Conservative Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić won Serbia’s presidential election yesterday (2 April) by a huge margin, confirming his domination of the Balkan country as he pursues a delicate balancing act between Europe and Russia.
Vučić, 47, avoided a run-off by taking around 55% of votes; his nearest rival, opposition candidate and former rights advocate Sasa Janković, trailed on just over 16%, according to a two projections by polling groups CRTA and Ipsos.
Vučić will take on the largely ceremonial post at the end of May but is expected to retain de facto power through his control of Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party.
The result marked a political humiliation for Serbia’s beleaguered opposition parties, which say Vučić’s rule is increasingly autocratic.
Vučić made clear his change of job would not alter the former Yugoslav republic’s geopolitical balance between the European Union, which Vučić wants Serbia to join, and Russia, with which Serbs share their Orthodox Christian faith and Slavic heritage.
He thanked German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both of whom he met during the election campaign.
“For me it is important this election demonstrated that a large majority of Serbian citizens favours the continuation of the European path while maintaining close ties with China and Russia,” Vučić told cheering supporters.
Despite economic growth and greater fiscal stability, Serbia remains mired in poverty and corruption. But to his supporters, Vučić is a firm hand in a troubled region.
“I voted for stability, we’ve had enough wars,” said Bozica Ivanović, a 65-year-old pensioner who voted for Vučić. “We need more jobs for younger people and if we can get higher pensions and salaries, even better.”
Vučić’s opponents, however, say he has an authoritarian streak that has led him to take control over the media in Serbia since his party rose to power in 2012 and he became prime minister three years ago.
He denies the charge but has struggled to shake it given his record when last in government in the dying days of Yugoslavia.
Then in his late 20s, Vučić was Serbia’s feared information minister behind draconian legislation designed to muzzle criticism of the government during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
“If there’s no second round, that means we live in a society that is politically immature,” sociologist Jovo Bakić told N1 television. “Where else do you not get a second round? In North Korea.”
Twenty-five-year-old student Luka Maksimović, who ran as a white-suited parody of a sleazy political fraudster called Ljubiša “Beli” Preletačević, came third with just over 9%, picking up the votes of Serbs disillusioned with the country’s political class.
— Balkan Insight (@BalkanInsight) April 2, 2017
“I voted for Beli,” said 30-year-old Dejan Marković, an unemployed metal worker. “The so-called opposition candidates have betrayed us in the past and Vučić is lying to us all now, so Beli is the only way to mock all this hypocrisy.”
As president, Vučić will have few formal powers, among them the right to send legislation back to parliament for reconsideration.
But he is widely expected to appoint a loyal ally as prime minister and try to keep a tight rein on policy, as former President Boris Tadić, then of the Democratic Party, did between 2004 and 2012.
Some analysts said that could prove difficult.
“Vučić will now be distanced from everyday policy-making and executive affairs and will have to rely on a proxy,” Eurasia Group wrote on 30 March. “This will likely generate some tensions in the chain of command.”