Serbian strongman wins big in opposition boycotted elections

BERLIN – President Aleksandar Vucic’s near-complete control over the Serbian state was tightened on Sunday after his party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections boycotted by most of the opposition in protest of its autocratic policies.

Mr. Vucic was not personally up for re-election, but his political coalition, the Serbian Progressive Nationalist Party, would win more than 60 percent of seats in Parliament, according to initial results.

This puts the party on the threshold of a “supermajority” that, if assured, would allow its legislators to change the constitution without the support of any other political faction.

The result could also give Vucic more scope to forge a peace deal with Kosovo, the former Serbian province that broke with Belgrade in 1999, aided by a U.S.-led bombing campaign, but whose Serbian sovereignty has never been officially recognized.

The vote consolidated the Serbian movement, under Vucic, far from a pluralistic political culture. Since Mr. Vucic won the presidency in 2017, the quality of Serbian democracy has gone from being “free” to only “partially free,” according to Freedom House, an independent Washington-based rights research group that conducts a annual evaluation of the policy of each country. liberties

Rights observers regularly express concern about Vucic’s influence on the judiciary, the electoral process, and state and private media.

A former Slobodan Milosevic minister, the Serbian leader during the Kosovo War, Vucic said Sunday’s results were “absolutely incredible.”

“I have been in politics for a long time,” he said at a press conference after the polls closed. “But I have never experienced anything like this.”

Election supervisors at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental body funded by 57 mainly European member states, said the election had been run efficiently but that the “dominance of the ruling party, including in the media, was of concern. “

Major opposition parties called the election illegitimate, noting that initial projections suggested that turnout was one of the lowest in Serbia in this century. With the majority of votes counted, the electoral authority said just over 50 percent of voters participated, while other monitors said less than half participated.

At a press conference Sunday night, opposition leaders argued that turnout would have been even lower if Vucic’s party had not intimidated thousands of people to vote in the final hours of voting on Sunday, or if the Serbian public broadcaster would have directed a more balanced program during the campaign.

“Serbia unequivocally said ‘no’ to Aleksandar Vucic,” said Dragan Djilas, leader of a seven-party opposition alliance that boycotted the vote, and encouraged his supporters to refrain from voting.

While the results give Vucic even more power at home, analysts said they also put pressure on him internationally, because foreign leaders can now expect him to wield that power to their advantage.

In recent years, Vucic has successfully garnered the support of competing world powers, maintaining a strong relationship with Russia and strengthening ties with China, while positioning Serbia as a potential member of the European Union and an interlocutor for the United States.

Vucic has said he has no intention of choosing between rival global powers and, for the most part, has managed to successfully navigate between outside interests.

But with the election approved and won, he faces immediate international pressure, particularly on the Kosovo issue.

On Monday, he met with a European Union envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, to discuss a European-led initiative to forge a deal with Kosovo.

On Saturday, he will meet at the White House with President Trump’s Balkan envoy Richard Grenell to discuss a rival initiative led by the United States for a peace agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.

And in the meantime, Mr. Vucic will fly to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has historically said that any deal with Kosovo must have the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Russia occupies a permanent seat.

“What I do next will be very interesting,” said Marko Savkovic, program director for the Belgrade Security Forum, an annual political conference in Serbia. “It will be very difficult for him to continue doing what he has been doing for the past few years.”

Mr. Savkovic added: “More and more people will ask him: Are you going to take this country, which is now in full control, closer to the West? Or are you just another autocrat from the Balkans?

On Monday night, Vucic continued to defy expectations about his foreign policy.

Having previously signaled his willingness to negotiate with Kosovo in a process led by Grenell and the Trump administration, Vucic told reporters on Monday that he would now prefer to work within the framework of an EU-led process.

“While I appreciate Richard Grenell’s efforts to find economic solutions between us and Pristina,” said Vucic, “we are fully committed to the EU-led political dialogue.”