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On 17 December, snap parliamentary and local elections are taking place in Serbia, the largest country in the Western Balkans. As international pressure on the Serbian government mounts, the elections are seen as a ‘make or break’ moment. Will the elections further cement the ruling party’s grip on power or mark the beginning of a new political chapter for Serbia?

Sunday’s elections are important from an EU standpoint, as democracy in Serbia deteriorates further, popular support for the EU remains below 50 %, and the Serbian political establishment maintains a foreign policy of non-alignment against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Increasingly nationalist rhetoric vis-à-vis Kosovo in the state-controlled media undermines the EU’s efforts to minimise the chances of a conflict that threatens the stability of the entire region.

The fourth snap parliamentary elections to be held since 2012 when the Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka - SNS) came to power are the result of a wave of protests across the country, following two mass shootings in May 2023 that left 17 people (mostly children) dead and 21 injured. Protesters demanded that the licences of two television channels they consider to be responsible for fomenting the violence be revoked, as well as the resignation of the minister of the interior and the head of the state security agency. They have also called for parliamentary and local elections to be held without delay.

The elections were originally planned for March 2024 but the sooner the elections are held, the less time there is for the opposition to close ranks. Organising the campaign, campaigning, and subsequently forming a government takes time. This is likely to absorb the government’s attention and give it another reason not to take decisive steps as the war in Ukraine continues and the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue faces serious obstacles.

Winning in Belgrade would be both a strategic and symbolic victory for the opposition.

Preliminary polls indicate that SNS might win 39.2 % of the vote at the national level, followed by Serbia Against Violence, a coalition of pro-EU parties forecast to win 25.8 %. This is the highest support that the opposition would have garnered since SNS came to power. In the case of Belgrade, the polls show that 51 % of voters in the capital would support the opposition. Winning in Belgrade would be both a strategic and symbolic victory for the opposition. It could weaken the national grip of the ruling SNS coalition and have an impact on the nexus of power-sharing at the local level.

The Serbia Against Violence coalition draw popular support due to their focus on issues that resonate with citizens’ concerns: the fight against violence, shrinking media freedom, corruption and organised crime, and declining living standards. In a nutshell, structural problems that remain pertinent also in the context of EU integration.

Yet the opposition remains divided. Serbia Against Violence represents a broad spectrum of parties united in a common cause to instigate social and political change rather than constituting an ideologically and politically uniform bloc. Should they be victorious, they have pledged to form a technical government that would focus as a matter of priority on ‘clamping down on violent crime, protecting the freedom of the media, and combating rising prices’, and only ‘organise free elections’ afterwards. Divisions are most notable in the area of foreign policy, as right-wing parties in the coalition oppose the resolution of the Kosovo issue through the recognition of independence and its admission to the United Nations. 

But who cares about foreign policy in a country where the average net monthly salary is around €700, where verbal attacks and smear campaigns are routinely directed against civil society organisations, including by high-level officials, and where corruption prevails? Serbian citizens do. Kosovo remains among the top three most important issues. A nationwide public opinion poll shows a clear majority in favour of Russia (42.1 %) over the EU (25.8 %) and China (7.9 %). Meanwhile, 74.3 % of citizens are against the imposition of sanctions on Russia.

Moreover, the Russian Party, which represents the Russian minority and attracts support from pro-Russian Serbian citizens, is running for the parliamentary elections. The Russian anthem features on the official website of the Serbian Radical Party which advocates for Serbia joining BRICS, ‘a powerful military and economic union, where the Russian Federation and People's Republic of China play a crucial role’. The same party, in which President Vučić forged his early political career, is forming an unlikely coalition with SNS for next Sunday’s local elections, including in Belgrade.

The broader geopolitical context is playing the tune that appeals to the SNS’ nationalist constituency. During the campaign rallies, President Vučić, as the official face of the campaign, has often portrayed Serbia as a victim of the overall geopolitical situation, while stressing that the country is independent, sovereign and free. In his own words,we do not need anything that belongs to others, but we will not give anything that is ours to anybody’.  These words are vaguely reminiscent of Kosovo and the international pressure to revitalise the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

This is clearly problematic, knowing that the EU integration process is closely tied to the concessions that Belgrade needs to make vis-à-vis Kosovo. It also explains why EU integration is not on any party’s campaign agenda. While nationalist rhetoric around Serbia’s sovereignty resonates well with the public, it deprives the country of any possibility to discuss EU integration in an impartial manner, where priority would be given to the debate on necessary reforms, including of the rule of law.

The political climate in Serbia ahead of Sunday’s elections is highly polarised.

The political climate in Serbia ahead of Sunday’s elections is highly polarised. The coalition around SNS, including far-right parties, feed on the political crisis in Kosovo and invoke vital state interests, while the civic opposition highlights problems of corruption and organised crime, freedom of expression and the overall state of democracy.

Contrary to popular belief, these elections are not about President Vučić. The President should not be seen as a common denominator for all state institutions. These elections are about making a U-turn from democratic backsliding and the increasingly nationalist rhetoric that exacerbates divisions in the country. Moreover, they come at a time when Serbia’s balancing act might come at too high a cost for its citizens.   

Much is at stake on Sunday. Europe is watching.

This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.