BELGRADE, April 1 — With war raging in Europe, Serbia’s populist President Aleksandar Vucic has promised the electorate continued stability ahead of nation-wide elections this Sunday, in a contest that has largely been overshadowed by Ukraine.
After a decade in power, the ruling centre-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) led by Vucic looks likely to extend their rule over the country, according to recent polls.
The country of some 7 million will elect the president, deputies for the 250-seat parliament along with contests in several municipalities.
The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, however, has cast a long pall over the vote that observers had earlier predicted would focus on issues like environment, corruption, and rights.
Vucic has deftly used the invasion of Ukraine to his advantage — by stoking fear of potential bouts of instability while offering assurances that he alone can prevent the country from falling into any such crisis.
“This is the flour. This is the salt… The warehouses are full … These are the peas,” said Vucic during a broadcast where he showcased the latest food reserves being stockpiled amid soaring prices.
The incumbent has even minted a new, mid-campaign slogan: “Peace. Stability. Vucic”.
‘Uncertainty and fear’
While Vucic’s campaign might seem “pompous” to some, the messages are “carefully threaded for the voters” said Zoran Stojiljkovic, a union leader and political science professor at Belgrade University.
In a country that was once viewed as a pariah, memories of the bloody wars of the 1990s during the break-up of Yugoslavia and economic sanctions are still fresh for many.
During times of trouble, voters often seek a leader who promises stability rather than radical change, said Stojiljkovic.
“Great crises, at least in the short run, always work in favour of those already in power,” Stojiljkovic told AFP.
“They induce uncertainty, fear and expectations that the system will guarantee at least basic security.”
Only a few months ago, the opposition appeared to have momentum.
In January, Vucic pulled the plug on a controversial lithium mine project following mass demonstrations across the country that saw thousands take to the streets.
The U-turn was an unusual defeat for Vucic who has rarely been forced to backtrack during his decade at the helm.
And while Vucic is still considered the leading favourite in the polls, the opposition is hoping a high turnout could force a run-off.
The latest polls suggest that Vucic’s main opponent will be Serbia’s former military chief Zdravko Ponos — a retired general who emerged as a surprise candidate fielded by the country’s pro-European Union opposition camp.
“This is not a question if the opposition will win a few extra seats, but whether Serbia will exist as a democratic and European country if [Vucic] remains in power for the next five years,” said Ponos.
But analysts say the opposition has little chance of dethroning Vucic.
“It is no accident” that the ruling party adopted a new narrative because the war has “changed voters’ priorities,” Bojan Klacar, the head of the independent election monitor CESID, told AFP.
“By shifting the main focus of the campaign, the opposition were damaged more than the ruling party,” Klacar added. “It seems that they weren’t ready to adapt to the new circumstances.”
Serbia remains a rare outlier in Europe, where swaths of the population back Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Much of the opposition has been reluctant to criticise the government’s position on the conflict, Stojiljkovic said, which has allowed Vucic to control the narrative.
‘Bribing the electorate’
Vucic will also roll into elections with a host of other advantages.
Following a decade in office, Vucic has increasingly tightened his grip over the levers of power in Serbia, including de-facto control over the press and government services.
According to a March survey conducted by the pollster Demostat, 43 per cent of Serbs do not believe that the elections will be free and fair.
In the months before the polls, Vucic unveiled a new aid package offering two payments of 100 euros (US$110) to citizens aged between 16-29 years old.
“This is bribing the electorate … and the taxpayers are funding it,” argued media and communication strategist Igor Avzner.
But for many of the country’s young voters, the election has only stirred apathy.
“Honestly, I think Vucic will win despite the fact that a lot of people are against him,” said Una Ignjatovic, an 18-year-old resident in the capital Belgrade.
“I’m afraid that there is nobody out there who could offer a different option.” — AFP