slogan.
“He decided to strengthen these parties because he needs a bogeyman whose SNS will also defend Serbia and Europe,” he said. “Because if Vucic falls, these so-called ‘sharp fanged’ people will come instead.”